A concert as a landscape
Concerto for Orchestra was written for Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra during Ørjan Matre’s period as composer-in-residence with the orchestra. The work explores overlapping meanings between “concert” and “concerto”. Several of the movements take their name from the components of a traditional orchestral concert, such as Overture and Intermission. At the point in a conventional orchestra programme where a concerto would be performed, extracts of Matre’s violin concerto (which exists as an independent work) are played.
The four movements preSage revisited, Lament/ Berceuse, Minuet, and Finale can be considered in this context as constituting a small symphony.
Historically, the title Concerto for Orchestra immediately leads one to think of eponymous works by Béla Bartók (1943) and Witold Lutosławski (1950– 54). Matre’s version opens, like Lutosławski’s, with an Intrada. But rather than making pretentious historical links, Matre’s choice of title seems more pragmatically motivated – a straightforward examination of what it might mean to be writing orchestral music today. For the first performance of this work Matre approached the concerto form as a physical and social space as well as a musical one.
At Oslo Concert Hall in 2014 the orchestra had already begun playing when the audience entered the hall. Once the audience were seated, the brass section began the movement Intrada II offstage and made us aware of how all music is unavoidably shaped by the space in which it is played. The soloist then presented the first bars of Matre’s Violin Concerto standing in the stalls with the audience and thus for a while erasing the strictly defined boundary between the stage and the seats. During the movement entitled Intermission we could hear a recording of chattering audience – ourselves, perhaps? At the end, the work kept the memory of itself alive by accompanying the audience over the loudspeakers all the way out to the cloakrooms. With such a vivid, spacious version of Concerto for Orchestra in mind, it is difficult not to reflect on the fact that the ten recorded stereo tracks have a limited ability to convey certain of the dimensions in which this work operates. At the same time, the unity of the work has been conscientiously pre- served in that each track flows seamlessly into the next. In the music, ideas about transitions and contours are also conceived and realized with such nuance that the work most certainly deserves to be documented and accessible as a recording.
As a listening experience, Concerto for Orchestra gives many other musical associations. The first that came to me was Gérard Grisey’s large-scale instrumental cycle Les Espaces Acoustiques (1974– 1985), which, like Matre’s work, insists on continual transitions in the concert hall and acoustical con- tinuity between movements, while each movement remains an autonomous work. In Grisey’s cycle the audience go to the interval with a visual expectation of a cymbal stroke, a theatrical gesture that is completed when the audience have returned to their seats; the interval is thus encapsulated in the struc- ture of the cycle. Matre incorporates the interval in his work as a movement entitled Intermission. Matre’s song cycle Terskelsanger (Threshold Songs) from 2012 openly quotes Grisey’s four last songs. Matre’s music, in its almost minimalistic economy of material and approach to instrumentation where noise is juxtaposed with pitched sound, is very much in touch with the French spectral school.
Concerto for Orchestra can also be linked to a scenic orchestral tradition. preSage revisited refers to Matre’s work preSage (2013), commissioned as a concert opener for a programme including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913). In addition to celebrating the centenary of Rite, Matre also explains that Stravinsky’s work had a decisive effect on his choice of career. Sudden shifts, melodies played in collective unison, cinematic cuts and the flexible form of stage works are well-known devices in Stravinsky which also appear in Matre’s work. preSage takes its title from the short, strange Sage, a passage in Rite that is over almost as soon as it has started, where low winds and strings are forced out into extreme registers accompanied by a subdued chord in the remaining strings.
A concerto is a work in which a soloist or small group enters into a musical dialogue with a larger group of performers. Concerto for Orchestra puts into play such a dimension between individual and collective. Conventional solistic virtuosity is toned down; the solo violinist, for example, plays a single, sustained crystal-clear note for a long time. There are several sections in which large groups of instruments play meticulously designed noise soundscapes in a continuum from sound to noise. In addition to putting the classical orchestra sound in perspective, these sections open up spaces where the listener can experience hearing each individual musician and the entire orchestra as a landscape and collective simultaneously.
Text: Hild Borchgrevink, 2018