For Munch’s 150th, a concert mixes Norway’s most eminent artists

January 7, 2013

Gather together Norway’s most famous cultural figures from the past 200 years, and you won’t, in all honesty, have a huge crowd. There’s the painter Edvard Munch, of course, as well as the composer Edvard Grieg, the playwright Henrik Ibsen and (stretching a bit) the 19th century violinist Ole Bull. But what they lack in numbers they make up for in brilliance, and the work of all four was brought together for a fascinating concert at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night, to launch the 150th anniversary celebration of Munch’s birth.

Much of the evening was devoted, as you might expect, to Grieg. Soprano Tone Elisabeth Braaten sang five of the composer’s relentlessly lovely songs, from “En Fuglevise” (A Birdsong), with its playful, beguiling lyrics by Ibsen, to the much-loved “Solveig’s Song” from “Peer Gynt.” Braaten has a clear if not particularly big voice — more human-scaled than operatic — and she probed into the music with thoughtfulness and style, accompanied in turns by Stephen Ackert at the piano and members of the National Gallery of Art Orchestra. The fine Norwegian violinist Per Kristian Skalstad gave a heartfelt reading of Ole Bull’s richly romantic “Afsked” (Farewell) — a work sketched on a napkin and forgotten for 50 years before being resurrected — and led the orchestra in a delicate and wonderfully detailed account of Grieg’s famous “Anitra’s Dance.”

But the real focus of the concert was the world premiere of Kjell Habbestad’s “Munch Suite,” a sort of multimedia flute concerto that explores the painter’s dark, expressionist and still-controversial work. As a selection of Munch’s paintings (often with phrases from his writings superimposed) were projected overhead, the orchestra interpreted the searing colors and complex visual rhythms, while the flute — that silvery voice of the psyche — danced above it in a kind of running commentary. It was fascinating to hear; Habbestad has a fine musical imagination, and the piece has a luminous, impressionistic quality to it that added new depths to the paintings. But the many narrative voices at play in the work — the clumsy zooming and panning over the paintings, the written phrases unfurling on the screen, the darting flute and the complex orchestral music — often seemed to be competing for attention rather than working together as a unified whole; a less “busy” visual approach might have focused the impact more powerfully.

Brookes is a freelance writer.


Composer Kjell Habbestad. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)
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