An Orchestra at 575

Attempting to fathom the sonic depths of an orchestra established in 1448 is a huge challenge, a stimulating joy and certainly a work-in-progress

Not all orchestras sound the same. Last night in Copenhagen, the Royal Danish Orchestra celebrated 575 years – the oldest orchestral institution in the world by some distance. At this point I want to write “truly, it is the Vienna Philharmonic of the North”. Well, to some degree it is. But the wonder of the Royal Danish Orchestra is that, really, it sounds like no other orchestra on earth.

I’ve expended plenteous thought calories trying to describe the orchestra’s very particular sound since I first heard it play live in 2005, never really doing it justice. I suppose that’s the Sisyphean challenge (and privilege) of music criticism.

In this, its jubilee year, three different institutions asked me to write about the orchestra and its sound culture in detail. One was a record label, another a magazine, and the third the Royal Danish Theatre itself – a humbling assignment.

There and elsewhere, you can read about the orchestra’s history – its instruments collected down the years, the litany of significant former members (Dowland, Schütz, Nielsen) and guest conductors (Kleiber, Walter, Knappertsbusch, Monteux, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ormandy, Kubelik, Barbirolli, Solti, Bernstein, Barenboim, Boulez, Jansons…). There are a few pages in The Northern Silence on Sir Simon Rattle’s remarkable concert with the orchestra in 2013.

When last night’s concert is broadcast on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s P2 channel tonight, you can hear me talk briefly to presenter Rie Koch in the interval about some of the tangible elements that contribute to the orchestra’s distinctive sound – its feline brass, forward winds and soft-attacking strings (the latter two characteristics long associated with the Vienna Philharmonic).

We recorded the interview just before the concert began. As the music got going, I couldn’t resist but scribble down some more thoughts on what we were hearing. The opera house was pretty much full and there was that crackle of atmosphere you always hope will materialise at such events. A family in the row behind me had travelled en masse all the way from Mumbai to hear the orchestra.

Gábor Takács-Nagy and the Royal Danish Orchestra accept applause after the ensemble’s 575th anniversary concert at the Copenhagen Opera House, 28.9.23

But there wasn’t much sense of the Royal Danish Theatre expending a great deal to celebrate its crown jewel beyond a valedictory glitter canon. Nor did the programme scream ‘jubilee’: no new commission, no Danish music and a conductor making his debut.

Still…this was, I think, one of the more exceptional performances I have heard from this wondrous ensemble – one in which it seemed entirely happy in itself (it doesn’t always).

The programme allowed it to fly. Conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy is steeped in the central European sound culture that the Royal Danish Orchestra has always erred towards. He brought with him a calorific menu whose first two works referenced the orchestra’s history. Leopold Stokowski conducted his own arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue BWV565 with the orchestra in Copenhagen in 1939. Schoenberg, whose arrangement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet Op 25 was played next, conducted the orchestra later in the century.

Both pieces have their tongue in their cheek: Stokowski’s inflated Bach asks an orchestra to do ridiculous things in disguising a devotional organ piece as an entertainment; Brahms’s quartet was bonkers even before Schoenberg got to it, adding a symphony orchestra with a squadron of steampunk percussion.

Takács-Nagy, who clearly had the orchestra in his thrall, wanted expressionistic playing and got it – right from the wall-of-sound string tone at the opening of the Bach/Stokowski.

Why the piece worked here, was surely the meeting of the Royal Danish Orchestra’s extraordinary swell – those strings, radiating before they throttle up – with Stokowski’s concept of a piece that can create its own acoustic in defiance of the one it’s being played in. I can’t think of another orchestra in the Nordic region that could generate that colossal weave of sound…could the Dresden Staatskapelle, even?

Again, in defiance of the opera house’s relatively dry acoustic, we heard a performance of the Brahms/Schoenberg so red-blooded that it threatened to be cartoonish.

Then the detail: the Andante’s soaring legato string melody mustering warmth by increments until we heard those forward winds weaving around underneath and inside it; the brittle, headstrong march that Schoenberg punctuates with trumpet and percussion, erupting Ives-like from the rear; double-basses powering much of the discourse from below but with articulation as well as weight. If you needed a reminder that this is a storytelling opera orchestra, it was there in the rapidly changing masks of the Rondo alla zingarese

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra allowed for a dual celebration of the orchestra’s sections and of its Hungarian conductor for the evening. The early duet between concertmaster Tobias Sneh Durholm and principal cello Joel Laakso showed us an X-Ray image of that distinctive grain in the orchestra’s strings. It proved an amuse-bouche for the passage in the Intermezzo when Bartók’s violas pick out out a nationalist tune lifted from The Merry Widow, joined quickly by their brethren in the higher strings. It filled the room here, the sound noble and humanitarian but with exceptional strength of will – an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Most remarkable in the Bartók were the brass. Their sophisticated sense of blend, which can be creamy or febrile, might have its origins in principal trombone for nearly 40 years from 1905 Anton Hansen, who cultivated a wider section sound so admired by Jean Sibelius. It proved its modern sensibilities here, retaining the slightest sense of central European fizz where needed (notably from horns) but lined with brilliance and underpinned by agility.

Virtuosity and slickness are not this orchestra’s watchwords, even though it has the technique. Instead, it seems to approach music from the other side – as a horizontal art, not a vertical one. There were no clouds of dust whipped up in the final pages of the Bartók (for one thing, the opera house acoustic doesn’t allow it). The pictures were deeper and more musical – sometimes with a little roughness, some sand in the oyster. Whatever it is, this is an orchestra of the theatre.


Love / Ambition

The John Fulljames era at the Royal Danish Opera ended this summer. Here are some thoughts on his parting gesture, a new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, whose messages of optimism came with their own bitter aftertaste.

This review was commissioned by and written for Opera News in New York. But a glitch meant it was never published. So here it is. Better late than never…

Wagner: Die Walküre Royal Danish Opera / 6.3.22

Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan in Die Walküre at the Royal Danish Opera (Camilla Winther)

After an absence of 16 years, Wagner’s Ring returned to the Copenhagen Opera House in March. The audience had waited long enough. Early performances of this Die Walküre sold out and there was rapt attention in the auditorium for the duration of the opening night’s 5 hours. Artistic Director John Fulljames took charge of the staging, the last he will pilot while still in post. Conducting was Thomas Søndergård, who played timpani in the pit the last time the Ring was seen at this address, in the production by Kasper Holten that opened the new opera house and put the Royal Danish Opera on the world map.

Fulljames’s intelligent production couldn’t help but bring to mind the sorry administrative mess that will see him depart this summer, and his projected complete Ring apparently aborted after he was allegedly deemed insufficiently Scandinavian to run Denmark’s national company. Here was further evidence that the boss bows out with his head held high, his staging focusing hard on the hopelessness of Wotan’s quest for power and the sort of short-term schemes that are doomed to fail in the face of true vision and genuine humanity. 

Wotan was on stage from the start, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur fixated on architectural models and spreadsheets, who assumed the status of a guru for his MacBook-wielding posse of office-bound Valkyries. When it all came tumbling down, he clasped to his chest a model of a broad staircase punctured by a giant spear, devastated that he – like Fulljames perhaps – would never get to see his plans come to fruition.

That model was the set we saw at full-scale on stage. Beneath the staircase, the under-class of Hunding and Sieglinde struggled in dirt and grime. Above it, Wotan’s elite workforce distributed Frappuccinos as they high-fived their corporation’s latest successes. It formed a strong image of the world in which we find ourselves, but proved even more resonant as a landscape of heartless ambition against which Siegmund and Brünnhilde’s visions of love and empathy proved so instantly transformative.  

The dramatic power in Act II was severe, Brünnhilde’s initial exchange with Siegmund riven with a line of tension drawn from a combination of sadness and complete stasis, the Valkyrie rooted to a single spot on stage until the pivotal moment at which she could resist the power of human love no more. After a caricature of a meek, abused partner in Act I, the Sieglinde of Act II, debilitated by a deep sense of shock, proved strikingly moving to watch.

That role was taken by Ann Petersen, her apparently ageless voice clearer than ever and offering in tone color what it can sometimes lack in agility. Her characteristic ability to rise to the occasion, even in the middle of a phrase, gave her portrayal a vital dramatic edge. Bryan Register’s Siegmund proved his heldentenor credentials, its lyricism mingled with a sense of over-excitement adumbrating a potentially fine Siegfried. Morten Staugaard found unexpected depth and growl as Hunding and his laconic acting oozed malice. Hanne Fischer’s portrayal of Fricka was deeply satisfying. Only the assembled Valkyries underwhelmed, a fragile ensemble stocked with too many promising but inexperienced singers from the Opera Academy.

There was real quality where it mattered. Both Tomasz Konieczny’s Wotan and Trine Møller’s Brünnhilde were defined by their superior approach to text. Konieczny’s bright, gleaming, legato-infused baritone does so much with words and can apparently color a note even when his mouth is closed; his ‘Abschied’ was most moving at its quietest. Møller focused on meaning and diction, drawing attention away from the size of a voice that, in the end, seemed big enough anyway.

Søndergård paced everything to the text and with ample elasticity. Strings were occasionally lost in the orchestral balance – not normally a problem with the Royal Danish Orchestra – and detail in the prelude to Act II was frustratingly low. But grandeur and scintillating rapture were kept in good balance. Ultimately, ambition and power were trumped by love and beauty, realized as effectively via the notes we heard as by the tenderness we saw.