A Composer of Fiery Inspiration

From an article in Nordic Sounds 

by Svend Brown

 
On December 2, 2005, Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist was awarded the Rosenberg Prize. The jury’s citation introduces her well – and briefly:
”With her feet deeply planted in the musical soil, the 2006 Rosenberg Award winner hos created a personol tonal language that speeks to all the world with a mixture of genuine musicality, Småland tenacity and rnusical creativity.”
To explain her work to someone who has never heard a note of it, I would say look at the titles first. She finds inspiration in potent ideas expressed in langliage that rings out like magical spells. Just thinking of her words gives you a strong sense of ber. Then I would want to use other words like strong, pure, unique, spiritual, forceful, earthy, dramatic, primitive, warm, sophisticated, violent, poetic, moving, unsentimental, visceral, gripping, accessible, mythie, humane…
In April 2006 you have an opportunity to explore Rehnqvist’s music for yourself as the Stockholm Konserthus hosts a weekend-long retrospective of her work. Any composer would be justified in longing for this kind of thing – and dreading it. It is a huge compliment – but also a test. Not all composers benefit from intensive exposure – and that’s no criticism: plenty of fine musicians are best heard in small measures. But Rehnqvist is too great and varied a voice for that to be a problem.
The programme holds a rich array of genres and soundworlds to keep the ears, hearts and minds of audiences engaged. Many of her tavourite performers will participate, folk and classical players will rub shoulders, as will amateurs and professionals, solo instruments and a symphon~, orchestra. New work will be heard as well as the earlier works that made her name internationally. As ever, critical questions will be in the air. Where have the past 22 years taken Karin Rehnqvist? How did she acquit herself along the way? This articie offers no answers, only food for thought.
Rehnqvist has followed her own path over the years and has rarely written music in conventional genres.

No symphony, no sonatas. Only two concertos. True to form, the two new works in the programme are utterly different. A new piece for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra – Preludes for Large Orchestra (premiered on 20 April, and heard again on 22 April) – and a thank-you gift from Rehnqvist to the Konserthus in the form of the latest vocal work to draw inspiration from her beloved kulning. This ancient Swedish vocal technique is used by cowherds to call across the wide valleys. In this case it will be a kind of fanfare to be sung from the Stockholm rooftops, calling to crowds instead of herds.

The inspiration of Swedish traditional music has never faltered in her work – it is there in the earliest piece included this weekend and the newest. But she can never be accused of exploiting traditional music as Romantic composers did – plucking out fine traditional tunes or dance rhythms to add to their own music without respecting the traditions themselves. instead, she has always absorbed the inspiration of this music into the roots of her own language, then forged something new. A sign of her success is that Puksängerlockrop was commissioned for the Falun Folk Music Festival, yet sits quite comfortably in a ‘new music’ concerttoo.

The flerce, wiid quality of kulning filters into much of Rehnqvist’s work. In vocal works it is right on the surface, and the quality of the voices themselves sends a shiver down your spine. A piece like the piano trio Beginning conceals it behind the timbres of strings and piano. but cannot hide its raw, passionate, primitive edge. It gives her writing for winds a special thrill, and also offers an insight into her favoured instrumental colours. Her preferred quartet consists of saxophones, not strings. She creates her own ensembles, which usually have a strong tonal identity. Saxophone (both solo and in a quartet) and soprano (solo or more). Brass and percussion, with or without voices. Solo instruments with traditional links – cimbalom and kantele.

There have been rnore works for orchestra in recent years, especially since she became Composer in Residence with the Swedish and Scottish Chamber Orchestras (2000-2003). For them she created the work that features on her recent – acclaimed – BIS CD, Arktis Arktis! In 2004 came two more critical successes in the shape of Ljus ov Ljus (composed for the Présences festival in Paris, and scored for symphony orchestra and youth choir) and her fairytale for children – When the Eorth Sings. Now we have the premiere of Preludes… All of these recent works reveal a delicate ear for orchestral nuance that is quite at one with the kind of steely strength she draws from so many of her own ensembles.

Rehnqhist is passionate about amateur music-making. She often leads composing projects for children, and her own music for children never patronizes its performers. It is realistic – she knows the limits – but it challenges. That sounds heavy, but these works can also bring out the informal and funny side of Rehnqvist – Im here. And you? requires a ‘vigorous girl’s choir and congas’. Sourdough for women’s choir speaks for itself. During the April weekend, ene of Rehnqvist’s most ambitious projects to bring amateur and professional musicians together will be seen in Stockholm for the first time. The Angel with the Fiery Hands is a staged piece for choir, solo singer and instrumentalists. It was premiered in Västerås last October, and that performance left her full of admiration for the performers, of whom the piece demanded a great deal. It is with special pleasure that she sees it included here.

So where does Rehnqvist go from here? That is for her to know, but one short answer is that she heads towards her fiftieth birthday in 2007 with a diary full of plans for a nice mixture of commissions from some prestigious ensembles, including the London Sinfonietta, the Nieuw Ensemble and the Netherlands Chamber Choir as well as some old friends such as the Nordic Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Svend Brown is an English writer and promoter