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Composer Portraits Series: Klas Torstensson

Three fascinating interconnected American premieres by prominent Swedish-Dutch composer played by the very best of contemporary classical musicians.       

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Klas Torstensson (Photo credit: Teo Krijgsman Amsterdam)


Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

The recent U. S. premiere of three works by Swedish-Dutch composer Klas Torstensson at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre was an exciting experience: unusual instrument groupings, extended loopings of beginning-halting-beginning again, interestingly juxtaposed musical allusions, stunningly difficult scoring and then passages of extended loveliness all offered both demands of concentration and gifts of pleasure for the audience.

Klas Torstensson was in the audience and, as in most Composer Portraits Series, was featured in a brief interview at the beginning of the second half of the program. The first half of the program featured a quartet, Sonerna, followed by a second quartet, No slash. The second half of the concert consisted of the interview followed by an octet, Elliott loves bebop.

The first piece Sonerna was played by Ensemble SON – so named because -son is the suffix of each of the musician’s last names – consisting of Jorgen Pettersson/saxophone, Ivo Nilsson/trombone, Jonny Axelsson/percussion and Magus Andersson/guitar. Founded in 1994, Ensemble SON has collaborated with Torstensson on many pieces. This particular collection of four instruments is unexpected; in some ways, the acoustic guitar, the most consistently delicate of the four, provided in several sections a continuous presence which, by its near inaudibility, put the audience on alert for keen listening. The trombone, saxophone and percussion instruments, all typically louder than the guitar, were played with the full array of contemporary classical techniques: sounds such as breaths, squeaks, thumps and bumps – once unthinkable in old-fashioned training and now entirely predictable techniques for contemporary musicians – were part of Torstensson’s scoring.

Klas Torstensson

Though divided into three movements, the overarching narrative of Sonerna moves from deliberate repeated breaks in melodic and rhythmic lines for which the hope of completion felt like a tease, through to bright-toned pattern experiments, and ending with something like harmonic clarity and a resolution into lyrical gentleness.

The second quartet No slash, featuring frequent Miller Theatre performers Either/Or (Jennifer Choi/violin, John Popham/cello, Richard Carrick/piano, David Shively/percussion) was structured in exactly the same way as Sonerna … the same three movement structure, the same tensions and pacing, and the same concluding commitment to pensive beauty. Because of the dominance of the more traditional trio instruments within the quartet – violin, cello and piano – the piece sounded more fluidly “conservative” than Sonerna. In addition, because of its structural congruence with Sonerna, it sounded oddly familiar.

These comparisons and echoes were deliberate. The two pieces are, in fact, written to be played either separately or simultaneously. Torstensson noted a certain happy obeisance to Elliot Carter in saying that “when they are played together, the title becomes Elliott loves bebop.”

Klas Torstennson

In his conversation with Richard Carrick, Torstensson reported on the satisfactions and demands of the octet. He described the instrumentation as that of “the smallest orchestra possible – smaller than a symphonietta – consisting of instruments from all families.” He briefly discussed the music’s jazz, bebop and minimalism impulses, his desire to evoke the sounds of New York City in honor of the current premiere, and the extent to which Elliott Carter was a major influence in Holland in the 1980’s. Towards the end of the conversation, Torstensson speculated that the ending of Elliott loves bebop had the feel of “New Orleans style funeral music.” He seemed almost surprised by his own observation.

Elliott loves bebop is a much more satisfying piece than either Sonerna or No slash on their own. It would be no matter what. But the experience of having listened to the two quartets one after the other immediately before the octet immeasurably enriched the experience of hearing the octet: the octet’s complexities were more intelligible and the patterns of their interconnections were more clear. Without compromising or simplifying the work’s density, its meanings were more accessible.

Stretched out over time – three sequences of twenty minutes: quartet, quartet, octet – the comprehensibility of Elliott loves bebop was intellectually similar to appreciating how the human body works by looking at biology books with transparent anatomical systems pages layered one on top of the other. The complete organic whole is the most satisfying thing, but seeing how the interdependence of all the parts actually operates is cerebrally pleasing.

The American premiere of these three Torstensson pieces, separately and together, presented by eight musicians of superb skill and daring artistry, made for a wonderful evening.

Composer Portraits Series: Klas Torstensson (April 29, 2017)

Miller Theatre at Columbia University School of the Arts, 2960 Broadway at 116th Street, in Manhattan

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Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including one intermission

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