Sitting at a handsome Steinway next to an ornate pulpit, acclaimed Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad delivered a beautiful recital at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul on Sunday evening. Revered in Europe as one of Norway’s most prolific and progressive artists — as an author, composer, and musician — Bjørnstad made his official U.S. debut with this performance, the first of three evening sets by Bjørnstad as part of the Spoleto’s Wells Fargo Jazz series.
Curious festival-goers, jazz fans, and classical music aficionados packed nearly every pew in the historic downtown church. After an admiring introduction by jazz series director Michael Grofsorean, Bjørnstad smiled and nodded to the audience before taking his seat. Leaning over the keys, he paused thoughtfully for a few moments before easing into the first of four lengthy suites.
The Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul is renowned for its fine acoustical properties, and the pristine quality of the piano suited the room well, although the natural creakiness of the wooden pews and floorboards snuck its way into the overall sound of the concert.
From the phrases and delicate crescendos of his set’s opening moments, Bjørnstad defied form and structure. Working from a melodic theme, he improvised complex chordal passages on the spot. He embellished things with ease, veering dramatically from one chain of chords to another. It was a dynamic opening. He set the tone and created the atmosphere for what was to follow.
“I must say I’m delighted to be at this distinguished festival in this beautiful city,” Bjørnstad told the audience after the first piece, speaking with a thick Nordic accent. He went on to explain the origin of his net piece, a selection from his most recent solo work, Night Song — an album recorded from a special collaboration with German producer Manfred Eicher (of the ECM label).
Bjørnstad’s technique was terrific throughout the concert. With a delicate touch, he made each run look effortless. At times, it sounded like three pianists playing simultaneously. The quieter passages were more spacious and moody.
Bjørnstad’s broad, expressive style allowed for a multi-layered soundscape from piece to piece, each of which resembled a musical journey with a melodic destination in mind. He took many detours along the way, sometimes expanding on themes with unexpected ferocity. There were moments of dissonance and chordal chaos. The lower keys rumbled loudly when Bjørnstad was at his most percussive (I think I saw some of the stained-glass windows rattling from time to time). There were gorgeous, refined moments of tenderness as well, especially with some of the more melancholic melodies.
Despite the twists and turns, Bjørnstad’s style mostly reflected his classical background and chops, not only in his technical delivery, but in his melodic explorations. In his third piece of the evening — an emotional, mostly minor-key tone poem based on the idea of “keeping floating” after tragedy strikes — more than a few recognizably blues licks and exotic accents made their way into the keys.
Bjørnstad mentioned the music of Johannes Brahms and the artwork and poetry of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian expressionist painter, as he introduced his final suite of the evening. He actually wrote a novel in 2000 based on the letters and journal entries of Munch, so his grasp of the Norwegian artist’s philosophical views is strong. He referred to Munch’s idea of seeing people with a sense of eternity — “not as they are now, but also as the ancestors before them and the people who will come after them.” That was the basis for his dynamic finale. It earned a standing ovation from the audience.