Happy Birthday, OPO!

In Norwegian eyes, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra was "best in the world" long before that was anywhere near the truth. Only now, on the eve of its 75th anniversary, is the orchestra standing on its own feet as the Oslo Philharmonic.

Oslo Filharmoniske Orkester

Artistic victories are not achieved once and for all but have to be won again and again. No orchestra can rest on its laurels to enjoy fame and international success. They have to go further, become “immer mehr perfekt, as Mariss Jansons, chief conductor for the last fifteen years, puts it.

Now at the threshold of its 75th anniversary, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra is a shining example of cultural progress, not only in its home capital but or the nation as a whole, and epitomises the highest musical standards also outside our national borders. The orchestra opens doors for Norway abroad and for classical music at home.

The road to success has been long and hard. The OPO was born from conflict and the battle continues, both on the artistic front and in more down-to-earth terms. As recently as 1993 the musicians went on strike in protest against unsatisfactory pay conditions. There has been a continuous struggle for, and uncertainty related to, official allocations, which have still not been sorted out in 1994, although the orchestra will be officially designated a national institution from January 1995.

In order to understand the orchestra's cultural and financial history you have to know a little about Norwegian history too. Norway did not become independent until 1905, after being subject to, or in union with, Denmark or Sweden ever since the 14th Century. In contrast with our neighbours, whose music academies, operas and ballet traditions are two or three hundred years old, the comparable Norwegian institutions are very young. The National Opera was established in 1957 and the State Academy of Music in 1973. At 75, the Philharmonic Society, which opened its doors in 1919, is ancient by Norwegian standards.

In 1905, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe, a nation of peasants, fishermen and industrial workers, with a relatively limited bourgeoisie. For better or for worse, our country lacked the court, the aristocracy and the old ruling class that traditionally cultivated and supported culture and the fine arts. Norwegians have always been great travellers, however, and from the mid-1800s the Norwegian merchant fleet was one of the biggest in the world. The ship-owners were to be the first sponsors and rescuers of Norwegian culture.

In this small provincial country, classical music lived in impoverished conditions and met with little understanding, although folk music flourished. It was therefore no coincidence that Edvard Grieg, in a period of rising national consciousness, found his musical inspiration in Norwegian folk music, or that it was he, educated in Leipzig and Copenhagen, who took the initiative for the establishment of a symphony orchestra in Christiania, as Oslo was known until 1925.

Arising from the Philharmonic Society, which held its first concert in 1847, Grieg's Music Society of 1871 is part of the history of the Philharmonic. In this perspective, the OPO's traditions go back further than 75 years. Grieg, who came from Bergen, did much for the musical life of the capital but left the responsibility and the frustrations to others. One after another, they experienced the same problems: finance and a lack of artistic understanding.

When the National Theatre opened in Christiania in 1899, it was also intended to be an opera house and had a theatre orchestra of 44 musicians. In addition to serving the theatre's needs, they were to hold a certain number of concerts under the auspices of the Music Society. The pay conflict that broke out in 1918 between the theatre and the orchestra, and even threatened the musical life of the capital, ended in the dissolution of the Music Society.

A. F. Klaveness, a culturally conscious ship owner who had already supported the symphony orchestra in word and deed, called the historical meeting in February 1919 that was to lead to the establishment of the new Philharmonic Society. The application to the municipal authorities for a contribution towards taking over the National Theatre's orchestra was granted after a heated debate. The city did not have a concert hall and the mayor belonged to the “building first, orchestra later” school of thought, while the permanent conductor of the Music Society, Finnish-German Georg Schnéevoigt, provided the main argument for the opposition: “First the baby, then the cradle!”

The battle did not end until 1977, when the Oslo Concert Hall finally opened twenty years after the architectural competition (won by Swedish Gøsta Åbergh), after endless discussions about location, financing, ownership etc. and after numerous postponements of construction.

In 1967 a very special demonstration took place in Oslo's streets, a procession of musicians in white tie and tails “celebrating” the tenth anniversary of the architectural competition. The orchestra had been homeless since 1919 and its limits of tolerance had long been exceeded. Led by a bulldozer, 70 musicians marched carrying picks and crowbars, violins and tubas, and ended their demonstration by playing on the proposed Concert Hall site - the closest the older musicians ever came to the building itself.

Efforts are still being made to improve the acoustics - the triangular site does not provide the best acoustic conditions - and Mariss Jansons is leading the battle.

However, Oslo's musical scene experienced a new lease of life with the new Concert Hall. Symphonic music could finally resound in a proper setting, large works that it had previously been impossible to play due to the lack of space were given plenty of room on the programmes, and audiences became far broader-based than before, even though the orchestra had always tried to appeal beyond the traditional concert public.

School concerts had started as early as 1920, as had outdoor summer concerts which attracted up to 15 000 people! In the 1930s, concerts were held for the unemployed, and there were many popular lecture concerts, as well as folk concerts at cinema prices and “musical journeys”. The audiences who attended the youth concerts of the 50s and 60s today account for a large proportion of today's more mature subscribers.

In 1973, it finally became possible to obtain a higher musical education in Norway and with new blood from the State Academy of Music recruitment improved. Today, musicians from the Philharmonic are among the most prominent of the Academy's teachers. Would-be musicians were previously dependent upon expensive private lessons or had to study abroad, which very few could afford. Right up until our own times, orchestra musicians have learned to play in restaurant, dance and theatre orchestras, and although this could not be compared with an academy education it created a group of fantastic prima vista musicians. The Philharmonic could sight read anything. They became known as quick learners and were often used for American recordings for that very reason,

Now that the OPO has become synonymous with quality at the international level, it is easy to forget that it has always been good. Sometimes struggling, sometimes uninspired, but never a bad orchestra!

In 1919, the main thing was to get a symphony orchestra established and, symptomatically enough, most of the 57 musicians came from the National Theatre, which could no longer afford them. The Philharmonic Society Orchestra, as it was called until 1979, presented itself on 27 September 1919 in the presence of the Royal Family, which has always supported the OPO. Today Queen Sonja is the orchestra's patron.

In the first few years, the position of conductor was shared between Georg Schnéevoigt, Ignaz Neumark and Johan Halvorsen. José Eibenschütz took over in 1921, to be followed by Issay Dobrowen in 1927.

In its first six months, the Philharmonic gave 135 public concerts and Norwegian musical life flourished. The programmes in the first few years were filled with Norwegian premieres and first performances - including Mahler, R Strauss, Bruckner and Wagner. Wagner in particular had a strong hold on audiences, while the French impressionists were regarded as superficial. On the whole, Norwegian composers used a national tone language until the advent of neo-classicism in the 1930s. The national trend continued, however, and was strengthened during the occupation (1940-45).

The orchestra was threatened with closure only a couple of years after being established and moved from one crisis to the next. The ensemble and pay were reduced and the musicians had to take all manner of jobs to survive. In 1930 the Society was bankrupt. Help tame in the form of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation: from 1934 the orchestra was contracted to act as radio orchestra, which imposed limitations in terms of both time and repertoire.

The OPO is still bound by contract to the NRK, but in connection with the new policy of co-operation in the 1980s, the NRK waived the formal, quantitative requirements for studio productions. They accepted that international activities would lead to higher musical quality. From that point on, the orchestra experienced decisive artistic growth and internationalisation, prestigious concerts and prize-winning recordings.

Great art was also created in the midst of financial misery in the early period, however. The guest conductors of the 20s and 30s included Nikisch, Sibelius, von Weingartner and Carl Nielsen. Hindemith and Stravinsky conducted their own works, and the greatest soloists of the time appeared in Oslo. Norwegian conductors such as Olav Kielland, Odd Grüner-Hegge and Øivin Fjeldstad gradually emerged, and the latter two were to have a significant effect on the OPO throughout their lives. So did Ernst Glaser, a pupil of Carl Flesch and a refugee from Hitler Germany, who was the beloved leader of the Philharmonic for over forty years.

Important Norwegian composers who were frequently played included Christian Sinding, David Monrad Johansen, Ludvig Irgens Jensen and, later, Fartein Valen - sadly neglected today - and from 1945 a whole string of domestic and foreign modernists. The cultural isolation of the war years created enormous curiosity about international musical activities, British, American and Soviet music and, not least, what the Nazis called “entartete Kunst”, and thus much of the Norwegian music was forgotten.

It is ironic that it was only during the war, under German occupation, that musicians were employed full-time, and it was not until 1949 that they could derive their main source of income from playing in the orchestra. Nevertheless, five years of occupation imposed a serious strain on the orchestra. Among other things, they were forced to continue to play for the NRK after the Nazi authorities had confiscated Norwegian radio sets. After five years balancing between their inherent patriotism and the Nazi propaganda machine, it was a relieved orchestra that played at King Håkon VII's return in 1945.

From the end of the 1940s, concerts abounded. Since the war years had been so devastating for Norway, international personalities were delighted to perform here and guest conductors included Barbirolli, Beecham, Dean Dixon, Hindemith, Malko and Ormandy.

The expansion of the orchestra was a vital issue throughout the post-war years. In 1951 it consisted of 67 musicians. The magic number by international standards, 96, was for many years an impossible goal. Today the OPO has 106 musicians and its target is 109!

The appointment of Herbert Blomstedt, today one of the major conductors in the world, as head of the OPO in 1962 led to a raising of standards which was later followed by Greek Miltiades Caridis and Finnish Okko Kamu. With the advent of Mariss Jansons in 1979, however, the orchestra entered a new era. Jansons has led the OPO to the international first division. He is today regarded as one of the most prominent conductors in the world, but after fifteen years has no plans of ending this happy musical co-operation.

Mariss Jansons has untiringly fought for the OPO and turned it into a qualitative locomotive for the nation's other orchestral. He has strengthened its already strong assets - the ability to listen, the dynamic of its playing - and he is the best orchestra trainer you could wish for. He instils discipline and creates dynamics - he is a gifted, humble teacher. His own intense preparation makes the musicians give of their best, reach for the stars.

And many stars have been caught! The most prominent conductors and soloists in the world are regularly on the concert programmes, and offers are pouring in from outside. The OPO now tours regularly to London, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam and Paris as part of various concert series featuring the world's top orchestral, it has played several times at the London Proms and the Edinburgh Festival and has twice opened the exclusive Salzburg Festival. The orchestra has been on tour to Hong Kong and travelled widely in the USA and Japan. A new Japanese tour is planned for 1996 and a week as resident orchestra in Vienna for 1997.

“Those who believe that the classical centres of musical culture remain unchallenged, and that no really top class orchestral performances can be heard anywhere outside Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam and London, are seriously wrong: in Oslo, for example, the Philharmonic has musicians who can teach their traditionally success-sated colleagues the meaning of fear,” wrote Vienna's Die Presse in 1993. A good testimonial for the OPO on its way to the year 2000.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.2 - 1994 No. 2
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