Monday, January 9, 2012

Grieg & Pennsylvania: One Degree of Separation

Edvard Grieg
This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina will perform a concert called "Enchanted Escape" with Di Wu the soloist in Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto, plus Jean Sibelius' fairy tale En Saga and Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 3 (I'll be posting more about these works soon.) The concerts are this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in Harrisburg. Come an hour earlier to hear a pre-concert talk with Truman Bullard.

The Piano Concerto in A Minor that Edvard Grieg composed when he was in his mid-20s probably needs no introduction (not that that will stop me from introducing it to you). Here are some video clips of the complete concerto with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing with conductor Gustavo Dudamel (now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and the Teresa CareƱo Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

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1st Movement

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

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Edvard Grieg was a famous Norwegian composer born in Bergen whose great-grandfather was originally a Scottish soldier who eventually settled in Norway after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Famous for the music he composed for Peer Gynt and for his Piano Concerto, Grieg is not a name we would associate, however, with Pennsylvania beyond the fact his music is often played here.

But there really is one degree of separation. 

Ole Bull in 1851
Ole Bull was a famous violinist born in Bergen, Norway, whose brother had married Edvard Grieg’s aunt. When the violinist heard the 15-year-old Grieg play the piano, he arranged for him to go to Leipzig, Germany, since there were no reasonable schools in Norway and it would be better than Copenhagen, the closest cosmopolitan city, to study at the conservatory Mendelssohn had founded..

Five years earlier, in 1852, Ole Bull had purchased over 11,000 acres in the woods of Potter County in north-central Pennsylvania  for a little over $10,000 (quite a sum in those days) and founded a settlement he called New Norway.

That September, he reported that “30 stalwart sons of Norway arrived” to settle the area. He planned to build a castle for himself on a mountainous shelf overlooking the valley, a hilltop he called Valhala, after the fortress of the Norse God Odin (who became Wotan in Wagner’s opera, ‘The Ring’).

Unfortunately, the land turned out to be so inhospitable to tilling, the colony and the castle were quickly abandoned. However, a state park there is named after him.

Disappointed in the colony’s failure, he returned to Norway and his native Bergen in 1857, the year he heard the teen-aged Edvard Grieg play the piano. Who knows: if New Norway had been a success, Edvard Grieg may never have gotten to Leipzig to study and might not have become the famous composer he eventually did, not that one should count on such black-and-white versions of the “What-If” Game…

Of course, it’s very possible he would have managed something, somehow, but creative genius is such a delicate condition, it’s also possible, without the right nurturing at the right time, it may never have blossomed as we know it.

- Dick Strawser

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