On Monday evening, the Oslo Chamber Music Festival presented the results of a Nordic “Call for Scores” with four compositions by four young composers. Under the heading “New Tones and Modern Classics”, these pieces were, somewhat puzzlingly, bookended by chamber arrangements of tone poems by Richard Strauss. Even though the combination of new and older music can be an interesting and enlightening one, this programme lacked cohesion and proved confounding.

Oslo Sinfonietta © Anna-Julia Granberg
Oslo Sinfonietta
© Anna-Julia Granberg
The first of the new pieces was Sandrose by Ansgar Beste. Sandrose is the German word for desert rose, and the piece was in many ways a depiction of the formation of this crystalline structure. The composer is very much concerned with the use of extended playing techniques, and the four players – a pianist, clarinettist, violist, and a percussionist – made great use of these techniques, be they dragging a comb over the viola strings or blowing through the clarinet without a mouthpiece.

Rather less concerned with pitch, Sandrose focused instead on the percussive qualities of each instrument, creating an extremely complex polyrhythmic texture. While this layering of sounds is an interesting idea, I found the execution lacking. There was little obvious development, with similar complex rhythmic figures continuing throughout without much variation or contrast, and as a result, I found it difficult to maintain my engagement in the piece.

Phorisms, Book II by Jonas Skaarud followed. Phorisms consists of 27 miniatures for string quartet, tiny pieces lasting only a few seconds each. In his introduction to the work, Skaarud talked about his fascination for the incomplete and interrupted and indeed, these little miniatures were not stand-alone pieces, yet together they almost managed to constitute a cohesive whole. The miniatures ranged from simple chords to chaotic contrapuntal lines for different combinations of instruments within the string quartet. While the sonorities were at times very beautiful, I would have liked Skaarud to have developed these ideas a little further, as the miniatures simply felt all too brief.

Oslo Sinfonietta © Anna-Julia Granberg
Oslo Sinfonietta
© Anna-Julia Granberg
Jan Martin Smørdal’s less-sense, a piece taking its inspiration from the life of Saint Augustine, has a constant focus on self-denial and self-correction. The piece for piano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and soprano, focused on an ever more frantic repetition of melodic fragments. Throughout, the musicians were seen scribbling furiously in the music, a form of self-correction, negating what they as performers and the composer wished to be played in favour of the wishes of some presumably higher being. The six musicians were very much an ensemble, with no single musician taking on a definite solo role. The singer played a mostly textural role, with the text often being obscured either by other instruments or by its actual delivery; she would often gasp the words, or sing them very high and softly in long, drawn-out phrases. I found this piece very exciting, although I felt it perhaps relied a little too much on theatrics. The constant scribbling in the music by the musicians, and especially the occasional panting from the soprano, often reduced the impact of the work instead of adding anything to it.

The last of the new pieces, _a_at_na by Haldor Smarason, proved something of a frustration. The piece for four violins, viola, cello, clarinet, prepared piano and tape was really rather mystifying. To a large extent it consisted of long, low, drawn-out phrases with no apparent direction. Coupled with this were a series of projected images that seemed to have no connection to the music, making for a decidedly puzzling experience.

Bookending these four pieces were two chamber arrangements of Richard Strauss' tone poems, Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan. While they lacked the wild sense of abandon that a full Straussian orchestra can give, they were both wonderfully played, especially Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders!, in an arrangement for only five instruments. Don Juan was perhaps not as successful, as the group of strings (one to a part) was just too small to match the strength of the winds and brass.

Monday’s concert was an interesting experience, as it always is to hear new music, especially by young, up-and-coming composers like these. Still, there were a few misses, and the very odd inclusion of Strauss' tone poems made this concert very mystifying indeed.