In his native Denmark, composer Carl Nielsen is a national hero. In North America, however, his music has been a tougher sell. In the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein attempted to launch a Nielsen fad at the New York Philharmonic, with only limited success. Now, 50 years later, Music Director Alan Gilbert is putting Nielsen in the spotlight with the New York Philharmonic. He is so committed to this Scandinavian composer he's spearheaded The Nielsen Project, a multi-season survey of the six symphonies and three concertos. The first recording in this series features Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, The Four Temperaments, and the Symphony No. 3, Sinfonia Espansiva.
"Nielsen is a composer I got to know, let's say, much better when I worked in Stockholm for 8 years," Gilbert explains. "Even though Nielsen is a Danish composer, his music is very much in the standard repertoire of all of the Swedish orchestras. And it happened that my artistic administrator there is a Nielsen fanatic, and we spent a lot of time listening to lots of music, but in particular to a lot of Nielsen. He really got me fired up about this music. I performed a number of his symphonies there, and right away when I started doing his symphonies, I connected his music with the New York Philharmonic. There's something about his music — the lushness of the sound, the expansive quality that I think is appropriate for the music, the precision, frankly, that's required. I always thought that the orchestra was made for Nielsen.
"The music is in a sense very traditional. A lot of it sounds like it could have been written by Brahms. And there are some beautiful passages that sound like Elgar or Tchaikovsky. But Nielsen himself was a really interesting character, and he was apparently very, very entertaining and a great person to have at parties — he loved to do impressions. And he was, I think, very interested in all the different ways that people can be individuals and can be unusual. His music is not caricature, but it is a very rich portrait of what humanity can be That's one of the things that I really love about it."
Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 3, subtitled Sinfonia Espansiva, has often been considered to be one of the most "humane" symphonies, breathing new life into each movement, expanding in a very unpredictable way. Nielsen is known for his fiery rhythms and the opening movement of his Third Symphony does not disappoint, "Even though there is an introduction, you feel like you're in the middle of the argument right away," Gilbert argues. "You're already fully in the sweep of things. And brash is a great word. I also think of swagger. There's a kind of confidence, an attitude that I particularly love about this moment. But it's also extremely elegant.
"It is a first movement, and for me it really lays out the challenge of the story, if you will. It prepares the whole journey that the symphony undergoes. And the fact that it does really take you through a journey really qualifies the work as a true symphony in the great sense of the form."
A bleak Scandinavian atmosphere is cast in the second movement, marked Andante pastorale. Alan Gilbert says their goal was to capture the stark stillness of this magical movement which ends with a very special effect. "Nielsen himself didn't even want the fact that there were singers to appear in the program book. He wanted it to come as a complete surprise and from no apparent, specific locality. It shouldn't be clear where the voices come from. They should just emerge as kind of natural sounds out of the texture of the orchestra. When we performed it in Avery Fisher Hall, we had the singers not near the edge of the stage where I'm standing, but behind, as if part of the wind section. They were not presented as if they were members of the orchestra who just happened to play the voice, if you will. And if that came through on the recording, then I'm really pleased, because that's exactly the effect we were going for."
Finding a personal connection in music is what's most important according to Alan Gilbert. Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, nicknamed The Four Temperaments, offers a chance for each listener to identify perhaps with the individual temperaments represented in each movement. So which one is Alan Gilbert drawn to?
"Melancholy, for sure," he admits. Why is that not surprising? "Well, you know, isn't being happy the most boring emotion? I'm kidding in a way. But I like the slow, melancholic movement in particular. They're all wonderful movements. But there's something that's so true about that bittersweet [quality], almost enjoying the sadness. I don't know if it's enjoying being sad, or sad about being happy. But there's something very meaningful about that, not just for musicians. I think it's something that everybody can understand."
Alan Gilbert has a deep understanding of the music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Since his contract with the New York Philharmonic has been extended through the 2016-17 season, we have much more to look forward to from The Nielsen Project.