Festivities in Bergen

In 1898 Edvard Grieg arranged a music festival in Bergen and invited the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra to play Norwegian music. Now, a century later, the orchestra is returning for the Bergen International Festival.

Bergljot Jonsdottir

The visit in 1898 was a unique event in Norwegian musical life, but at the preparatory stage it caused a major row in Bergen and the capital. Grieg wanted audiences to hear the best possible artistic performance of Norwegian music so that they would learn to appreciate it more. The Dutch orchestra was of the highest quality and had offered to come on favourable financial terms. Bergen did not have a sufficiently good orchestra and Grieg believed that transporting musicians across the mountains from Oslo would be expensive, chauvinistic and narrow-minded.

Due to the violent criticism this aroused among Norwegian musicians and journalists, Grieg resigned from the festival committee at the beginning of 1898, whereupon it was disbanded and the music festival cancelled. During the night, however, a new committee was established which asked Grieg to invite the orchestra after all. When it finally arrived in Bergen it was a tremendous success. The Concertgebouw Orchestra was conducted by its own 27-year-old conductor, Willem Mengelberg, and by Norwegian composers conducting their own works. One of them, Christian Sinding, was a far more respected conductor than his young colleague and when Mengelberg cautiously attempted to tell him how to conduct his own music, Sinding replied, “I do admire your jacket!”.

When the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and its celebrated maestro Riccardo Chailly are welcomed to Bergen in 1998 there will be no Norwegian music on the programme. The critics are on the warpath again, pointing out that if this world-famous orchestra’s repertoire included Norwegian music it would help to promote it all over the world. However, musical life in Norway has undergone major changes and is no longer dependent on foreign musicians for first class performances, as evidenced by the festival city itself, which boasts the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and the BIT 20 Ensemble, which specialises in contemporary music. The Dutch are going to play what they play best – Mahler, Stravinsky, Mozart and their own contemporary composer, Diepenbrock.

At least, that is how the festival’s innovative Icelandic director, Bergljót Jónsdóttir sees it. She is aware of Edvard Grieg’s ideas about focusing on Norwegian music during the festival (20-31 May) but realises that much has changed in a hundred years in terms of genre, composers and musicians. However, Grieg’s music festival is to be remembered for the first time, in the form of a three-day festival-within-a-festival.

The BIT 20 Ensemble will be performing one Japanese and five Nordic works, Norwegian “Music ŕ la carte” will be on offer in every corner of the Grieg Hall and the finale on the third day will be a comprehensive joint project between the festival organisers, TONO (the Norwegian Performing Rights Society) and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). The “Edvard Prize” will be awarded for the first time, in seven categories, to composers, lyricists and librettists.

When the 46th Bergen International Festival takes place, Night Jazz will be celebrating its 26th and the Music Factory its 12th anniversary. These two fringe events originated as a protest against the main festival, but today cooperation between all three is growing and dialogue is amicable. The contrast with the first festival in 1953, when the programme was full of classical music and folklore, is clear. As regards getting the festival off the ground nothing much has changed. Whether in 1953, 1998 or 1898, it’s still a struggle.

Initiatives were taken to revive Grieg’s music festival on several occasions, but something always prevented it – the depression, war, reconstruction – and it was not until around 1950 that the nation’s need for something more than material values provided a basis for serious focus on the arts. The Norwegian alto Fanny Elsta, who had performed at the Salzburg Festival for years and was well acquainted with the many newly-established European festivals, fought enthusiastically to make Grieg’s beautiful home town of Bergen a festival city once more. Businessmen and the tourist industry were painfully aware that Bergen was stagnating and supported the idea. Public support was not a problem – it’s hard to find more local patriotism anywhere on earth than in this west-coast town.

The problems were of a different nature: there was no suitable concert hall, the orchestra was too small, there was too little hotel capacity and the transport and communications systems were inadequate. Experts were brought in from Salzburg and when, in spite of everything, Dr. Tassilo Nekola said “Get going!” there was no turning back. The time had come to discuss content – a thorny issue every year since – but there was no disagreement about the festival being based on two of Bergen’s traditional cultural institutions: the symphony orchestra and the theatre. It also had to be Norwegian and unique, not a carbon copy of any existing European festival.

Musikkselskapet Harmoniens Orkester, now the Bergen Philharmonic, has roots going back to the time of Beethoven and Haydn. It was founded in 1765 – Ole Bull played there as a boy, Grieg learned about symphonic music there – but not until 1919 did it emerge as a fully professional orchestra. In 1950 it comprised only 54 permanent musicians and the Bergen International Festival was just what was needed to loosen the treasury purse-strings and expand it to at least 67. Today it has 97.

Carl von Garaguly, chief conductor from 1952, lifted the orchestra to unexpected heights. Bergen’s concert hall was a former cinema with abominable acoustics and no dressing-rooms for the artists or cloakrooms for the public. After it was extended and converted, the orchestra sounded far better than many would have thought possible, especially those who had only heard the muffled transmissions from the old cinema on the radio!

Den Nationale Scene, Bergen’s main theatre, was founded by Ole Bull in 1850. This virtuoso and visionary violinist, who created his utopia Oleanna in the USA, brought the very young Henrik Ibsen across the mountains to be director, and Ibsen has always played a prominent role at the Bergen festival.

Incidentally, it was Ole Bull who persuaded Edvard Grieg’s parents to send their son to Leipzig to study, and Grieg was naturally the main musical focus of the festival from day one. His home, Troldhaugen, which was opened as a museum in 1928, provided a perfect intimate concert venue for the festival. Ole Bull’s island, Lysřen, and his fairytale summer house with onion domes, lacy woodcarvings and Indian windows, was opened to the public in 1974. It is also one of the festival’s attractions and a delightful setting for intimate concerts.

With the support of local businessmen and politicians, a broadcasting contract with NRK and the patronage of King Haakon VII, the original festival committee, chaired by shipowner Hilmar Reksten (for a period in the 1970s he owned the biggest fleet of tankers in the world), must have thought it would be easy to get government support as well. It wasn’t. The proposal had to be debated by the cabinet three times before it reluctantly provided a small grant of NOK 60,000. However, TONO and other cultural institutions in Oslo supported the project. In Bergen the citizens painted their houses and cleaned up the town until it sparkled.

One of the first people to be invited to take part in the 1953 festival was Kirsten Flagstad. A feather in the cap, but also a problem. The King had not forgotten that this great Norwegian opera singer had chosen to return from the USA to her husband in occupied Norway in 1941. Only when the King was informed that Flagstad would not be singing while he was in Bergen did he agree to be present at the opening performances.

There were impressive names on the posters: legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the most famous chamber ensemble at the time, the Amadeus Quartet. There were performances by visiting theatre companies and orchestras, processions and folklore. There were notables and journalists from Norway and abroad, tourists came in droves and to crown it all the sun shone for two weeks – an unlikely occurrence in a town where it rains so much that umbrellas ought to feature on the coat of arms. “Total victory!” was the conclusion at the end of the festival on 15 June 1953, Grieg’s 110th birthday. It even made a profit.

For the festival committee it was important for the festival not to be provincial and the following year Jussi Bjřrling (admittedly past his prime) and Elisabeth Schwartzkopf were among the famous guest performers. The audiences were less interested in folklore and many visitors required late-night entertainment after the artistic performances were over. That is how Norway’s first night-club was born. Papegřyen (The Parrot) became a private club with membership cards and bouncers to avoid breaking Norwegian licensing laws.

At the beginning the festival sailed on a wave of enthusiasm, but the familiar criticisms soon re-emerged: the musical programme was too conventional and very similar to festival programmes abroad, there was too little innovation, too little Norwegian music.

It didn’t make much money either, so showbiz entered the scene, partly in the form of professional entertainers (Norway’s greatest radio star attracted 20,000 people to the Nygĺrd Park and saved that year’s budget) and partly on an amateur basis – an outdoor concert featuring all Bergen’s school bands where everyone except the children had to pay to get in. This was so successful and so lucrative that Bergen’s schoolchildren have had a half-day holiday for the opening of the festival ever since. The school bands also traditionally welcome the King to Ole Bull Square before the official ceremony in the Grieg Hall begins.

The arrangements in the park quelled some of the criticism about the festival being too élitist. “Dinner jackets preferred” in the newspaper ads in the initial years didn’t help; people had the impression that the festival was only for the “upper classes”.

Another innovation on the festival programmes in the 1950s was dance. Classical ballet and Norwegian contemporary ballet, often based on Norwegian legends and fairy tales, such as Haugtussa, achieved great success. Dans, ropte fela! (Dance, cried the fiddle!) did best of all. After the festival it was booked for a two-month tour of the USA, Canada and Cuba and thereafter toured the UK and Germany. However, Arne Nordheim’s music for the ballet Katharsis in 1962 created a dreadful uproar. The electronic music included recordings of pigs slurping from a trough, which did not appeal to the taste of the bourgeoisie.

In 1963 the Hĺkon Hall, a 750-year-old ceremonial hall on the royal estate in Bergen (Bergen was the political centre of Norway in the 13th century), provided the festival with a magnificent new arena and space for approximately 450 people. In the first few years this venerable, newly-restored hall was used mainly for recitals and occasionally for chamber music and opera. Now, in Bergljót Jónsdóttir’s era, it is normally the venue for early and contemporary music and this year also for exciting performances from Asia, both traditional and innovative.

Not until 1978 was the longed-for Grieg Hall completed, with seating for 1,500 people. This magnificent building, acoustically ideal for symphonic music and with all the technical facilities for music theatre, gave the festival a new dimension. Wear and tear at Troldhaugen necessitated the construction of a small concert hall, Troldsalen, with seats for 200. From here you can look down on the composer’s study and across the same panorama of rocks, trees, scrub and fjord that Grieg himself saw when he composed. The house is still used occasionally, for example for midnight concerts featuring young musicians. The Steinway grand was a gift on Grieg’s silver wedding day in 1892.

Siljustřl, home of Bergen composer and national treasure Harald Sćverud, has been the venue for festival concerts since 1994, and last year the venerable Old Lodge was re-opened with seating for 450. More than a hundred years ago, the Lodge was regarded as one of the best concert halls in the country in terms of acoustics – Rachmaninov was one of many famous musicians who have played there – and its beautifully refurbished hall further supplements Bergen as a festival town.

In spite of the lack of facilities, only the best would do even at the beginning. Although foreign cultural institutions still make an important contribution today, the early years were the golden age of international cultural treaties which gave famous orchestras and conductors the opportunity of appearing abroad. Cooperation on festivals between the Scandinavian countries led to more concert locations and shared expenses and made it possible to invite the best orchestras under conductors like Mravinsky and Arvid Jansons (Mariss Jansons’ father), Sir John Barbirolli, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Kirill Kondrashin, Lorin Maazel and Charles Munch. Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Zino Fransescatti and other world celebrities performed for wildly enthusiastic audiences. More controversial guests included Stockhausen and a Swedish production of Pinter’s The Homecoming which was so un-festive that some of the audience left the theatre.

When Herbert von Karajan arrived at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic with sixteen suitcases, the apprehensive festival committee was sure he would turn back at the sight of his dressing-room in the old cinema – little more than a cupboard with no shower – but the maestro did not lift an eyebrow. The Finnish National Opera also accepted the challenge of staging performances under spartan conditions. For four seasons they held out with Finnish sisu, playing everything from Mozart to Wagner. In 1966 the festival presented a new Norwegian opera, Geirr Tveitt’s Jeppe.

Generous cultural funding by the former East Bloc countries led to many impressive guest performances in the 1960s and 70s which in the end resulted in a number of complaints. The critical reviews reached a climax with the Berliner Ensemble’s series of gloomy performances of didactic social realism and when the visiting East Germans, on a Sunday outing arranged by the festival, ran aground on a mirror-calm Hardanger Fjord there was a certain amount of malicious glee.

From 1972 onwards, younger, less well-known soloists began to make their appearance: Staffan Scheja, Christoph Eschenbach, Murray Perahia – all world stars soon afterwards. Krystian Zimerman performed one of his first concerts in Western Europe in Bergen after winning the Chopin competition. Luciano Berio worked with the London Sinfonietta in Bergen, there was emphasis on contemporary music, modern dance and events for children, and the first seminars were arranged.

The NRK’s recordings were transmitted by the EBU and later also by Eurovision, and when Grieg’s Symphony No. 1, on which he had noted “Must never be performed!”, was released in 1981 and played by the Bergen Philharmonic under Karsten Andersen, it was broadcast live to the whole world. In the same year, Egil Hovland was the first in a long line of resident composers, and in 1997 Bergljót Jónsdóttir introduced the concept of resident musician. The first was pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, and this year the honour goes to mezzo soprano Randi Stene. Harald Sćverud was the natural centre of attention in 1986, his 90th year, and in the same year the festival had its first non-Norwegian director, Chilean-Danish Daniel Bohr, and the Bergen Philharmonic a new chief conductor, Italian Aldo Ceccato.

With the Bergen International Festival, Norwegian cultural life, in accordance with the original intention, has presented both tradition and innovation; inspiration has been received from other countries and Norwegian creative and performing arts have achieved new recognition at home and not least outside our national borders. Nevertheless, the festival has frequently suffered from serious financial problems, often in connection with artistically brilliant content. Art is expensive and the age of generous state funding, domestic or foreign, is past. At the same time, thanks to records and the broadcasting media, audiences are far more spoiled than before and demand only the best.

Although the festival now has more stable financing thanks to a 38 per cent government grant, it is highly dependent upon sponsors and ticket revenues. The more innovative the programmes, the quicker the budget is exceeded. A festival director with vision also has to be a financial wizard, but in spite of that the showbiz element has been eliminated.

After the pioneering period, the festival focused more on the unheard, unknown and experimental, and when the borderlines between the various disciplines began to erode, the festival welcomed the new trend in dance, music and music theatre. The desire to conserve the cultural heritage grew in step with the demand for renewal. All the various directors have had to fight to maintain some kind of balance.

Bergljót Jónsdóttir is a strong opponent of “season ticket festivals” where the public knows from one year to the next exactly what to expect. Life is unpredictable and under her direction the festival reflects this.

The performance of Grieg’s A minor concerto at the final concert is an almost unbroken tradition. This year there will be three Grieg-related concerts featuring the new Norwegian piano prodigy Nils Mortensen as soloist with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra: Grieg’s original A minor, Olav A. Thommessen’s Makrofantasi over Griegs a-moll and the Concerto No. 2, completed on the basis of Grieg’s draft after an international competition. The winner, Italian Alberto Colla, was one of 68 entrants from 23 countries.

As in 1997, Bergljót Jónsdóttir continues to focus on the world outside Europe, particularly Asia, and the European elements are often from the south with an Arabian and Asian flavour rather than the well-known German-Austrian influence. Naturally, this does not mean that the umbilical cord to our European heritage has been severed (Cecilia Bartoli is coming!) but that we should be aware that art exists outside our own field of vision. We shall also have the opportunity of hearing early music from Europe, i.e. more than 400 years old.

“And Munadjat Yultchieva, a fantastic classical singer in the Uzbek tradition. Bartoli and Munadjat have two of the most beautiful voices in the world today – and the world is constantly getting bigger, not, as some will have it, smaller,” says Bergljót Jónsdóttir.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.6 - 1998 No. 1
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