Stavanger Symphony Orchestra were challenged in 2013 by the Norwegian Ministry of Culture, to celebrate cultural diversity in their music. Symphonic Dances was one of the many results of this project, as the SSO celebrates their 200th anniversary.

Gisle Kverndokk was drafted in for the composition. Kverndokk has worked as composer in residence in many different Norwegian Orchestras, and in a relatively short career, he has built up an impressive back catalog of orchestral and cinematic compositions. Symphonic Dances created a sandbox for Kverndokk to experiment, and to incorporate musical elements from around the globe.

This ambitious project at first may seem to have a little too much going on, but between Gisle, the SSO and the masterful engineering of Robert C. Ludwig, the compositions remain coherent among the chaos of global influence.

“The Sorrow of Loneliness” starts us off with a cinematic feel, blending melodies from Afghanistan and Kurdistan. It twists and turns, as an Istanbul market feel is replaced by filmic crescendo.

“Waltz” somehow blends influence from Madagascar, Norwegian, Sweden and China. The slow-moving composition develops a theme of mystery.

“Songs about the Sea,” according to the SSO, takes us to the far east via Iran, as the album takes a mystical route towards its climax where “Dance in the Night” picks up the pace. You can hear the operatic influence, an area that composer Kverndokk has spent huge chunks of his career focusing on. He has penned musicals and full operatic performances and the driving orchestral rhythms, packed with dynamic variation, drill this influence home. This song would feel just as “at home” in a 1950s movie as the orchestra pounds forward with its triumphant melody.

Finally, “Weddings and Funerals: Melodies from Madagascar, Sweden, and Cuba” (I’m not sure you’ll ever find a more diverse mix) bring us to a conclusion with an eerie, and at times, discordant feel. The orchestra builds suspense, as the soundscape verges on the tragic and villainous. Through this Gisle Kverndokk creates yet another cinematic-sound masterpiece, which sounds both familiar and completely unique all at the same time.

39 minutes is the total runtime. Symphonic Dances is one of those tardis, time-vortex albums. By the end, you don’t really know how long you have been immersed in the grips of the blended mastery by composer, musician and conductor, and you don’t really care either. The album concludes with a feeling of having visited all corners of the globe, with a bonus sense of “mission accomplished” for having celebrated diversity.

Without the masterful immersive mix, I’m not sure these melodies and rhythms would blend together with such a natural feel. The orchestra is not tainted with the feel of an acoustic space, so much as a subtle warmth, allowing each new instrument its moment at the forefront, and a chance for experimentation at every corner.

Kverndokk’s compositions are unflappable, masterful, and sound like instant orchestral classics. This album, with its immersive format and influence drawn from beautiful locations, proves to be a worthy, if slightly unexpected, Grammy nominee.

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About the Author
Ben is a writer and musician from the UK with a background in music technology. He writes about engineering and production, musicianship and music equipment for a number of publications including his site, Subreel.