American Record Guide
, July 2011
Leif Segerstam is better known as a conductor than as a composer. It might seem from the heading that he is very active on that front, but in reality many of these symphonies rely on active decision-making by performers, and not every detail is notated. These works are intended to investigate the inherent creativity of orchestral musicians, thus notice that the Bergen Philharmonic is performing here without a conductor, in a state of blissful liberation.
It is impossible to know precisely what the boundaries are for these pieces. We do not know what the players are given, or what instructions they are following. Sometimes gestures are explosive blobs of tossed harmonies. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell that there is improvisation involved at all (like the intense opening of 162). Sometimes a lyrical line appears mysteriously, in unison. It seems that most of this is meticulously planned out in the usual way, though details may be left to improvisation. The end result turns out to be your basic modern music exercise, only the fact that there is no conductor and much of it seems to be performed with freedom in the details makes this by definition an unusual compositional enterprise.
The symphonies, each roughly 25 minutes long, all have fanciful subtitles. 81 (2002) is called After Eighty, after the chocolates with that name. 162 (2006) has the title Doubling the Number for Bergen!, which performs that operation on Symphony 81. In that piece, the dramatic chaos is interrupted about 10 minutes in by the opening of Für Elise. A held bass note supports the starry ending. 181 (2007), subtitled Names Itself when Played, has a solo violin poking through now and then between sections of pandemonium and tortured expressionist lyricism.
I wish there were more details on the mechanics of how these pieces were put together. As music, these realizations (all from concerts) are “interesting” in the usual sense of that term. Segerstam, a brilliant musician who has given us superb recordings of the music of Pettersson and Rautavaara, among others, has opened up a provocative if not necessarily satisfying path for listeners and composers and all interested in highly unusual new orchestral music.