When Ēriks Ešenvalds was in a meadow in far northern Norway six years ago, he saw — as many people do at 69 degrees latitude — the northern lights. The flickering green display lasted until dawn while he gazed upwards, made snow angels and took thousands of photos. But unlike most people who see the aurora borealis, Ešenvalds is a composer, and the lights inspired him to spend the next three years translating them into music.
The resulting “Nordic Light Symphony” — a groundbreaking multimedia work with two choirs, orchestra, natural sounds, videos of Arctic storytellers and projections of the lights themselves — gets its United States premiere Saturday at Pacific Lutheran University.
This piece is something so striking, so different. It’s spectacular music.
Richard Nance, conductor
That premiere, and the reason the symphony exists at all, is partly due to PLU choir director Richard Nance.
“Ēriks is a fantastic composer,” says Nance, who’ll direct Saturday’s performance. “It’s a great honor, obviously, and thrilling for me as a friend.”
PLU’s role in the symphony, which has already premiered in Ešenvalds’ native Latvia, began when Nance met the composer while on sabbatical in Europe in 2014.
“We were walking down a beach outside of Riga, and Ēriks brought it up,” says Nance, who had commissioned the composer in 2013 to write “Northern Lights,” a choral piece that uses tuned water glasses and chimes to create a shimmering audio version of the aurora borealis. At the time, Ešenvalds — who’d spent the previous three years researching the lights and going on expeditions with videographer Kjetil Skogli to document them and Arctic myths about them — was looking for partner choirs to commission the work.
“He wanted us to be the U.S. choir,” says Nance. “He had full confidence in us.”
So PLU’s Choral Union and Choir of the West joined the State Choir of Latvia, the Berlin Radio Choir, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the City of London Sinfonia and the Toronto Orpheus Choir in Canada to commission the work, contributing $5,000.
For Ešenvalds, one of the most sought-after choral composers in the world, it was a chance to create something new about an experience he calls “magical.”
After experiencing the aurora’s wideness and deepness up into the sky, the powerful colors and amazing forms, I (wanted to) compose a symphony.
Eriks Esenvalds, composer
“After experiencing the aurora’s wideness and deepness up into the sky, the powerful colors and amazing forms, I (wanted to) compose a symphony,” Ešenvalds says. “Because it is the largest optical phenomenon in the Earth’s atmosphere, I wanted to tell about it in music using the largest musical forces. … And from the beginning I knew that the symphony would not be my selfish emotional story. I wanted to honor the unique cultural heritage of the northern nations who have their folk songs and legends about the aurora.”
The result, captured on Vimeo at the Latvian premiere, is stunning. A 45-minute journey that goes from pale, ethereal string chords through solo singers in a darkened hall to streaks of green light emanating from hushed choral tone clusters, “Nordic Light Symphony” is mesmerizing. As projections of 23 Arctic people, often in traditional dress, tell stories or sing or play drums, the orchestra plays with them on energetic marimba or pizzicato strings. Kjetil Skogli’s imagery of snowy mountains with lights arcing behind them are echoed in grand, sweeping harmonies that are tonal but with enough subtle dissonance to capture the eeriness of the borealis. Sounds of ice cracking and wind blowing, plus the celestial resonance of water glasses, add another layer.
Practically, there are also subtitles for the stories in Finnish, Saami and other languages, and written cues for Nance to fit everything together. The two PLU choirs will line up on either side of the audience with the orchestra in the pit, creating a live surround-sound to add to the built-in surround-sound of Karen Hille Phillips hall.
“The star of the show is the video,” says Nance. “Basically, we’re playing a film score. The way Ēriks integrates everything is genius — it flows seamlessly and is dramatic.”
Ešenvalds, however, says that he added the videos last and composed the piece mostly as audio, combining words and music.
Nance was also struck by the multicultural aspect of the piece, and surprised by some of the aurora legends: If you whistle to the lights they’ll cut off your head, if they come near you must rub your fingernails together, if you throw frozen dog’s feces at them they’ll kill you.
The piece is a wild, beautiful tapestry, an ode to the diversity of human beings and nature.
“Nordic Light Symphony” by the numbers: 107 singers. 69 musicians. 31 tuned water-glasses. 23 video storytellers. 1 aurora borealis.
“The stories helped me to shape the form of the symphony,” says Ešenvalds, who’ll be in Tacoma for three days helping prepare the symphony and giving workshops.
The first half of the concert will feature Ešenvalds’ choral works “Northern Lights,” “Rivers of Light,” “A Drop in the Ocean” and “The Long Road,” as well as the orchestral Symphony No. 6 “The Celestial Gate” by American composer Alan Hovhaness.
As well as Latvia, the “Nordic Light Symphony” has already been performed in Germany, and will play next year in Toronto. Meanwhile, the composer is working on his next multimedia symphony — this time about volcanoes. He’ll travel with a film crew this July to New Zealand, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest to meet indigenous people and film their stories. He’s also planning two more symphonies about water and wind.
“This piece is something so striking, so different that it could be a real vehicle for symphonies looking to move in different directions,” Nance says. “It depends a lot on the hall — performing it in the Pantages would be impossible. But audiences need works like this to grab onto, to see just what an orchestra and choir can do. It’s spectacular music.”
Nordic Light Symphony by Eriks Esenvalds
Who: Pacific Lutheran University Symphony, Choir of the West and Choral Union directed by Richard Nance.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Karen Hille Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, Pacific Lutheran University, 12180 Park Ave. S., Tacoma.
Also: A free documentary about the research and filming of “Nordic Light Symphony” will be presented from 6-7 p.m., with a question-and-answer session with the composer.
Online: Go behind the scenes at PLU at thenewstribune.com, or watch the Latvian premiere at vimeo.com/123490364.
Tickets: $15 general, $10 senior, $5 student.
Information: 253-535-7411, plu.edu/nordiclight.