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Cappella SF Premieres Swedish Work in 30 Languages

February 18, 2019

Choral director Ragnar Bohlin of Cappella SF and the San Francisco Symphony is acclaimed for the exceptional diction he gets from choruses he leads.

That special ability will be tested at Cappella SF’s next concerts, Feb. 23–24, which feature Jacob Mühlrad’s Time, “a meditation on the word ‘time’ in 30 languages.”

Bohlin led the world premiere of Time with the Radio Choir in Stockholm last November, one of the commissioning organizations, along with Cappella SF, Tapiola Chamber Choir in Finland, and West German Radio Chorus in Köln.

Cappella SF’s “Unveiling” program also introduces David Conte’s Madrigals for the Seasons and Fredrik Sixten’s Seek Him! Two other works are Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard and Carl Unander-Scharin’s Djupt under dagens yta, motett nr 5 (Deep under the surface of the day, motet no. 5).

Presenting new works is a hallmark of both the chorus and its music director. Bohlin explains:

I have always had a curiosity for what new music can bring to a concert experience. Some of my great experiences when singing under Eric Ericson in the 80s were works by 20th-century giants such as Schnittke, Lidholm, Ligeti, and Hillborg.

In this concert, we have three premieres by top choral composers of today. Two of them will be with us personally, so come and hear what they have to say about their works. [You’re] welcome to look around the corner to the future together with us.

Mühlrad actually translated Time into 104 languages (“as many as Google Translate has to offer”) and used 30 of them in the composition. His works have already been featured on stages such as Carnegie Hall in New York,  the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Oslo Opera House, as well as major Swedish stages.

The composer has an unusual story: the 27-year-old from Stockholm began his musical career relatively late in life. He was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and began playing the piano at age 14. Against all odds he learned notation in his 20s. And now he writes for great choirs and orchestras.

Mühlrad’s Jewish heritage has been a consistent theme in his compositions. In 2017, he was granted a scholarship to write a choral piece about his grandfather’s experiences during the Holocaust. The world premiere was attended by the Swedish royal family, along with the political and cultural elite of Sweden.

Of Time, he says:

I thought a lot about a story from the Old Testament where God is doing something quite nasty. People are partnering to build a high tower to reach the sky. To prevent them from succeeding, God creates all the different languages of the world.

It’s fascinating that when you fade the different word for time together along a scale where the languages most similar to each other comes after, the smoothness in the transitions from the first word to the final one [is] barely noticable.

The composer calls the story of the Tower of Babel a strong metaphor, “not least in the time we live in now, where cross-border conversations are so important. I try to connect every language in one word, and that word is ‘time.’”

Conte’s Madrigals for the Seasons follows two parts that Cappella premiered three years ago, “Summer” and “Autumn.” This is now the entire set, with the completion of “Winter” and “Spring,” set on poems by Dickinson, Clare, Longfellow, and Blake.

Sixten’s Seek Him! is a revision of an earlier setting of the same text from the controversial Book of Amos.

Unander-Scharin is both an established composer in opera and oratorio and a famous tenor. His work on the program is set on a poem, in Swedish, by poet and hymn-writer Olov Hartman. The text as well as the music invites a mystical view on creation and existence.

Whitacre’s work is set on text from the Book of Samuel, telling the story of how King David, upon hearing about the death of his son Absalom, “went up into his chamber and wept.” Bohlin says Whitacre’s tonal language here differs from his style in other compositions, and “sometimes bears a resemblance to [Arvo] Pärt’s tintinnabular style, but with an extraordinary sense of drama.”

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].