The first twelve years of the orchestra’s existence, from 1977 to 1989, were a continuous struggle, a journey across a desert – more from one empty water hole to the next than from oasis to oasis. Artistically the musicians were constantly in the Garden of Eden where critical acclaim flowed like milk and honey but financially they went from bad to worse, from crisis to catastrophe. To make their tours abroad as cheap as possible, they frequently stayed at no-star hotels with more on offer than a bed for the night.
Not until 1991, when the NCO threatened to disband or sail under a foreign flag like much of the merchant fleet, did the life-belts come floating along, first in the form of sponsorship from private industry, then in the form of substantial government grants. Today, twenty years after it was established, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra can face the future with more optimism than any time before, but during the preceding period the musicians and their minuscule management have subsidised the orchestra’s activities to the tune of NOK 30 million – one million per musician – in the form of low or no wages.
So what was the driving force behind this dandelion orchestra which found nothing but adversity on its arid, rocky home ground? Primarily enthusiasm and a will to succeed, combined with unwavering devotion to chamber music. Plus idealism and an intense desire to penetrate ever deeper into the most intimate secrets of ensemble playing and a corresponding desire to share them with a large audience.
And the audiences have always been packed – particularly outside Norway’s borders. For the first ten years, they did not have a headquarters at home. Tours provided the basis for all it’s activities, and it played at many more concerts abroad than in Norway. Tours are an important part of any orchestra’s development. It is inspiring to meet new audiences; everyone gives to the full, exceeds his capacity. Not being invited back is a defeat – an unknown situation for the NCO, which is always invited back.
From the time it became a foundation in 1987, the orchestra had a permanent foothold in the newly-restored Old Lodge in Oslo, originally a concert hall which became a canteen for the dockers of the Oslo Port Authority before being returned to its original glory. The Old Lodge literally created new space for chamber music in Norway.
The orchestra and management did not have their own premises until last year, moving with delight and relief to 175 square metres which include their own practice rooms, music archives, rehearsal studios and offices. The location is a deserted chocolate factory formerly owned by one of the sponsors – the gigantic Orkla Group. The other sponsors are Det Norske Veritas (a ships classification society) and Sparebanken NOR (a savings bank). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has always been helpful in connection with tours and the government grant is currently more than NOK 4 million a year.
Today the NCO holds its subscription concerts in the University of Oslo Aula, where almost all Oslo’s concerts took place until the new concert hall opened in 1977.
The seeds of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra were sown at informal summer courses in Trondheim under violinist Bjarne Fiskum in the early 1970s. Today Fiskum is leader of the Trondheim Soloists, an ensemble established far more recently but already of the highest quality and based in central Norway.
Many of those participating in the courses established themselves in the Oslo area and applied to attend Terje Tønnesen’s open university seminar, and when the tough term was at an end, made their début in 1977. The reviews were overwhelming and the Swedish recording company BIS contacted them after the first concert. Their third release, Grieg’s collected works for string orchestra, bursting with vitality under Tønnesen’s leadership, catapulted the NCO onto the international record market. It was subsequently transferred to CD and Gramophone’s veteran critic W. Chislett wrote, “No record has given more pleasure, and few as much”. The NCO now has a contract with Virgin Classics for two CDs a year for the next few years, but the Grieg recording has become a classic.
Terje Tønnesen, who in the 1970s was known for his unorthodox long black hair and nicknamed Paganini, has much of the honour for the orchestra’s success. His playing is extrovert and brilliant, he has a strong presence as leader and he takes an interest in and has a sense of responsibility for Norwegian and foreign contemporary music. Tønnesen made a sensational début in 1972 and thereafter studied for five years under Max Rostal in Switzerland. He has won first prizes in several international competitions and in Norway has been awarded the Grieg Prize and the Critics’ Prize. He now divides his time between the NCO, the Oslo Philharmonic, where he is principal, and solo performances.
Since 1981 he has shared the position of artistic director of the NCO with Iona Brown, who is also artistic director of the world’s perhaps best-known chamber orchestra, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Iona Brown is small but authoritative; you should not be deceived by the cool beauty and grace she radiates in front of her orchestra, always wearing magnificent dresses in brocade and silk decorated with lace and embroidery. The silk conceals the natural authority and iron will that have turned the NCO into a world-class ensemble.
Iona Brown was strongly involved in the NCO from the first moment, both musically and emotionally. Her relationship with the Norwegian musicians could be hot-tempered and their success, which came more or less immediately, cost hard work, tears and frayed nerves. She demands discipline, has drive, tempo and temperament, and cannot work slowly. The musicians were so young and inexperienced, but they were also so disarmingly eager to learn and had such fantastic potential that they appealed to her curiosity and love of work.
Now they are so well coordinated that the whole ensemble seems to breathe simultaneously, the musicians achieve a higher unity and melt into one instrument, one spirit. They are all technically brilliant without having lost any of the orchestra’s famous youthful freshness and enthusiasm, adding only an almost incredible precision, rhythmic pregnancy, energy and warmth.
The strength of the ties between Iona Brown and the orchestra was clearly demonstrated when the NCO was to play in her home town of Salisbury in 1994. When they arrived, the musicians learned that her mother had died that morning. With a typically British stiff upper lip, Iona Brown turned up at the rehearsal in Salisbury Cathedral determined to say nothing about what had happened. As she approached, the orchestra rose and one of the first violinists, folk singer Arve Moen Bergset, stepped forward and sang an old Norwegian hymn. An unforgettable moment for those who were present in the otherwise empty cathedral.
How did the fêted Iona Brown come to work with a new, poverty-stricken Norwegian ensemble? It began when Mstislav Rostropovitch, the whole world’s beloved “Slava”, worked with a new, poverty-stricken Norwegian ensemble! In autumn 1979 the master cellist was in Oslo for the first time in 28 years – as a soloist with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Impresario Terje Strøm-Olsen invited Iona Brown over from London and that was when Rostropovitch introduced her to the NCO. “It was wonderful to be introduced by him and the whole thing became very emotional. When he asked me to help this young, ambitious orchestra I agreed.”
That is how Iona Brown put it six years later when she made her début as standing conductor in the Oslo Concert Hall at the NCO’s first performance of the commissioned work Boomerang for oboe, two horns, strings and cello by Arne Nordheim. When she took over St. Martin-in-the-Fields after Neville Mariner in 1974 and the NCO in 1981, she always conducted sitting down with her violin in her hand. In recent years she has advanced to the conductor’s rostrum of the symphony orchestra and next year she will be conducting the Oslo Philharmonic as the first woman since Mariss Jansons became artistic director.
Rostropovitch fell in love with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. He made a sensational visit as early as 1981, when he led the orchestra in the first performance in Norway of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 with his wife, the legendary Galina Vishnevskaya and bass Stafford Dean as soloists. The work was written for Vishnevskaya and dedicated to Benjamin Britten, with Slava as match-maker between the two composers.
The orchestra also played this work outside Oslo, including at a psychiatric hospital. In an interview before the concert, first violinist Tønnesen said, “I think Symphony No. 14 has about the same number of movements and they are all about DEATH!”
The symphony was also on the repertoire when Rostropovitch took the NCO with him as guest orchestra on a French cruise ship in the Caribbean. The musicians flew from Oslo to Bermuda to embark. The female representative of the French impresario responsible for the contract later stated that she was scared witless when she saw the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra fall out of the plane. Their famous first words were, “Do you have some money and where is the bar?”.
Finally on board, they met Slava, flautist James Galway and fourteen-year-old violinist Joshua Bell. Just imagine the reaction when the NCO musicians, who were used to playing for peanuts and often carried a packet of sandwiches in their luggage, discovered that all the food and drink, including caviar and champagne, was free of charge. On the other hand, the contrast between rich cruise passengers listening somewhat hesitantly to Shostakovich’s music and the musicians’ own fate (or that of the psychiatric patients for that matter) was rather strong. To the orchestra it was suitably absurd that Slava conducted with a neon tube he found on board.
Regular tours to Germany, one of the NCO’s main markets, and to the rest of the European continent are still as important as before. At the moment they are discussing whether to launch the orchestra on the Asian market. There is enormous interest in music there and they have received some good offers. The problem is that the tour will probably cost the orchestra approximately seven times more than the ticket revenues. Now that the stories of catastrophe are more or less history, this seems rather insignificant.
One of the memories from the pioneering days that will not easily be forgotten is of a freezing February and an endless bus journey on icy roads from the South of France to Switzerland. They travelled at snail’s pace all day and arrived at the hotel where they were to spend the night at 3 a.m. – before continuing their journey two hours later. Forty minutes before the lights in the auditorium were dimmed, they arrived outside the concert hall in Lausanne grey-faced with fatigue – and gave one of their finest concerts ever. A typical situation for a touring orchestra.
With the help of Rostropovitch, the operating parameters became somewhat better and he opened many doors for the NCO with the statement “The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra is one of the great ensembles of today with whom I play as often as I can. I don’t know how to praise them highly enough.” The words were said in connection with the Montpellier Music Festival in 1985, when the NCO had the honour of being resident orchestra and gave nine concerts with different programmes in two weeks.
After that, France became one of the main venues for the young Norwegian orchestra, a country which August Albertsen, enthusiast and initiator of the orchestra, regrets the NCO has not followed up.
“We were on French TV screens or French radio every day for two weeks and were a great success. The newspapers wrote ‘Une vraie sensation!’ ”.
In Montpellier, the musicians who had kept the orchestra going for years by tolerating lousy hotel rooms and 24-hour bus journeys were lodged in a dormitory with one shower and only cold water. Mutiny was imminent, so Albertsen moved them all to a first class hotel in the centre of town.
“There was a terrible fuss, but our success was so impressive that the festival finally paid the entire gigantic bill!” says Albertsen, who also remembers how the cicadas competed with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 at an outdoor concert and a gale swept both cicadas, music and music stands into a field. A couple of days later, the NCO honourably opened a new festival in Menton which was attended by the entire royal family of Monaco.
All this confirmed the NCO’s position in France and after an invitation to Paris the following year, Le Figaro wrote, “These perfect musicians have now proved that they are among the first rank of international ensembles”.
Another of the NCO’s great artistic moments took place in France, with Mayor Jacques Chirac (now President) and the Norwegian Crown Prince and Princess (now King and Queen) in attendance at a concert in the Paris City Hall. When the musicians returned to their hotel they found a flower arrangement the like of which none of them had ever seen. It was a two-metre-wide personal expression of thanks from Mayor Chirac.
Queen Sonja has been the NCO’s patron on foreign tours since 1990, and the following year Iona Brown was awarded the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for special services on behalf of Norwegian interests. The order is only awarded to foreign nationals and this one was presented in connection with the chamber orchestra’s sensational début at the Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall.
In 1995 the NCO gave the first private concert ever held in the Royal Gallery at the House of Lords in London, thanks to Iona Brown’s good connections with Lord Cranborne, the Lord Privy Seal, who was responsible for the invitation. The concert was a kind of overture to the orchestra’s most important tour of the USA, which included the Kennedy Center in Washington DC (with the royal couple in attendance) and the Carnegie Hall in New York.
The NCO has been on prestigious tours to Vienna and Salzburg, played for thousands in Berlin – and for thirteen frozen souls in North Norway. Its very first tour abroad was to Holland and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with Iona Brown. The concert was a triumph which led directly to the next, their début at the Bergen International Festival. The first tour to the USA was in 1994, with an exhausting twenty-four concerts from Connecticut to Georgia.
“At the beginning we were so incredibly optimistic and naive. We thought that when they realised how good we were state funding would just come pouring in. On that basis we embarked on tours halfway across the world and the pioneering spirit kept us going through crises and bankruptcies long after we probably should have given up,” says Albertsen, who also has reason to believe in Santa Claus. Just before Christmas 1988, the NCO was awarded an international launch grant of NOK 500,000 from the Norwegian Blank Tape Fund. Iona Brown spoke emotionally and strongly of a world class orchestra which, after years of hard work, had finally been rewarded for its efforts. Subsequently the NCO has received Norwegian Grammy awards and other honours.
The NCO has enormous capacity and incredible will power, in spite of the fact that few of the original thirty musicians remain today. Those who now constitute the backbone of the orchestra were seventeen years old when it started. Enormously enthusiastic, they absorbed everything Iona Brown said. The turnover of musicians has been almost total, but it has taken place over a long period of time. Continuity and long lines are important, but most important at top level. Soloists like master viola player Lars Anders Tomter and cellist Øystein Birkeland are still there, as is principal Atle Sponberg, who is also principal of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra.
Most of the “old guard” are now members of the Oslo Philharmonic, and those who are now in their forties and have been with the NCO throughout the years were playing there before they joined OPO. There’s no denying that conflicts arose between the two orchestra’s schedules, for example a tour of Germany had to be cancelled in 1980 because almost half the entire NCO disappeared into OPO.
“Iona Brown’s ability to build an orchestra from scratch is amazing,” says Albertsen. “Today the NCO is not a full-time orchestra with permanent musicians. Every concert is a separate project for which the musicians are selected from a pool of highly qualified instrumentalists. The pool consists of orchestra musicians, free-lancers and gifted students. String instrumentalists who qualify for diploma studies at the Norwegian State Academy of Music and whom the NCO (through Professor Tomter) can use receive an offer to join as part of their diploma studies. This is an element of the agreement between the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, the Academy and us. We have never held auditions. Individual musicians are contacted after careful internal discussions.”
The high turnover does not appear to create problems in relation to either audiences or critics. The NCO has a permanent place at top international level, is a valuable export article for Norway and a welcome guest everywhere. Its sound is like the musicians themselves – young and enthusiastic, full of joy at playing together and love of the most important adhesive of all: the music.