Fanfare (US) "Interview with conductor Bo Holten"
KEN MELTZER, Fanfare
Interview in Fanfare with Conductor Bo Holten
BY KEN MELTZER
A lovely new disc on the OUR Recordings label features the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, conducted by Bo Holten. The disc comprises a cappella choral arrangements of Danish songs that relate to the various seasons of the year. I had the opportunity to speak with Bo Holten about the new disc, and the rich and fascinating tradition of Danish song.
In your liner notes for 28 Danish Songs, you distinguish the national songs of Denmark from the “natural folksongs” of its neighbors, Norway and Sweden. What are the differences (and simi- larities) between the two types of songs?
Denmark is flat and small. Through the centuries it has been a country with loads of people trav- eling through it. Some stay, some leave their genes, but they all come with their own music. So it is extremely hard to distinguish what really is “Danish music.” In Norway and Sweden, mountainous countries with valley cultures where indigenous peoples stay for centuries in the same places, a strongly individual and profiled music developed and exists to this day. Not so in Denmark, where only a few (but very fine) folksongs have survived (many of them collected by Percy Grainger!), but no instrumental music of mentionable quality.
How do the national songs reflect the music and life of the people of Denmark?
The national songs from the 19th century are typical Romantic songs, very much in the German style (Danes live close to Germany, and German culture has always been a very dominating ele- ment), but the song movement, started by Laub and Nielsen in 1915 (Denmark was neutral during World War I) made a very marked turning point. A completely new style of music was invented based on … God knows what? Out of the blue Thomas Laub and Carl Nielsen wrote these two col- lections, En snes danske viser 1 and 2 (1915–17), 44 songs in all, which gave all the aesthetic fun- damentals for the Højskole song, which culminated in Højskolesangbogens Melodibog (1922). Practically all the songs on this new CD come from this time and these collections, the founding fa- thers of which were Laub, Nielsen, Oluf Ring, and Thorvald Aagaard. The musical style is a strange concoction of many influences, but it seems very natural and simple (in the best meaning of the word). Songs have continually been composed in Denmark in this style, and are widely sung throughout the country. It has to be said that commercial American pop culture also has exerted a strong influence on the production and performance of these songs since the 1970s, but the original style is still used when people sing together in large communities.
What qualities of these songs do you think will appeal even to those not familiar with Denmark’s history and culture?
The melodic strength in the repertoire will always appeal to most music lovers, but the fact that all the texts are in Danish severely hinders these songs from diffusing into other countries. Attempts have recently been made to translate some of the songs and actually sing them in English. To Danish ears this sounds extremely odd, and the translations cannot really recreate the charm and local color of the originals. But good recordings of the repertoire (even if you are hearing the same tune again and again, verse after verse) and subtle shadings between the different verses actually can make a satisfying progression that is immediately comprehensible to foreigners.
I’m sure it must have been difficult to limit the contents of this disc to 28 songs. How did you go about choosing the repertoire?
In the last 20 years I have, along with my vocal ensemble Music Ficta, made more than 15 CDs with at least 300 songs from this repertoire (available on Naxos). I chose to make this present CD a cycle of seasonal songs, picking only the very best plums mostly from the early repertoire before 1950, the songs that are best known and loved in Denmark. It was quite easy to select the mostly sung pieces, and a few not-so-well-known surprises.
28 Danish Songs charts the change of seasons in Denmark, from spring through winter. Does this progression have a particular significance and emotional resonance for the Danish people?
As in most countries outside the tropics, the seasons are a very important cultural element, and
so too in Denmark. We have a very rich treasure of poems and songs touching upon the seasonal changes, triggering some of our finest literary and musical flowers.
The songs included on the OUR Recordings CD feature works by several Danish composers. Most Fanfare readers will be familiar with Carl Nielsen, but I suspect the other composers on the disc will be new to many. Perhaps you could mention a few, and their contributions to the fabric of Danish music.
Thomas Laub, an organist and hymn reformer, was the instigator of this repertoire. In 1914 he convinced Carl Nielsen, then 50 years of age, that it was worthwhile writing simple songs for all peo- ple to sing. Nielsen disciples, such as Ring and Aagaard, both obsessed by the musical “bringing up” of normal Danes, are crucial in this connection. Many symphonic composers later contributed to this genre, but after 1960 the avant-garde composers seem not to have been interested in this style. Nonetheless many composers (not avant-garde) like Otto Mortensen and Sv. S. Schultz have con- tributed very valuable things.
The vocalists on this disc are members of the DR VokalEnsemblet (Danish National Vocal Ensemble), a remarkable group of singers. Tell us a bit about the history of this ensemble, and about the members it comprises.
The DR VE is a young group, only 10 years old, the result of a reformation and diminishing of the former Radio Choir, in order to make the group be able to tackle early music as well as contem- porary styles. In actual fact this group is asked to sing in all possible styles, including pop music, which they do with great efficiency and accuracy. An excellent group!
Are there any characteristics that distinguish the vocalism of Danish singers, both solo and in ensemble?
Not really. The DR VE also has many foreigners (mostly other Scandinavians) that quickly must attune themselves to things like the Danish Højskole style. It has been mentioned that Scandinavian choral sound is softer and warmer than American, Polish, or Spanish choral groups. I believe it has a lot to do with the actual situation, the conductor, the acoustics, etc. Myth easily arises in this field.
You prepared several of the beautiful song arrangements for this CD. Did you create these ar- rangements with the talents of the DR VokalEnsemblet in mind?
No. My arrangements were made previously for my recordings with Musica Ficta.
While listening to this recording, I was struck by the marvelous concert acoustic. The recording was made in the Koncertkirken in Copenhagen. Tell us a bit about that concert hall, and what qual- ities made it appropriate for this recording.
Koncertkirken is a fine church (built c. 1900) which was secularized about 10 years ago. The wonderful room is now often used for concerts and recordings (it has very quiet surroundings). It is situated in the middle of Nørrebro, a part of Copenhagen inhabited by immigrants and Danes, finely mixed in a colorful neighborhood!
I suspect many people will share my positive reactions to this recording, and will want to explore more of Denmark’s rich heritage of vocal music. Do you have some suggestions for other repertoire? There are, as mentioned, many recordings available, but for obvious reasons mentioned earlier,
they sadly never travel outside the country. I hope this recording might contribute to breaking the ice for this repertoire internationally.
Your musical career encompasses conducting, composing, and arranging. What projects are on the horizon for you?
Right now I am finishing my ninth opera, Schlagt sie tot, which is about Luther and the Reformation—how Europe was split into two, how religious conflict resulted in 150 years of wars in Europe, what charismatic but erratic spiritual and political leaders might lead to, and how social revolution can be bound up with religion, struggles for power, greed, violence, and the sincere wish to better the world. All the music is based on Luther’s own hymn tunes, although this is barely au- dible. The 160-minute opera for full forces has its premiere at Malmö Opera in May 2019.