The second event of the Longfellow Choral Festival, held Saturday afternoon at the First Congregational Church of South Portland, commemorated a friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull (1810-1880), who also has ties to Maine.
Bull was a champion of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) and the program featured works by both Grieg and Bull, played by Norway’s pre-eminent violinist, Arve Tellefsen, who in 1982 narrated and musically illustrated a documentary of Bull’s life. “Ole Bull’s Fairy Tale.”
Bull was also the model for a character in Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt,” for which Grieg provided incidental music, and the Longfellow Chorus Orchestra, under the baton of artistic Director Charles Kaufmann, opened with “Morning Mood” from “Peer Gynt,” (Op. 23).
The orchestra, made up primarily of members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, was excellent and well-rehearsed, and Tellefsen more than lived up to expectations, beginning with Greig’s Prelude from “Sigurd Jorsalfar” (Op. 22) written just before “Peer Gynt.”
Most audiences are familiar with the “Peer Gynt” Suite, which gives only a faint idea of the episodes in their original settings. The atmospheric vocalise of the “Arabian Dance,” with soprano Elissa Alvarez and the female chorus, was a revelation. So was “Solveig’s Song,” sung movingly by soprano Rachele Schmiege.
The Grieg blockbuster, however, was the overly familiar “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” The percussion was overwhelming, but the transformation came when the chorus joined in as troll voices. The result was uncannily like “Carmina Burana,” with a fantastic ending as the trolls shriek imprecations at Peer Gynt, only to be silenced by the deep bass voice of the King, shouting “Pipe down, you rascals” (or the Norwegian equivalent thereof).
The works by Ole Bull were intriguing and a cut above the usual display pieces that violinists write for their own performance. They differ primarily in their use of orchestral atmosphere as a backdrop for the solo violin. This was evident in “The Polish Warrior,” which includes an accomplished Polonaise, and filagree violin decorations around a waltz that could have been written by Franz Lehar.
Norwegian musical imagery and folk songs were given free rein in “A Visit to a Mountain Farmstead,” which begins with a cuckoo call and a morning bird chorus before a segue into folk songs, some of which sound strangely Scottish.
Virtuosity in the service of expression was evident in Bull’s “A Mother’s Prayer,” which opens with some fine melodic work in double stops and proceeds to the primary theme played entirely in harmonics.
The final “Cantabile Doloroso E Rondo Giocoso” was also lively and well-written, with an overabundance of decorations. It contains the only duet I can think of for violin and drums, plus an exciting accelerando finale.
After a standing ovation, Tellefsen played an encore that would have presented difficulties to Paganini. A Cadenza for Solo Violin by Arne Nordheim, it included every spectacular violin ornamentation known to man. plus toe tapping and vocal imitation of wood blocks. The audience loved it.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: