Nordic Heritage Museum opened its Mostly Nordic chamber series with “Northern Lights”

Knut Erik Jensen

For nearly 20 years the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has been presenting chamber recitals of “mostly Nordic” music. In addition to focusing on standard classical music, the series has sought to infuse programs with Nordic folk and art music tradition. This past Sunday, the museum kicked off their 2011 series in much the same way with a program of short pieces for violin, piano, and voice by Norwegian composers.

Last Sunday’s recital was a success in large part because of Knut Erik Jensen, a young pianist originally from Selbu, Norway who now calls California home. He performed in every work, except for three short traditional pieces Svend Ronnig played on the Hardanger fiddle. Jensen deepened each work on the program – whether it was Grieg’s seldom played Second Violin Sonata or an art song by Christian Sinding. Often it was Jensen providing the heart, atmosphere, and subtle decorations that made each piece on the program memorable. In the Grieg sonata, Jensen demonstrated so much control over the music he moved effortlessly between Grieg’s contrasting, polar moods. Jensen’s playing brooded and smiled – sometimes a few bars apart.

Grieg wrote three sonatas for violin and piano. The second, as Ronning explained, is the least performed in the United States despite its folk charms. Once the pensive opening concludes, violinist and pianist hop and skip through jaunty rhythms, rustic dance music, and beaming harmonies.

Between the concert’s purely instrumental works, soprano Laura Loge introduced the capacity audience to the Norwegian song tradition. Agathe Backer Grondahl composed Loge’s first set of songs. These six miniatures focused on nature. Her second set of songs covered a diverse collection of voices by spotlighting three different composers: Halfdan Kjerulf, Christian Sinding, and Eyvind Alnaes. Whether she was singing about dew, butterflies, or life Loge’s characterful and versatile voice easily adapted to each song’s style.

Of the three performers, Ronning was occasionally inconsistent. His strongest presentation came in the Grieg but also the only non-Nordic work on the program. Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populare Espaganole, as Ronning joked, is the reason the concert is “mostly Nordic.” Ronning’s extroverted approach fit the suite perfectly. Under Ronning’s command, Grieg’s “traditional” sounding violin part deftly looked back to the Hardanger pieces that opened the program.

The rest of the Mostly Nordic season looks promising. The Icicle Creek trio will play pieces by Danish composers. A line up of local freelancers and members of the Seattle Symphony tackle a wide assortment of Finish music in a concert dubbed “Baltic Breezes.”

For kicks, check out Knut Erik Jensen playing the piano part and singing the vocal part to Schubert’s Erlkonig.

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