A Letter from London (and Nielsen 4)

Courtney Lewis

Yesterday I arrived in damp and blustery London, which, despite the gloom and ghastly weather is full of the irrepressible cheer of Christmastime. There is something about dusk descending at 4 pm – or even of being soaked by the spray of a passing double-decker bus whilst walking to a carol service – that makes the Yuletide spirit all the more real. I write just before the commencement of a rather brutal schedule of mulled-wine-soaked lunches and dinners with friends. It’s the one time of year when nearly everyone from this continent of my life is in the same place, which is something to treasure.

It is, of course, a natural time to reflect on the year that is drawing to a close, while contemplating aspirations for that which is about to begin. 2017 has been another year of enormous change for the Jacksonville Symphony. We’ve welcomed many new musicians and staff members, and continued our ambitious program of growth, both in the range of music we play and for whom we play it. Our concerts reached 255,000 Jacksonvillians – a record – and we began important collaborations, like our residence at Daily’s Place and our string programs for school kids in Clay Country. Our national profile is on the rise too. I was delighted when we were invited to collaborate with the American Composers Orchestra to showcase the music of tomorrow. You can hear that venture in action in April. I’m always focused on how the orchestra plays, and I know I speak not only for myself but for the musicians when I say how proud I am of the performances we gave. A few come to mind as particularly special: Sibelius’s Seventh and Fifth symphonies, Mahler’s Second and Beethoven’s Third. On a personal note, I’m also delighted to have extended my commitment to the orchestra and city through the 2020/21 season. Jacksonville has become home, the orchestra family, and we still have an enormous amount to achieve together. One of my heros, the conductor Simon Rattle, once said that with orchestras, as in life, monogamy is best. I’m not sure I entirely agree in the latter case, but certainly in the former!

There is much to look forward to in 2018. We’ll being the year with an announcement about our new Composer in Residence. I can’t wait to share this news with you; we’ve found a unique artist who writes music that is at once accessible and adventurous. As I’ve said before, this season is something of a list of my favourite music, and the first program of the year – featuring Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, The Inextinguishable – is no exception. Rehearsals begin, cruelly, on January 2, so the musicians and I are committed to rather more abstemious New Year’s celebrations than usual.

Carl Nielsen was a Danish composer who lived from 1865 to 1931. His Fourth Symphony was written amidst both the turmoil of the First World War, and strife in his marriage. He’d married a brilliant sculptor, Anne Marie Brodersen, who had very different ideas about her role in the world from most of her contemporaries. I’m always amazed when two artistically-tempered people can live together, and it was certainly a struggle for the Nielsens. Nevertheless, they succeeded. The Inextinguishable is a musical depiction of a human quality we all know well: the desire to live, to exist, to triumph, amidst great difficulty. The four movements are bound together by a powerful musical line that is best described as ‘the will to overcome.’ The symphony doesn’t so much begin as erupt in a welter of energy and force that is unabated until its conclusion. As if to underline this quality visually, Nielsen employs two sets of timpani – the performers of which are the most balletic in the orchestra – so that we actually see strength of purpose throughout the symphony.

One of the things I admire most about Nielsen is his individuality of style. Like his contemporary Sibelius, his musical personality had the hardiness to avoid being drawn into the binary stylistic battle that was raging in Europe in the 1910s: Schoenberg’s atonality on the one hand (which we heard a few weeks ago in his Five Pieces for Orchestra) and Stravinsky’s primal Russian-ness, epitomized by his ballet The Rite of Spring, on the other. Nielsen was a conductor, and his compositions tell us that he had the music of other composers swirling around in his head all the time (a plight with which I sympathize). But despite the odd snatches of Brahms, Wagner and Renaissance polyphony, he carves out a completely individual style that is full of resilience and humanity. The Inextinguishable is relentlessly optimistic. What an apposite sentiment for Christmas and the New Year.


Reproduced with kind permission of The Florida Times-Union.