In the Hall of the Mountain King
Edvard Grieg died in 1907. He is entombed in a mountain crypt (seen above) near his home in Troldhaugen, Norway.
In my memory of remarkable musical events in Russia, a stand-out is the 1999 concert of the Russian National Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Kremlin Palace. The performance featured the Peer Gynt Suite, written by Duke Ellington's premier arranger Billy Strayhorn.
That concert was far from Mikhail Pletnev’s 2009 festival goal—to represent with authenticity the text and language of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt and to perform the incidental music Edvard Grieg composed for an 1874 staged version of the Norwegian verse drama. In addition to authentic storytelling and beautiful singing, Maestro Pletnev wanted to highlight the historical fact that Grieg and Tchaikovsky became acquainted in the late 1880s. They admired each other’s music, and Tchaikovsky fell under the influence of the beauty, originality and warmth of Grieg's compositions. Or was it the other way around?
A different dynamic was in play in the era of Edward "Duke" Ellington, whose big band performed a humorous, saucy interpretation of Grieg’s Peer Gynt--one so scandalous that it threatened U.S.-Norway relations. While Ellington had a deep respect for Grieg and other classical music composers, his Peer Gynt Suite became a rollicking transformation of the familiar motifs into jazz rhythms. It was not exactly a "jazzing up" of the classical composition, as much as it was a re-visioning of the original. What Ellington and Strayhorn did with Peer Gynt, they also did with Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. They created a new interpretation that thrills some listeners and irritates others.
In the 1999 concert, the two orchestras—the Russian classical one and the American jazz one—appeared together on the vast Kremlin Hall stage at the end of a worldwide concert tour honoring the 100th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth. Each orchestra was relatively young, having been conceived in the early 1990s by two musical geniuses--Mikhail Pletnev and Wynton Marsalis--each with a clear vision of the musical culture of their native land. The combined orchestras with mezzo-soprano Maria Maskhuliya were directed by Guest Conductor Dmitri Liss, whom The Moscow Times called “a rising star.” In its July 9 concert review, entitled "Marsalis, RNO Triumph in Combination," Times music critic Rebecca Reich wrote:
Movement by movement, Ellington’s arrangement broke down the all-too-familiar strains of Peer Gynt, rebuilding them into an infinitely more entertaining spectacle that made the original look tired and stiff. When the tremulous, somber aria sung with the RNO by mezzo soprano Maria Maskhuliya was musically mocked by the warbling trombone of the LCJO’s Wycliffe Gordon, the imitation was so exact and so irreverent that the audience burst into spontaneous cheers.
At the end of Mikhail Pletnev’s 2009 version of Peer Gynt there were also cheers of ecstasy, and I am certain there was approval deep inside the Hall of the Mountain King in Troldhaugen, Norway. But in the memory of the 3000 fans who filled the hall of the Kremlin Palace, cheers and applause are still ringing a decade after hearing the jazz-and-classics version of Peer Gynt popularized by Duke Ellington.
Below find my translation of Culture Television Channel’s September 12 broadcast, "The full version of Peer Gynt is performed by the Russian National Orchestra." Find the Russian language text of this article here.
Peer Gynt was presented today at the RNO Grand Festival in the full version of Grieg’s music for the drama by Ibsen. And despite the announced theme of the festival—this follower of Tchaikovsky, composing music for a Norwegian literary classic, seemed a not entirely spontaneous choice—it was the considered and sustained decision of Mikhail Pletnev, since Grieg was a contemporary and friend of Tchaikovsky. According to Culture News.
For the concert version of Peer Gynt, Concertmaster Alexey Bruni made a literary edition, adapted for one narrator. This role fulfilled by Vassiliy Lanovoy.
“The narrator must be able to combine about ten different types of personalities or identities,” explained the Honored Artist of the USSR.
To perform the literary-musical composition Peer Gynt the Russian National Orchestra required extra strength. On the stage of the Bolshoi Theater, in addition to Mikhail Pletnev’s orchestra, were soloists from Russia and Latvia and the Moscow State Academic Chamber Choir under the direction of Vladimir Minin.