A casual survey of their major contributors to the music of Europe would be scant, headed for sure by Sibelius, a true original, followed by Denmark's Carl Nielsen, a gifted symphonist, and Norway's Edvard Grieg, a first-rate pictorialist. Such a list also might include a few lesser lights whose works are known in their native lands but appear abroad only on the programs of visiting Nordic musicians or all-Scandinavian tributes.
DePaul University's Concert Hall, the latest in the chamber orchestra's well-received explorations of regional art-music. The "lesser light" on the program was Dag Wiren, a Swede whose career as music critic and bureaucrat spanned much of the last century.
Missing, alas, were the present-day trailblazers such as Denmark's Poul Ruders and Finland's Kaija Saariaho. Still, to his credit, conductor Hilel Kagan showed his appetite for worthy obscure items by selecting two tone poems from Sibelius' and Nielsen's oeuvres.
Wiren's 1938 Serenade for Strings, which opened the concert, was a disappointment. Recycling the melodious, anthem-influenced idiom of Vaughan Williams and cast in the mold of the string serenades of Brahms and Dvorak, the piece sounds derivative albeit with folksy touches of its own. But it is partly redeemed by lovely, expressive stretches, though the string playing, guided by the ever-solicitous Kagan, wasn't always the model of grace and discipline.
Nielsen's "Pan and Syrinx" (1918) is a pastorale depicting a tale from Ovid's "Metamorphoses," in which the nymph Syrinx is stalked then pursued by the satyric Pan. The musicsort of a cross between Debussy and Richard Straussis so dramatic that you could identify Pan (winds playing sensuously) and feel the suspense and thrill of the chase (rattling tambourine and rushing strings). Concertante's performance of it was vividly literal, putting the spotlight on the two personalities and their dances of seduction and evasion.
By comparison, Sibelius' "Rakastava," a minor tone poem using themes from earlier choral settings, didn't measure up. Its movement titles"The Lover," "The Way of the Beloved," "Good Evening, My Love!"suggest the fleetness of an intense relationship, but Concertante's reading was listless until the last movement. The string playing, again, could have been sharper, but it did eloquently convey the yearning and sadness.
Sibelius, who was dismissed by some critics of his time as a primitivist, had the last laugh when his Violin Concerto became a favorite with audiences and performers. The soloist in Concertante's revival, the 30ish Swedish violinist-conductor Jan Stigmer making his American debut, demonstrated its durable appeal through a remarkable display of sustained virtuosity and rapt concentration. Despite an orchestral accompaniment that didn't always keep pace and the occasional brittle sounds, his was a breathtaking tour-de-force that got even more impressive in the long last movement when he and Concertante grooved without a hitch.