Published: August 2006
Malar International Music Festival
Västerås, Sweden
Thursday 10 – Sunday 13 August 2006


Västerås is about 100 kilometres from Stockholm and this inaugural Festival was the brainchild of Gunnar Dalborg and Patrik Jablonski and appeared to want to widen the usual classical music borders without moving towards ‘crossover’. The fact that it was a great success is encouraging as Västerås, although it has a new concert hall with a fine acoustic, together with a chamber music hall, does not have its own full-time orchestra and has not experienced a series of concerts and linked events of this type before.

I spent a week in Västerås attending a wide cross-section of the events and can certainly testify to the enthusiasm that was engendered both among the musicians and the audiences.

The first evening’s concert was a ‘Jubilee’ concert celebrating the ‘usual suspects’ Mozart and Shostakovich, together with the ‘Swedish Mozart’ Joseph Kraus – also celebrating his 250th-birthday this year. His ‘Olympie’ overture made a striking impression as the opening item and immediately confirmed the power, commitment and quality of the Wroclaw Philharmonic under Lukasz Borowicz. Anyone who has heard the Naxos series of Kraus’s orchestral music will know that he is a fine and imaginative composer and this was a welcome start to the festival.

Next we heard co-director of the festival, Patrik Jablonski, perform Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto in a performance of great energy and precision which, crucially, did not overlook the humour of the outer movements. The middle movement, at a daringly slow tempo, was concentrated and most beautiful.

After the interval, Peter Jablonski gave a fine performance of the first of Chopin’s scherzos as a tribute to the orchestra and conductor – a spontaneous and welcome gesture of the type that can only happen at a summer festival!

The final item on this programme was Mozart’s Concerto for 3 Pianos with Peter and Patrik joined by Robert Wells. Wells is a hugely famous ‘Rock pianist’ in Sweden and having his name on the programme had ensured that there were many of his fans in the audience. It also ensured a great deal of media coverage for the concert (and the Festival overall).

This attention might have been counter-productive had it not been for the care, attention to detail and love shown by Wells to the task he had set himself. He is a fine pianist and was fully a match for his two colleagues. This is not one of the greatest of Mozart’s concertos but given with this kind of spirit and warmth it greatly pleased the full house. So much so that it demanded an encore and Robert Wells then proceeded to perform an encore in the style of Victor Borge – segueing from one classical piece to another to “Happy Birthday” to bring the opening concert to a joyful conclusion!

An interesting innovation was the use of a split screen, about the stage, to show the three pianos to the audience. It was fascinating to see the contrasting styles of the pianists, especially as they had been seated facing the audience.

I have spent some time on this concert because I feel strongly that it is one of the ways forward for classical music. This audience probably included up to 50 percent of people who had never been to a classical concert before and who had been attracted by the appearance of Robert Wells. They have now heard a fine concert and seen how thrilled Robert Wells was to be there. If just 10 percent decide to try another classical concert I am convinced that this is better than all the ‘crossover’ projects ever conceived.

The second orchestral concert also contained popular fare – Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in a vivacious and dramatic performance from Carolin Widmann. She played with great flair but without the slightest exaggeration (as we so often hear now – as if to make the music more interesting). It was a delight to hear these violin concertos again and remember what wonderful pieces they are. An encore was demanded and given – to rapturous applause.

In the first half of the concert, after a fine performance of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (appropriate as the piece was written as a thank-you to the University of Breslau – now Wroclaw), Lukasz Borowicz conducted the Sixth Symphony of Werner Wolf Glaser.

Glaser died earlier this year aged 91 and this symphony was performed as a tribute to a man who had fled Germany at the beginning of the Second World War and settled in Västerås. He was a very important figure in the area and helped set up and run the Västerås School of Music. He conducted widely in the district and also was a music critic. He was a prolific composer, too, and it was a brave decision to schedule this work – nearly 40 minutes long – in the Festival’s first year.

The music betrayed the composer’s origins, with Hindemith being a clearly audible influence. The first movement is dramatic and built on a number of ideas, perhaps not being developed as they might have been. The second movement is based on repeated timpani beats played and is the least convincing movement. After a powerful slower movement the finale built waves of sound in an almost Sibelian way and then subsided to a quiet close.

This was a fascinating piece that I would like to hear again. It is finely orchestrated and received a formidably well-played interpretation from Borowicz and the orchestra. The audience responded warmly to the work.

The Saturday night concert was a determinedly popular Opera Gala given with an outstanding quartet of soloists. A large audience was delighted by the quality of the performances and was clearly thrilled to hear such popular favourites live.

Amongst many fine performances was Inger Dam-Jensen’s beguiling Waltz Song ‘Je veux vivre’ from Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Petra Hallberg’s fine performance of Prince Orlovsky’s aria from “Die Fledermaus”.

John Hudson gave a passionate and distinguished ‘Nessun dorma’ (“Turandot”) before joining Johan Rydh in the duet from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”. The concert finished with the Act Three quartet from “Rigoletto”, which was encored.

Opera galas tend to be looked down on, but in Västerås where there is no easy access to opera performances this concert was hugely popular and greatly appreciated.

The final orchestral concert was probably the most exciting of all. Wojciech Kilar will be 75 next year and is of the generation of Polish composers that include Henryk Gorecki and Krysztof Penderecki. He is the least well known of this particular threesome but he has made a name for himself as a film-music composer – working often with Roman Polanski amongst others.

The festival moved to the beautiful Västerås Cathedral for the Scandinavian premiere of the “Missa pro pace” (Mass for Peace). Written in 2000 this 65-minute work is for four soloists, choir and orchestra. The composer has said: “My mass calls for Peace, Love and Kindness”.

Given the circumstances that surrounded the Festival (Lebanon and flight-terrorism worries amongst others) this work struck a chord with all those who heard it.

The opening ‘Kyrie’ is marked to be played ‘slowly, in a solemn, dignified manner’ and begins with the lowest sounds of the orchestra and is meditative throughout. The alto and bass soloists (both singing in their lowest registers) are introduced. This was eerily effective in this performance as the soloists sang with such warmth and conviction.

The ‘Gloria’ is marked Allegro and is the most vivacious of all the sections. It provides a vivid contrast with the ‘Kyrie’ and mirrors the inherent joy of the text wonderfully. The most striking thing about the ‘Credo’ is that the male and female voices of the choir are treated separately throughout, thus creating different textures in the sound. There is also an important role for the tenor soloist.

The ‘Sanctus’, which begins with two harps playing against the background of orchestral strings is primarily a marvellous aria for the soprano. This is the most ‘beautiful’ music in the whole of the Mass and was superbly sung by Jeanette Köhn. The ‘Agnus Dei’ is the longest movement and brings together all of the performers with a varied and imaginative orchestration. This movement has a large dynamic range which builds to a fff climax before the work reaches it’s emotional climax on the words ‘dona nobis pacem’ – the most important words of a Mass-setting called ‘Missa pro pace’.

A modern work such as this was a risky enterprise and the organisers were rewarded with a magnificent performance, which was greatly appreciated by a large audience. I was certainly moved by the direct sentiment of the piece and can understand how this has become something of a cult work. Everyone involved in this performance, including a fine local choir, had worked extremely hard to give a worthy performance.

I must also mention again the great role that Lukasz Borowicz played in all these concerts. He is just 29 and gave a good account of himself in a wide range of repertoire. I certainly would urge British orchestras to engage him (his English is very fine); he has a great career ahead of him. Indeed he won the contemporary music award at the initial Bamberg Conductors Competition – which was won by Gustavo Dudamel.

Over the four days of this Festival there were also chamber concerts, piano recitals, organ recitals and seminars on music – including an interesting one entitled “Are Conductors Necessary?”. The answer appeared to be ‘maybe’!

A performance of excerpts from “Carmen” for 500 children, arranged and sung by Petra Hallberg, was a highlight and was thoroughly enjoyed by both children and parents. Petra involved the children in the story and had their rapt attention for nearly one hour. A wonderful idea imaginatively realised. This will be a regular part of the Festival in the coming years and is an exemplary way to interest children in opera.

Finally, there was the opportunity for the audience to buy tickets to a classical ‘Jam session’ after each of the evening concerts at the local Elite Stadshotel. At these, food and drink was served and the performers mingled with the guests and performed little party-pieces until after midnight – what a wonderful way to relax after a concert and break down some of the ‘mystery’ that surrounds such an event. I can confirm that John Hudson singing “Danny Boy” was a great success!

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable four days and, I hope, an encouragement to the City of Västerås to support and develop this Festival in the coming years.

 

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