MusicaNord: Grieg in Bergen
Since starting in 1993, MusicaNord has organised more than 1100 concerts and is known as the Concert Maker of Bergen. Grieg in Bergen is its main festival and lasts the summer months. The festival’s artistic director shares with Mr Wolf his experience.
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In conversation with: Michael Süssmann, Artistic Director and concert violinist, MusicaNord – Grieg in Bergen
Traditionally, classical music in Norway has been well represented. This is especially so considering the relatively small population of the country. One has to bear in mind the topography of the country; particularly that Norway is very long. If you turn it eastwards, let us say from Oslo, you will reach Rome. As a result, the activity of classical music is mostly associated with cities and places with a dense population. When MusicaNord was established in 1991, state-supported symphony orchestras were found (and still are) in Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim. These cities are located in the southern half of the country. In addition, orchestras in cities like Stavanger (southern west coast), Kristiansand (south), and Tromsø (north) have been significant contributors to the classical music scene in their respective regions. Semi-professional orchestras were also found in several smaller towns and areas. In the 90s, Norwegian Music Schools (today called Cultural Schools), were found in more than 400 communities, run by the local municipality.
Norges Musikkorps Forbund (NMF), a federation of twirl, brass and wind bands with members in school, youth and amateur bands, played an important role in the music scene in Norway, and still do today. Approximately 80,000 members belong to NMF, and out of this number emerge some very highly talented musicians who naturally proceed on to Norway’s foremost symphony orchestras. Norway’s 2nd largest city is Bergen, which is home to one of the oldest symphony orchestras in the world - the Bergen Philharmonic, founded in 1765. Bergen is also the hometown of MusicaNord. By the 90s, the Bergen International Festival had already been in business for 40 years. This festival is considered the biggest festival of its kind in northern Europe. When considering the small size of Norway (the population around 1990 was less than 4.5 million), it is remarkable that so many high skilled artists have emerged - Ole Bull, Edvard Grieg, Kirsten Flagstad, Arve Tellefesen, Truls Mørk, to mention a few.
One of MusicaNord’s early events, in 1993, was the Lysoen Concerts in the home of famous violinist and composer Ole Bull (1810-1880). This was a minor event with only 6 concerts each summer. In 1997, we started the Floien Concerts in Bergen, which launched us into the high production line of concerts. Events like the Bergen International Chamber Music Festival, the Terminus Concerts and the Concert Bank (held in the former Bank of Norway building) were all organised by us. By 2000, we were organising around 135 concerts per year. Today, all our concerts in Norway are organised under the Grieg in Bergen festival, where we have 40 concerts over 10 weeks. We also have another festival in Oseana Culture House, approximately 20 miles from Bergen, under the name Oseana Kammer Scene. Beautifully situated within 10 metres of a fjord that is visible from the concert hall, this event combines the exciting Norwegian landscape with its own music. MusicaNord’s activity is not just restricted to Bergen, or Norway for that matter. In the last 20 years, we have collaborated with similar institutions, conservatories, universities, and foundations worldwide, and have also undertaken missions for the Norwegian department of foreign affairs. In short, one could say that MusicaNord (through its Grieg in Bergen festival), performs in Bergen during the summer months. The rest of the year, our stage spans across 3 continents.
On Edvard Grieg:
A few years ago, a major Norwegian newspaper surveyed which single name has been Norway’s most exported article throughout times. Many expected it to be one of the modern rock or pop music groups, a Norwegian oil company, or a salmon exporter. But the answer was, without any other competitor coming close, Edvard Grieg.
Edvard Grieg expressed a national identity, highly influenced by the elements found in Norwegian folk music. He mastered this by writing traditional classical pieces of music without losing the genuine (and often very amusing) dancing spirit of Norwegian folk music. It is never difficult to listen to Grieg, whether one is a well-experienced concert audience or a newcomer to the concert hall. He is also a composer that one would recognize immediately. He clearly has his own identity and knows the story he would tell, as exemplified by his Lyrical Pieces (for piano solo). According to Grieg, the Lyrical Pieces came into life by accident, as he was meant to be working on other more serious things. This nature of Grieg appealed to the man on the street. Composed in a time where the middle class in the western world commonly had a piano at home, the Lyrical Pieces could be played by any pianist with modest qualifications. Performed by a master, they pay tribute to a composer of great standing, but at the same time, they were available to all amateur musicians who gained pleasure in self-performing. However, it was his piano concerto written in his mid-20s that changed his life. From that moment he became world famous. Today, this Concerto in A minor, described as a stroke of genius, ranks among the 10 most performed piano concertos in the world.
Grieg also influenced many composers of his time. They were impressed by the apparent ease with which he transitioned from folk music to classical music. His influence on classical music in the world can be attributed to his ability to transform wild nature into music. Grieg was married to a singer, Nina, and this also contributed to his recognition as a composer for all people. Together, they frequently performed his 166 songs throughout Europe. Many of these songs are breathtakingly beautiful.
Norwegians consider Grieg to be the greatest Norwegian composer ever. His music is used today in countless commercial advertisements. TV programs start with his music, and even local mobile ice-cream sellers use his music to indicate their entrance into a neighbourhood. Among people who do not regularly attend concerts, Grieg`s music can be encountered in many important areas of life – church music, weddings, funerals. The Grieg Piano Competition, held at Troldhaugen museum (home of Edvard Grieg) from 2012, attracts the attention of many Norwegians and is a strong contributor to the image of Grieg as Norway’s greatest composer.
Finally, Grieg in Bergen plays an important role in the classical music environment of Norway. It is the only event of this scale occurring over June till end of August each year. Bergen is considered to be the country’s top tourist city, and is also known as the gateway to the fjords. In the summer months, hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the city. Many of them look for concerts, arts, and the genuine Norwegian culture. Grieg in Bergen showcases high quality music on a Norwegian concert stage. However, it is not meant to be a tourist event to entertain people. Grieg in Bergen caters to people from all over the world who are regular patrons of concerts, and know what they are after, but are also curious to experience the Norwegian culture and music. We like to call ourselves “Exporters of Culture on Home Ground”, because Grieg in Bergen features high quality music produced for an international audience. As a result, MusicaNord is highly recognized and financially supported by the Bergen municipality, the Hordaland County Council, and the Norwegian Council of Art. A typical Grieg in Bergen season will have artists & ensembles from at least 10 different countries. They all perform at least one work by Grieg. In addition, they can perform standard or rarely performed pieces, but also their own music. This festival creates a special atmosphere and environment with a close relationship between the audience and the stage. Through our collaboration with the Grieg Academy of Music, we also provide a platform for establishing new contacts between artists and institutions.
The 17th Grieg in Bergen features artists & ensembles from Norway and approximately 10 other countries. The program has a wide range of music from baroque to contemporary, although the main profile is within the classical & romantic epoch. Each concert will have a work by Grieg included. Grieg in Bergen is a chamber music festival, and a typical performance will have a duo, trio, quartet, or a solo performer on stage. From time to time, symphony orchestras and choirs are also included. The Young Talent Program is also represented. It features 3-4 artists in different settings throughout each week. The talent of these young musicians is astonishing, and delivered with great enthusiasm.
The highlight of this year’s program is the opening concert on 17th June with the Camerata Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Watch out for the young and upcoming Norwegian soprano Rita Lynne, who will appear in two concerts. The Young Virtuosi, part of the Young Talent Program, will appear in different constellations from duo to quartet and will certainly be a great event. An Italian trio, led by the flutist Giuseppe Nova, will be making its 2nd visit to the festival, by audience demand. Last but not least, the very fine Norwegian cello player with the sonorous name Frida Fredrikke Waaler Wærhagen, will perform the final 2 concerts that mark the end of our season this summer.
Süssmann has many favourites among Grieg’s works. Included are his 3 violin sonatas, his cello sonata, his Vinje Songs, and the Holberg Suite.
Words: Sharman Tanny
Photography: Kristin Svarstad