The Scandinavian Festival's intention is to introduce the rich musical culture of these countries to an audience presumably familiar with at least some works by Grieg, Sibelius and perhaps Nielsen. Last night at American University, pianist Alan Mandel opened the three-day series with an intriguing lecture-recital espousing the long tradition of talented, though sadly overlooked, Nordic composers.
Having thoroughly researched the pieces for the performance, Mandel competently assumed the role of musical ambassador. Consistently employing a light pianistic touch, he brought an air of elegance to Niels Viggo Bentzon's Passacaglia, Op. 3l, whose conservative diatonic harmonies and judicious dissonances recalled Paul Hindemith. The running melodic commentaries in Grieg's Lyrical Pieces and the folk-song elements in Three Icelandic Dances by Jon Leifs sharply contrasted with the most ambitious work on the program, Einojuhani Rautavaara's Piano Sonata II: The Fire Sermon, an eerily dark torrent of reverberant tonal clusters and violent thematic fragments as jagged as the cliffs cut by a fiord.
Mandel's message, however, transcended his expertise in Scandinavian music. In his pre-concert talk, he described the rewards of exposing one's self to new works of art from all cultures. His playing proved the point.