The Year 1998 – The last Six Months with the Oslo Philharmonic
We now come to the last six months of my tenure with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. To recap, my wife and I made the decision to move our family back to the United States at the end of 1996, and the actual move of my wife and daughters and most of our belongings was accomplished by June of 1997. I stayed in Norway for the 1997-1998 season to finish my commitment to the orchestra, and my departure date was scheduled for early June of 1998. As we had sold our apartment in Oslo, I was staying with friends out in Baerum kommune, renting a room from them on a monthly basis. It turned out to be a win-win situation for me, and I hope, for my friends. I’d like to think so, as I left them with my stereo equipment and some furniture when I left for the USA, and they are still very close friends.
As far as touring and recording with the orchestra, much of that had already been accomplished, and other than an overnight trip to Stockholm to perform Mahler’s Third Symphony, we pretty much stayed put during my last season. I made several trips back to Illinois to be with the family during the season, which allowed my assistant, Trygve Wefring, to fill in for me for several weeks. I do know that I went home for the Christmas holidays, and again at Easter, and returned to play out the spring season before taking my leave.
I had previously discussed my departure with the orchestra’s management and it was agreed that I would be given a year’s unpaid leave for the 1998-199 season. I would have several months to confirm my decision to resign by no latter than March of 1999, which would give them time to transition to my successor. They pretty much knew my thinking long before the season began, but it made it that much easier to have the process ready to go when the time came. It was a strange feeling – cutting ties to my dream job – and to a city and country and orchestra that I had come to love. The true conclusion to my tenure, musically, was that residency in Vienna – five blockbuster programs at the Musikverein, ending with the Verdi Requiem and the Mahler Second Symphony. The Spring 1998 season, as good as it was, and it had some interesting concerts and moments, was more in the nature of a coda. Then again, any sort of musical endeavor after a tour like that would seem anticlimactic.
My colleagues understood my motivation. They knew that I was happy with my job, and that I was leaving to be with my family. Doing so without having a settled position to go to was taking an enormous leap of faith, but they knew I was good with the decision and they respected me for it, even though they were sorry that I was actually leaving.
Richard Strauss, Mahler, Scriabin, Haydn, more Mahler, Shostakovich, Sibelius and Bruckner, et. al…..
The last six active months of my tenure were, if not overwhelming as in years past, nonetheless interesting ones musically speaking. The Spring 1998 portion of the season got off to a bang with performances of Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie. The conductor was Ulf Schirmer, who was, if memory serves, conductor of the Danish Radio Symphony and was in his last season in that position when he guest conducted the OPO. Truls Mørk was the soloist in Schumann’s Cello Concerto which was played on the first half of the concert prior to intermission. Ulf Schirmer was a more than capable conductor and the performances went very well, if not with the same panache that Mariss Jansons would bring to the music. The music making was still of a high caliber, and it was always fun to take another crack at Strauss’ Op. 64! (Prior to these concerts, my assistant covered the whole of December 1997 and the Christmas and New Year’s programs for me while I was visiting the family in Illinois.) Right after the Schumann and Strauss concerts, the composer John Adams graced our podium to conduct his own Harmonielehre, prefaced by music of Charles Ives (an arrangement of his music – the title escapes me at present), followed by the Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra by George Gershwin, with pianist Joanna MacGregor as soloist. The concert turned out to be a lot of fun. John Adams was easy to work with and clear in his instructions, and he knew is Ives and Gershwin. His Harmonielehre turned out to be quite a piece and it was an excellent experience for all of us. I enjoy to this day a lot of his music – in particular The Chairman Dances and A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
Following these concerts, Manfred Honeck returned to Oslo for a pair of concerts that featured music of Johann Strauss II – his Overture to Die Fledermaus; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with pianist Howard Shelley as soloist, and concluding with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. As with all of his previous work with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, these concerts were of high quality, and I enjoyed his way with Johann Strauss – it had the required lilt and elegance. The Mozart and Tchaikovsky were brought off with the required panache. He would return later in the season.
Next up was Alexander Lazarev for two weeks and five concerts. His first week featured two works: Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo for cello and orchestra, and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. The cello soloist was our principal cellist Anne Brit Sævig Årdal. Both works are among my favorites, and are also fairly challenging. The Bloch has some tricky writing for the timpanist – not so much technically as musically, and the Shostakovich is…well Shostakovich! The work calls for two timpanists, and both parts are almost equally challenging. I first played the work several seasons back under Paavo Berglund. At the time I played the first timpani part and had a lot of fun with that. For this go around, I chose to play the second part. The main reason I did was to experience the second part, as it was most likely (in my case) that it would be a very long time, if ever, that I would encounter the piece again. The fact that I was leaving at the end of the spring season influenced my decision as well. I wanted my assistant to have as much experience as possible before he filled in for me during the transition. The concerts went very well, Anne Brit played the Bloch superbly well, and Lazarev had a good grip on the Shostakovich and his interpretation was authentic. There were actually three concerts this particular week.
For the second week with Alexander Lazarev, there were again two works on the program: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Jacques-Yves Thibault as soloist, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor, “Titan.”
As with the previous week’s concerts, I played timpani on the first work – in this case the Rachmaninov, and second timpani in the Mahler, allowing my assistant to step up and have a go at it. My reasoning this time was that since they were planning to tour with it the following season, and in case they did not have a permanent player in place, it would be a good idea for my assistant to have a firm grip on the work. The concerts went well, although it did feel a bit strange to sit out the first three movements of the Mahler and only step in for the fourth movement, as much fun as that was.
Following Lazarev’s two weeks, Herbert Blomstedt returned for a pair of concerts, that included works by Franz Berwald – his Sinfonie Singuliere and Brahms: Symphony No. 2. I was unfamiliar with Berwald’s work up to this point, never having played a note of it. I came away from the experience with an appreciation of the composer’s craftsmanship and musicality, and who better than Herbert Blomstedt! As usual, the concert came off well. That was the last time I played under Herbert Blomstedt’s direction, as by the time he made his next appearance, I was living in the United States.
Mariss Jansons returned for what turned out to be his last appearances of the Spring 1998 season, and these concerts were quite special. He had always wanted to program Franz Josef Haydn’s “London Symphonies” – his last twelve symphonies from Nos. 93 through 104 with the orchestra, but up to this point hadn’t been able to do so due to the pressure of touring and recording. Now, with no tours and recordings on the horizon, he could indulge himself, and he did so. He was very creative about. He divided the orchestra in half and assigned Orchestra 1 – in which I took part – six of the symphonies – and Orchestra 2 – in which my assistant Trygve took part – the other six. The concerts were spread out over two weeks – each orchestra playing one concert a week. I remember playing Symphonies No. 94 “Surprise”, 96, “Miracle”, 98, 99, 101, 103 “Paukenwirbel” and 104 “London”. Trygve took care of the rest. We had a lot of fun and it was a good experience for the orchestra. Mariss not only conducted, but acted as host – sharing with the audience some of his knowledge of the history of how each of the named symphonies got their names. He had fun with the music as well. In the “Surprise” Symphony – in the famous Andante – he delayed the fortissimo stroke on the low G slightly to make it even more of a shock. In the “Paukenwirbel” – or “Drum Roll” symphony, he allowed me to improvise a mini-cadenza instead of the normal timpani roll in the first movement. I had done some research and discovered that Haydn would sometimes leave it to the timpanists of the day to improvise, and it was in that spirit that Mariss allowed me to do so. The result was interesting and definitely different. It definitely did not begin with a drum roll, but the improvisation evolved into a diminuendo roll. With the Symphony No. 100 – the “Military” – he had the percussion section – bass drum (small old-style), triangle and small pair of cymbals and a Turkish Crescent – otherwise known as a “Jingling Johnny” – march out into the concert hall and around the audience, I didn’t play that concert, but my assistant told me later that the audience enjoyed it quite a bit – especially the “Jingling Johnny.” I actually hefted that item – it was taller than I am and while not super-heavy, it was hefty. With the Symphony No. 104 – the “London” – he assigned the theme of the last movement to be played with kazoos – and Mariss actually played one of them! It was a riot. It added a bit of spontaneity to the concert and finished out the series memorably. It was the last concert I played under his direction. Earlier that month, Mariss was supposed to conduct a pair of concerts in Oslo and a run-out to Stockholm devoted to Mahler’s Third Symphony. However, he begged off due to a cold, and Manfred Honeck stepped in and did a magnificent job – it was a memorable occasion with a memorable symphony. We had played it once before with Mariss – but that was several seasons in the past. Honeck knew the genre – and he gave it his all. I had a lot of fun with this program.
NB! For you timpanists info, during these last months, I had been experimenting with Remo Renaissance heads and had placed a set on the Hinger timpani. I was very satisfied with them – they went on easy, and had almost no issues in clearing them. For the Haydn series, I used the two middle Hingers and the 31 inch Light Continental chain, and they worked just great. That was my introduction into the world of the Renaissance heads. More on this later.
After those two memorable weeks with Mariss and Josef Haydn, Marc Soustrot returned to Oslo to conduct the orchestra in Olivier Messiaen’s Les Canyons aux Etoiles. This was a big deal for the orchestra, as it featured a piano soloist (Yvonne Loriod), a horn soloist( Inger Besserudhagen- our principal horn) and two percussion soloists (Christian Berg and Terje Viken). As with his Turangalila Symphony, there is no timpani part, so I helped out in the percussion section. I remember the concert, but not exactly what I played. After all, twenty-four years have passed. I do remember it being a success.
The Final Memorable Performances
I could go on and on, but for purposes of brevity, I will speak now of the final weeks of the season, which included some memorable performances under three fine conductors. I missed the performances of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem under the direction of Gary Bertini as I was headed to the USA for the Easter Break, and Trygve filled in for me, but when I returned for the final few weeks, there was enough for me to do to ensure that I would “go out with the flags flying.” I mentioned the Messiaen concerts under Marc Soustrot, which took place after my return, and in which I helped out in the percussion section. Following these concerts, Daniel Harding conducted the orchestra in a a pair of concerts that included Berlioz’ “Corsair” Overture; Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with soloist Leonidas Kavakos, and the Symphonic Fantasy from Richard Strauss’s opera ‘Die Frau Ohne Schatten“. That is a fun piece to play, and I had been waiting for it to show up on our programs for several seasons, but up until now, it hadn’t. Now, a month or so before I was to leave, here it was, and I made the most of it. I found working with Daniel Harding very congenial. He was businesslike, and it was easy to follow him. A fine conductor, and we were lucky to have had him for those concerts. I had worked with him previously when the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra recorded the music of Lutoslawski for Virgin Records back in 1997. Then, Kurt Sanderling came to conduct us in a a concert (unfortunately, only a single one) that featured Truls Mørk in a performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, followed by Sibelius’ Second Symphony. I admit I had a childish bias against him in previous seasons, when he conducted Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. I had heard that piece botched so many times (mostly played too slowly, that I was just not up to hearing another such performance, so I turned it over to my assistant at that time. This time, I was curious to see what he would do with Prokofiev and Sibelius. I was wrong – Kurt Sanderling was the real deal. From the first rehearsal he was in command of the orchestra and the music, and the performances were sensational. I was given the chance to experience a conducting giant who was still in full command of his abilities, and he turned out a pair of concerts that were brilliant! Mea culpa! I had not played the Sibelius for a couple of years, and to play it under a conductor of such authority and musicality was truly inspiring.
The final two programs (again, all single concerts) of the season were equally exciting. Eliahu Inbal returned to the orchestra to conduct Deryck Cooke’s revision of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Left unfinished, with only the first and third movements in orchestral score, Deryck Cooke worked from the piano score and filled out the rest. Now, one can argue that “It isn’t Mahler”, and one would be correct in a sense. But the piano sketches are all there – and in this case, I feel that Cooke caught Mahler’s vision, especially in the fifth movement. We had previously played this work under Leif Segerstam, and it was a good performance. However, under Inbal, it seemed rounder, more sonorous. It was a pleasure to be a part of that experience.
Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony – one of my all-time favorites – was my swansong with the orchestra. Heinz Wallberg conducted, and he was a superb Bruckner conductor. He had a fantastic sense of balance, and made the orchestra sound like an organ – no overblown brass – everything balanced just so. We had played this a few seasons back, also with Heinz Wallberg, but somehow, his interpretation seemed to have grown in stature, if that was possible. During my last dress rehearsal, I received a nice “farewell” from the orchestra. The executive director made a nice speech of thanks, I received a nice bouquet of flowers, an ovation from the orchestra, and that evening was the concert. With the sounds of the last chords of the symphony still in my ears, I stood for a moment and reflected on my fifteen season with the orchestra. They were great ones, and I was most fortunate to have been a member of the orchestra during what has been called as the Jansons “Golden Era.” Golden those years were, and as we say it here in the states, “It was a great ride.”
Here are some excerpts of my favorite and memorable compositions from my last six months. These are by other artists, but I can share with you the music at least. Enjoy!