Total Immersion: New from the North, Barbican, London

Does Nordic music really exist? Yes, yes, there are Nordic composers. But is there a specific sound-world that typifies “the North”?

New from the North, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s latest Total Immersion event, addressed this very question. While previous Total Immersion days have mostly profiled individual contemporary composers, Saturday’s featured 13, plucked from different generations, regions and stylistic backgrounds. The result was a hodgepodge of the more familiar (Einojuhani Rautavaara, Esa-Pekka Salonen), the less familiar (Jussi Chydenius, Olli Kortekangas), and influences including jazz, serialism, folk music and Sibelius. What stood out was just how little new Nordic music lends itself to categorisation.

The evening concert put the point eloquently, boasting four UK premieres from four very distinct composers. Sunleif Rasmussen, who headed the programme, draws on the folk music of his native Faroe Islands, along with rock and jazz. It’s not surprising then that his Prelude for Brass is a light-hearted survey of genres rather than an attempt to embody any single one.

There’s more than a whiff of Hollywood in Sebastian Fagerlund’s Clarinet Concerto, which followed. What was admirable was clarinettist Christoffer Sundqvist’s ability to cope with the technical demands of the young Finnish composer’s score, which squawks, sneezes and splutters in a nail-biting rush to the finishing line.

Fellow Finn Magnus Lindberg was represented by Era, a 2012 work that confirms his reputation as a master orchestrator and his growing conventionalism. It’s a soup of swooning strings and brassy outbursts: noisy enough but easily forgotten. The final work, however, etched itself on the memory. Not for nothing is Per Nørgard – 80 last year – credited with being Denmark’s foremost contemporary composer. His Symphony No 8 unfolds like a clip from a film. It begins in media res and ends without warning – as if the camera had simply cut out. In between is a dream-like narrative, full of subtlety and humour, profiling adventurous combinations of instruments and sounds.

At all times, Finnish conductor John Storgards brought a fearlessness and elasticity to the material that evidently came from knowing these scores inside out. For him this was not forbidding music of the avant garde to be handled with tongs, but simply music.

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