I attended the Royal Danish Orchestra's New York debut concert at Lincoln Center on Thursday night, eager to hear a group whose recordings I've enjoyed playing music by Carl Nielsen. We don't hear much Nielsen played live in New York, although the NY Philharmonic recently launched a project to perform and record all of the symphonies over a period of several years, and gave a fine performance of the 2nd Symphony led by Alan Gilbert last season.
Michael Schonwandt, the music director of the Royal Danish Orchestra, has recorded a fine Nielsen symphony cycle and clearly has deep feeling for this music, so I was eagerly anticipating his performances of "Pan and Syrinx" and the Clarinet Concerto, and I was not disappointed. But, unfortunately, we didn't really have the full Royal Orchestra on this occasion. The main reason for them to be in New York was to play in the pit for the U.S. premiere of an opera by Poul Ruders, so they brought a pit-orchestra size string section. As a result, the orchestra on the stage at Tully Hall was really chamber-orchestra size, and a bit underpowered for the tone poem. This was not so big a problem in the concerto, which is scored for a chamber-size orchestra in any event. Putting the concert in Tully made good sense in light of the program and the size of the ensemble. The group would have sounded fine in Avery Fisher, at least if they used their Mostly Mozart set-up (which will be in place this week for the commencement of that series) with the orchestra thrust forward from the normal stage with a bank of seats behind them, but the hall would have been unhappily empty. Tully was almost completely full.
Schonwandt's performance of "Pan & Syrinx" was intensely dramatic, and the strong engagement of the orchestra triumphed over the lack of depth in the string sound. In the concerto, with RDO Clarinet Principal John Kruse as the excellent soloist, the performance emphasized the quirky mood-swings in the concerto, allegedly inspired by the volatile personality of the clarinetist for whom it was written back in the 1920s. This is Nielsen in his "modernist" mode, reminiscent of the 6th Symphony, alternating strange outbursts (especially from snare drum) with sustained lyricism. Kruse was dynamic, the orchestra was right with him, but I thought that occasionally Schonwandt could have restrained the orchestra dynamics a bit to allow the solo to show through better.
After intermission they gave us a rare complete performance of Stravinsky's "neo-classical" ballet with voice, "Pulcinella," based on music by Pergolesi and some of his contemporaries. (When the piece was written in the 1920s, all of the source music was attributed to Pergolesi. It seems that in his short career he established such a reputation that music publishers sought to exploit the name by publishing music of lesser known composers as his. Modern musicology has identified alternative sources.) This is more frequently performed in the suite Stravinsky extracted from the ballet for performances without vocal soloists, and the full ballet is about 40% longer.
The soloists were Tuva Semmingsen (mezzo), Peter Lodahl (tenor), and Jochen Kupfer (baritone). Lodahl's tenor sounded rather low to me, almost like a high baritone, and he seemed adequate to the role without being inspired. Semmingsen was inspired, but Kupfer stole the show, with a big, deep baritone, very assertively presented, and the most personality being communicated of any of the soloists. I would be eager to hear him sing again.
As for the orchestra, I was a bit less impressed with their Stravinsky than their Nielsen. I am used to hearing chamber orchestra concerts in New York by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, both of which play with a degree of sharp articulation and rhythmic precision that is a cut above what I heard from this aggregation from the Royal Danish Orchestra. That was not really a problem in the Nielsen, but in Stravinsky I think the music really benefits from that kind of sharpness and precision. It's not that there was anything "wrong" with the Stravinsky performance; it just sounded to me more rounded and less sharply precise than I would have liked.
Thanks to Lincoln Center for providing an opportunity to hear some really idiomatic Nielsen. The concert certainly brought out what there is of a Danish cultural community in New York, to judge by the overheard (but not understood) conversations in the lobby during intermission.