One of the reasons we visited the Bergen area when we did is to attend several concerts of the Bergen International Music Festival, held there annually since 1953. It was an amazing experience. A few thoughts:
Sunday, May 28:
My first concert; music of Ole Bull and his contemporaries, performed on period instruments at Ole Bull’s home on Osterøy (which is only a ten minute drive from Kari and Henry’s home). It was an intimate gathering of perhaps fifty people. I sat surrounded by his instruments, paintings, photos, home furnishings, all within touching distance and all safe because the people respect the value of these instruments and collectibles and only use their eyes to examine.
I was lost in the music. For the first time, I heard a live performance on the Hardingfele and Harmonium. A solo that I have taught students over the years was presented with variations. The ensemble between the soloist and accompanist was excellent.
Jan and I were seated against a wall on a period-style couch – or maybe it was an original? I looked across the other concert-goers in their chairs, through the window opposite my seat, and saw the mountains and trees and colors of Norway with a light rain blurring the depth and dimension of the landscape. It was my first experience with Norwegian music in a Norwegian setting, and I was captivated.
Friday, June 2:
Sibelius! You haven’t lived until you have heard a Finnish Orchestra play a couple of Sibelius symphonies … and then as an encore present “Finlandia”. It was my first concert in the acoustically brilliant Grieghallen (Grieg Hall) in Bergen. The orchestra, The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, was wonderful. The principal flute in the first half had a beautiful tone, projecting and blending and colorful, and so perfect to the sound of the orchestra. I really enjoyed her playing, and was disappointed an orchestral member list wasn’t in the program so that I could get her name. The associate principal took over for the second half, and although her tone was big, it lacked the color and projection and maturity of the principal. It didn’t detract too much, but as a flutist of course I noticed it!
But “Finlandia” … suddenly I didn’t care about individual musician’s sounds. This is music that is as much a part of the heart and soul of a Finnish orchestra as Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” is to a military band in the U.S. The collective and satisfying intake of air when audience members recognized that first chord summed up my feelings exactly. And as the first few notes sounded I couldn’t stop the tears, it was so moving.
Monday, June 5:
Closing concert time for the Festival, so it had to be a big one. And I wasn’t disappointed; it was another that, as a musician myself, I hadn’t really lived until I heard.
Of course I knew to expect Grieg, as we were in his country – his CITY – and national pride is evident in ways I have never experienced in the U.S. when speaking of our composers. For a foreigner, a trip to an orchestral concert in Norway must include him, and the tradition for the Bergen International Festival is that the Grieg “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in a minor” must be performed.
But this was also a musical experience unlike any other I have had.
The Belgium orchestra in the concert, Anima Eterna Symphony Orchestra, is a small orchestra that (quoting the program notes) “has worked exclusively with historically appropriate instruments, including those required for 19th century repertoire.” Meaning, since the concert featured works by Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg, all instruments were from the 19th century and Jan and I heard the concert as the concert-goers of these composers heard them (well, except for that acoustically astounding Grieghallen venue we were in again; people in the late 1800’s didn’t have that!)
The Liszt was a symphonic poem, “Les Preludes”, and was a pleasant introduction to the sounds to be expected for the night. But I was so eager for the Tchaikovsky “Symphony No 4 in f minor” (one of my all-time favorite symphonies) that I, honestly, had a hard time concentrating during the Liszt.
And what a performance the Tchaikovsky was! I have to admit to being a little disappointed at first; this is huge Russian music and my ears wanted a huge Russian sound. But the Anima Eterna Symphony presented an energetic performance and the dynamic control and balance was remarkable, and as I adjusted to the different volume I really “got into” the performance. The piccoloist knocked me out of my seat; his articulation and intonation on that older instrument were spectacular. The principal woodwinds had a few intonation issues as the symphony progressed, but nothing truly distracting. The ensemble effect of the strings during the pizzicato movement was amazing. But the “happy place” sound I took away from that performance were the French Horns. They were absolutely astounding.
The entire performance, and especially the last movement, was another “teary-eyed” moment for me, and audience members sitting around us were also discreetly tapping fingers and feet in unison with mine as the last movement ended.
And then, after a brief intermission, we were treated to the Grieg with the orchestra accompanying Rian de Waal on an historic piano. How the musicians coaxed such sounds out of their period instruments – the piano sounded so warm and projected so clearly – they made it sound too easy. I don’t know enough about the piano or its history to comment accurately, but I do know enough about music to say how enjoyable it was. Jan was truly moved by the performance of his nation’s favorite son, and that is hard to do when you have lived with Grieg’s music and legacy (and grew up fifty meters from Grieg’s boyhood home) for your entire life.