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Autumn Sonata - between the real and the unreal

by Merja Hottinen

Composer Sebastian Fagerlund’s new opera Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata) is approaching its premiere at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. Based on the eponymous film by Ingmar Bergman and with a star-studded production team, the opera is poised to take the themes of the story to a new level.

Composer Sebastian Fagerlund will see many years of work come to fruition when his new opera Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata) is given its world premiere at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet in September. The production promises to be rather more fantastic than the Scandinavian realism of film director Ingmar Bergman, presenting Fagerlund’s musical idiom in a new context. 

But there are world premieres beyond the opera for Fagerlund. His composer residency in Amsterdam has proven fertile ground for new opportunities that are rapidly filling up his calendar, such as the premiere of his String Quartet no. 2 in October and a major orchestral work in spring 2018.


Autumn Sonata dream team

The opera Höstsonaten is based on the screenplay for the eponymous film by Ingmar Bergman, released in 1978. Who had the idea of turning this screenplay into an opera?

“It was suggested to me by Lilli Paasikivi, Artistic Director of the Finnish National Opera, when she asked whether I would be interested in writing an opera for them. I read through the screenplay several times, and the next morning I phoned her and said that it was a brilliant idea. I realised that this narrative had all the potential for a great drama,” says Fagerlund.

The initial meeting in late 2012 launched a process that has included two and a half years of writing music and an extended administrative wrangle to secure the required permissions. Librettist Gunilla Hemming came on board early on, and director and set designer Stéphane Braunschweig soon followed.

“I met Stéphane Braunschweig in Paris a few times while I was still writing the opera. He was hugely excited and fascinated by our decision to give the chorus such a prominent role. The end result is rather more fantastic than the original film, not as realistic at all.”

Hostsonaten 2 Sakari Viika
Charlotte, a concert pianist, played by Anne Sofie von Otter, comes to visit her daughter.
Photo: Sakari Viika

The director did not get involved in the composition process or try to sell his ideas to Fagerlund, who commends him for taking such a restrained approach to commenting in mid-stream. “It’s a very delicate phase when you’re living with the characters, so to speak,” Fagerlund explains.

The principal role of the opera, that of Charlotte, will be taken by Swedish star soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and her daughter will also be played by a Swedish singer, Erika Sunnegårdh. The intense drama also has roles for Tommi Hakala, Helena Juntunen and Nicholas Söderlund.

“For me, this is a dream team. They are wonderful soloists each with a fabulous vocal quality of their own, and they’re all so good on stage. Anne Sofie von Otter is so adaptable and can do many different things with her voice. It will be really interesting,” says Fagerlund excitedly.


Emotions with Scandinavian distance

Opera and cinema are very different forms of expression, and in fact the original screenplay underwent a considerable transformation en route to becoming a libretto. Fagerlund is full of praise for Gunilla Hemming about how well the libretto turned out. “The main thing with an opera libretto is that it must not have too much text, so that there is room for the music to convey events and emotions,” says Fagerlund.

The film itself had only a tangential influence on the composition process: Fagerlund reports that he was unable to watch the film at all while writing. “I saw it about 20 years ago and decided once I had started writing that there was no way I could watch it again just then. I watched it when the opera was finished and had been sent to the publishers,” he says with amusement.

For me, this is a dream team. They are wonderful soloists each with a fabulous vocal quality of their own, and they’re all so good on stage.
Sebastian Fagerlund on the cast of Höstsonaten

But did Bergman’s style influence the opera at all?

“Perhaps there’s a sort of austere simplicity there at times, like in Bergman’s films. I don’t know whether it could be described as ‘Scandinavian’. There may be strong emotions, but one also has to dare to keep some distance.”

The story begins when Charlotte, a concert pianist, played by Anne Sofie von Otter, comes to visit her daughter at a remote rectory. The daughter’s husband is also there along with Charlotte’s younger daughter, who is ill. In the opera version, Charlotte’s dead lover Leonardo also appears on stage. This encounter releases repressed emotions that the mother and daughter find themselves addressing for the first time in their lives.

“It’s a character drama with lots of emotion, set in an extremely confined space – if not actually inside the heads of the characters, then within the rectory. I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to resolve this musically. But when the pieces of the puzzle came together, the confined space no longer felt like a restriction.

“When you talk about the human mind and about powerful emotions that people display on the one hand and try to conceal on the other, and then there are things that are said and that are left unsaid – what a huge and complicated world this is, after all!” says Fagerlund.

Fagerlund is known for energetic orchestral works, and this sort of psychological setup seems like something completely different. Has he added something to his musical palette with Höstsonaten?

“I’ve used the elements that I’m used to working with. The opera reflects things that I’ve always been interested in, such as the no-man’s-land between the real and the unreal; borderlands. I just placed them in a new context here,” Fagerlund explains.

“One of the structural decisions was that the world of the rectory is very slow and static, practically unchanging. When Charlotte arrives for a visit, she brings part of her own world with her, the world of concerts and the outside world in general. That world is on the move all the time, and Charlotte is a very nervous character, though she tried to maintain a calm façade. So you have a static setting contrasting with powerful energy. And that’s something that’s always been there in my music.”


Change in ourselves, change in others

In addition to soloists and a large orchestra, Höstsonaten also employs the chorus in a substantial role, representing Charlotte’s audience. Fagerlund describes its role as similar to that of the chorus commenting on the action in ancient Greek drama.

“Charlotte is utterly dependent on being the centre of attention all the time, and all her emotions are reflected against how the audience reacts. When the mother and daughter really start ripping each other apart, figuratively speaking, the other characters gradually begin to see the chorus too. It becomes such a powerful presence that the older daughter actually begins to converse with it.

It’s a character drama with lots of emotion, set in an extremely confined space – if not actually inside the heads of the characters, then within the rectory.
Sebastian Fagerlund on Autumn Sonata

“The audience’s role is hugely important. It wants to be entertained, to experience new things all the time. The audience is ultimately terribly self-centred, just like the mother. That’s an important, a crucial part of the dramaturgy.”

These dramaturgical emphases lend new facets to the relationships and meanings that exist between the characters. The internal dynamics of the family, with conflicting emotions and contradictory memories, create a rich network of meanings.

“It is interesting to consider how differently people remember the same events and how people reconstruct memories for themselves. How is it possible to experience the same thing in such different ways? This touches on the idea of forgiveness: are you able to forgive, and what does it mean to do so?” muses Fagerlund. “If I needed to summarise why I became so very interested in this story, it’s because it seems so relevant today. Ultimately, it’s about us, as human beings, wishing to achieve change – in ourselves or in the people around us. And yet it’s hugely difficult for us to change ourselves, and in fact it rarely happens.”


The Amsterdam works

What Fagerlund has on the drawing board now is an orchestral work jointly commissioned by the Concertgebouw, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Its world premiere is scheduled to be held in Amsterdam on 21 April 2018. Earlier this summer, he completed his String Quartet no. 2, which the Kamus Quartet will premiere at the Concertgebouw on 11 October. Fagerlund’s octet Autumn Equinox will be performed at the Concertgebouw on 6 December.

These works are the result of Fagerlund’s one-year residency at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, during which he spent extended periods of time in the city. Although the residency kept him busy with various things, he had plenty of time to write; he had a studio both in his apartment and at the Concertgebouw.

“I think that the most important thing was not the pre-planned activities but being able to meet musicians and to explore the city by spending time there.”  

Sebastian Fagerlund Amsterdam Jussipuikkonen
Sebastian Fagerlund in Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Photo: Jussi Puikkonen

The idea with the commissions connected with the residency is that the works should somehow reflect the influence of Amsterdam. So how is this happening?

“I’ve taken liberties with that notion. I don’t write programme music, and for the past ten years I’ve been using pretty much the same building blocks; those blocks won’t change overnight.

“Having said that, I should note that the string quartet is subtitled From the Ground for two reasons. Firstly, it incorporates elements from my earlier works. Secondly, I lived beside a canal in the city centre of Amsterdam, and I read that it was in those city blocks that many of the things that define the city originated: trade, art and so on. The idea of something germinating, growing and spreading out is expressed in the subtitle. So you could say that Amsterdam did have an influence on this sort of abstract level, though not aesthetically or stylistically.

“In the orchestral work too, I’ve explored the notion of circular expansion and the omnipresence of water in Amsterdam. Try as you may, you cannot get away from it. It’s in the ground itself: if you dig a hole in Amsterdam, it’ll immediately fill up with water. The continuous interaction and relationship between this natural element and human constructions may be considered to have an abstract presence in this work.”

In the Netherlands, people start off at full speed, and if you hit an obstacle, only then do you take a step back.
Sebastian Fagerlund on working in the Netherlands

The residency extended Fagerlund’s already wide network of musical contacts in the Netherlands, and many of his trusted friends appeared as guest artists at Fagerlund’s RUSK festival in Pietarsaari last November.

Fagerlund is pleased by the extremely positive attitude that the Dutch bring to collaboration. “In the Netherlands, people start off at full speed, and if you hit an obstacle, only then do you take a step back. There’s just no fear of failure. That’s been very refreshing and liberating to note during the past year.”

Despite this international networking, however, the new string quartet was written for a Finnish ensemble, the Kamus Quartet, which Fagerlund favours with high praise.

“The Dutch are also excited that I’m bringing something Finnish to Amsterdam and not just working with local orchestras.”


Platform for the future

The Amsterdam residency has resulted in multiple opportunities for Fagerlund that extend beyond the Netherlands and even beyond Europe.

“I didn’t go there just to see Amsterdam. My time there has laid the groundwork for many other things. Even the Concertgebouw wants to see the residency generate new ideas and new projects and establish new contacts. At the moment, I’m planning a cello concerto for star cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, and I have an international project with the Asko Schönberg Ensemble. And contacts and requests keep coming.”

So Fagerlund must have his calendar booked solid well into the future?

“Yes, but I’ve always tried to keep a little bit of slack in my timetables. That’s something that I learned from Aulis Sallinen and Kalevi Aho. My principle is that a work has to be finished six months before it’s due to be sent to the publisher. That gives me a margin to play with in case something unexpected happens.”

Is Fagerlund at the top of his career now, or does he still have things on his bucket list? “I feel very fortunate to be able to choose what to do next and with whom. But I always feel that there’s so much more still to do. I mean in terms of composing and musical growth. With every new work, I set my sights higher. Hunger grows while eating, to quote a Finnish proverb.”

Fagerlund Portrait Jussipuikkonen
Sebastian Fagerlund in Amsterdam.
Photo: Jussi Puikkonen

Sebastian Fagerlund 

  • b.1972 
  • studied composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki under the guidance of Erkki Jokinen and received his diploma in composition in 2004 
  • his output spans opera to chamber and solo works, the most significant pieces being his concertos and works for orchestra;  works by Fagerlund have been commissioned and performed by numerous major orchestras, conductors and musicians all over the world 
  • performers of his works include the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; he has worked closely with conductors such as Dima Slobodeniouk, Edward Gardner, Hannu Lintu, Sakari Oramo, Osmo Vänskä and John Storgårds 
  • in 2011, Fagerlund was awarded Finland's renowned Teosto Prize for his orchestral work Ignite. The same work was also selected as a recommended work at the International Rostrum of Composers 2011 in Vienna  
  • in season 16/17 Fagerlund was appointed Composer in Residence at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Holland  
  • since 2013 he has been artistic director of the RUSK Chamber Music Festival in Pietarsaari, Finland 
  • Fagerlund’s music is available on record label BIS, and his music is published by Edition Peters.
  • Sebastian Fagerlund's page on core.