Sitting at a handsome Steinway next to an ornate pulpit,
acclaimed Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad delivered a
beautiful recital at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul on
Sunday evening. Revered in Europe as one of Norway's most
prolific and progressive artists — as an author, composer, and
musician — Bjørnstad made his official U.S. debut with this
performance, the first of three evening sets by Bjørnstad as
part of the Spoleto's Wells Fargo Jazz series.
festival-goers, jazz fans, and classical music aficionados
packed nearly every pew in the historic downtown church. After
an admiring introduction by jazz series director Michael
Grofsorean, Bjørnstad smiled and nodded to the audience before
taking his seat. Leaning over the keys, he paused thoughtfully
for a few moments before easing into the first of four lengthy
Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul is renowned for its fine
acoustical properties, and the pristine quality of the piano
suited the room well, although the natural creakiness of the
wooden pews and floorboards snuck its way into the overall sound
of the concert.
the phrases and delicate crescendos of his set's opening
moments, Bjørnstad defied form and structure. Working from a
melodic theme, he improvised complex chordal passages on the
spot. He embellished things with ease, veering dramatically from
one chain of chords to another. It was a dynamic opening. He set
the tone and created the atmosphere for what was to follow.
must say I'm delighted to be at this distinguished festival in
this beautiful city," Bjørnstad told the audience after the
first piece, speaking with a thick Nordic accent. He went on to
explain the origin of his net piece, a selection from his most
recent solo work, Night Song — an album recorded from a special
collaboration with German producer Manfred Eicher (of the ECM
Bjørnstad's technique was terrific throughout the concert. With
a delicate touch, he made each run look effortless. At times, it
sounded like three pianists playing simultaneously. The quieter
passages were more spacious and moody.
Bjørnstad's broad, expressive style allowed for a multi-layered
soundscape from piece to piece, each of which resembled a
musical journey with a melodic destination in mind. He took many
detours along the way, sometimes expanding on themes with
unexpected ferocity. There were moments of dissonance and
chordal chaos. The lower keys rumbled loudly when Bjørnstad was
at his most percussive (I think I saw some of the stained-glass
windows rattling from time to time). There were gorgeous,
refined moments of tenderness as well, especially with some of
the more melancholic melodies.
Despite the twists and turns, Bjørnstad's style mostly reflected
his classical background and chops, not only in his technical
delivery, but in his melodic explorations. In his third piece of
the evening — an emotional, mostly minor-key tone poem based on
the idea of "keeping floating" after tragedy strikes — more than
a few recognizably blues licks and exotic accents made their way
into the keys.
Bjørnstad mentioned the music of Johannes Brahms and the artwork
and poetry of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian expressionist painter,
as he introduced his final suite of the evening. He actually
wrote a novel in 2000 based on the letters and journal entries
of Munch, so his grasp of the Norwegian artist's philosophical
views is strong. He referred to Munch's idea of seeing people
with a sense of eternity — "not as they are now, but also as the
ancestors before them and the people who will come after them."
That was the basis for his dynamic finale. It earned a standing
ovation from the audience.