Wednesday 24 June 2015

Bergen curators

Norway, Denmark, marriage, Sicily: these are my excuses for slim pickings on the blog for the past few weeks, and I've got a lot to catch up on. All three places yielded the most wonderful times, but maybe my happiest memories in terms of meeting new people who seemed just as interested in me as I was in them (Danes not great in that respect, or maybe it's a politeness thing) have come from the trip to Bergen.

You'll probably recognise the open, friendly face up top: it belongs to Leif Ove Andsnes, who met me in the cafe of one of the four galleries by the central lake, Lille Lungegårdsvann, and who curated two concert specials I'll never forget (Sibelius melodramas plus in an old masonic hall, Kurtág and Liszt in Grieg's villa at Troldhaugen, with the composer's own Steinway as centrepiece: read all about them on The Arts Desk). The ladies in the middle are curator of the Ole Bull House-Museum on Lysøen island Berit Hogheim and the most comprehensive, disciplined and enthusiastic of guides there, Inger Carter. And below them is Sigurd Sandmo, whose titles are Director of the Composers' Homes (around Bergen) and Director of the International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition, standing on the roof terrace at Troldhaugen.

All four are Bergen trained or raised and gave me the greatest insights into this wonderful town, cut off from inland Norway until the late 1980s (I think there was a road from Oslo before then, but that was it). Indeed, the tendency before that was to be closer to England and Scotland over the seas than to the heart of the homeland, to which there were no passable roads before the big changes came.

I owe most in terms of extending the information to Lysøen (Kieron Tyler, it turned out, had got there before me on his trip to Bergen's Jazzfest). Ole Bull has to be one of the most fascinating figures in the history of music: probably because his music died with him, all bar a few pieces he composed for the violin, and he hailed from before the era of the gramophone, only Norwegians really know him as an heroic figure. Clearly a showman too, but a true democrat who never forgot the people to whom he should really be playing.

I want to read a biography of the great man, but Inger certainly gave us some choice details. Bull Senior ran the Swan pharmacy in Bergen, founded in 1595 (I'm told the swan sign is still there, but didn't have enough time to seek out the shop). In 1818 at the age of 8, talented young Ole auditioned for what would in time become the Bergen Philharmonic, becoming its leader at the age of 10 (I think I've got this right, if that's what Inger meant by 'first violinist'). He picked up his love of folk music playing with the locals on his grandmother's farm, and skived off school to play with the "slustril" folk (=sour milk, regarded as low-graders in Bergen society). In 1851 he co-founded the first native-language theatre in Norway and the following year engaged 23 year old Henrik Ibsen as artistic director. On the site now stands a grandiose 1911 building with a bug-eyed statue of Ibsen outside.

Bull's violinistic prowess was compared to Paganini's, but alas he left no recordings and his fame, internationally at least, ended with his death. A handsome fellow, he caused the ladies to faint in recitals and carried a bottle of smelling salts (here in a glass case) to revive them.

His travels and success abroad became so legendary that Ibsen modelled, at least in part (and I hope only in part, because though he was quite a philanderer, Bull seems to have been something of a Mensch), the character of Peer Gynt on him. Peer's travels in Egypt coincide with the fact that Bull climbed the Cheops pyramid in Giza and played his famous folk variations on top. Wish there was a photo of that. In America he set up an (ultimately unsuccessful) Norwegian farmers' colony in Potter's County. His second wife, after an unsuccessful first marriage to a genteel Frenchwomen he'd met in Paris while studying with Vuillaume, was Sara Thorp, a senator's daughter (he was 60, she 20). And then, with daughter Olea in tow, they came to settle on Lysøen.

He bought the entire, 12 km long island. A farm had been there since 1670, but a new home was needed and in collaboration with the architect Conrad Fredrik van der Lippe, he designed a 'mini Alhambra' with a Russian onion dome and stars of David, Indian suns and Arabic symbols woven into the main room's fabric.You can see at least two of them here.

30 local carpenters worked on the project using wood from the island. The Bull family took up residence in the summer of 1873. Eight years later he returned, ill and exhausted from yet another American tour, to die in the Villa Lysø. Sara, a talented musician, played the Mozart Requiem on the piano - his own invention, a piano that would not need tuning, needed tuning after two months, but there was no possibility for that so it was converted into a large piece of furniture - and he died clutching his favourite flora (and Norway's national symbol), a bunch of heather. The house remembers this in its various arrangements.

Ole's granddaughter Sylvea kept the house on, visiting regularly from the States, and in 1974 she turned it over to the Bergen division of the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments. Though the main room - a splendid concert hall where, alas, I wasn't in time to catch a recital -  and an annex museum room are all there is to see, that's quite an 'all'. Many of his splendid violins are here, including a Guarneri, and his Amati turned up recently, to be given an inaugural recital. The silk flag from New York mixing the Norwegian design with the stars and stripes was his most treasured memento.

My own time on Lysøen was very special indeed, thanks to the convivial company of Inger and Berit, who took me off to the bijou cafe for waffles and coffee before I took a walk round the back of the house

up to the island's highest point

and back through verdant woods and a silent lake to the villa.

Then we returned to the fun ferry steered by a retired Norwegian navy man, saw the house shining on the island from the mainland docking point at Buena Kai

and drove back to Bergen. I had just enough time to buy more fresh fish at the harbour before a revelatory concert in the wonderful old Håkonshalle of the castle given by the young Norwegian string group Ensemble Allegria and the phenomenal Lawrence Power (both concert photos by Thore Brødreskift).

And then, with a rainbow appearing over Bergen harbour, it was into  another taxi to Troldhaugen for my own private tour of the grounds with Sigurd before the 10.30pm concert (which I've written more about over on The Arts Desk). This is the villa c.10pm, and the distant mountain outlines could still be seen against red in the sky through its windows nearly two hours later

Would love to have heard a recital in the new concert hall too, with its view down to Grieg's composing hut and the lake

which we then went to see via the oddly Mycenean tomb

on which Edvard's and Nina's names are carved in quasi-runic letters

but 40 of us in the house was something unique and unrepeatable. Here's my own shot of Grieg's piano before the recital began.

Bergen's in-town museums are splendid, too. I met Leif Ove in the cafe of KODE 2, but I'd spent hours in 3 and 4. 3 has the superlative collection of Rasmus Meyer to complement its own Munch collection, second only to the one in Oslo. The artist was prolific but never less than a true original; I was fascinated by the self-portrait he painted while in a classy asylum - from this time onward his paintings became more optimistic and colourful - but sadly no postcard was to be obtained. Good old Wikimedia, then.

Which other Norwegian artists impressed? Harriet Backer, certainly, in just a couple of pics from a whole wall of her stuff - still all those domestic scenes about which Munch complained, but this is rather lovely -

and a new wing devoted to Nikolai Astrup, sometimes too gaudy and sentimental, but a good chronicler of Norwegian happy days.

I love the woodcuts especially - there was a wall of Beltane fires in oils, but not I think anything like this:

And the reproduction doesn't quite catch the uncanny light of 'Clear June Night'.

There's a big Astrup exhibition coming to the UK in 2016. I think you'll be rather impressed if you don't know his work.

In between the various KODE buidings on the city's inner lake

is the Kunsthalle, and this was hosting the festival's main exhibition, about which I wanted to write on TAD but didn't have the space. Featured artist Ane Hjort Guttu's new body of work, and let's use the words of the blurb, investigates 'issues of power, freedom, the role and responsibility of the artist as well as the possibilities and limitations of political art'. All these are well distilled in her 46 minute film Time Passes. A timely piece of work given the current Norwegian debate on the prohibition of begging on the city streets and the question of the (very large) number of Romanian Roma folk. The earnest and ever so slightly humorless art student Damla (played by actress Damla Kilickiran) takes up a place near Bergen's station with an articulate and touching Roma woman whose thoughts are duly given as she sits in the public library.

Damla starts out 'sitting' as an artwork for her studies at the college, but withdraws as she becomes more troubled about its possibly exploitative value. The film itself is not without lightness of touch - I love the students' discussion about Breughel's Landscape with Icarus and how Auden sees it in 'Musée des Beaux Arts' (very germane to the film's subject: ordinary life goes on alongside immense suffering).

We last see Damla at her friends' graduation exhibition, in a space which mirrors the one we're sitting in (I'm pleased with this picture, but I wish I'd caught a good frame from the film, too, though it's just possible it might be the last scene so the room within a room would be appropriate).

Time Passes is also a hymn to Bergen, for all the problems of everyday life, and Leif Ove celebrated it, too, in his interview narrative of his early days here. I didn't have a chance to reproduce much of what I transcribed on TAD, so this seems like a good place for it. 

There was a Czech teacher at the Bergen Music Conservatory, Mr [Jiří] Hlinka, whom I got to hear about. I came as a 15 year old and had some private lessons from him, and he said you should come over next year and start at the conservatory. So I did, and he was a very important inspiration to me. I was a rather shy, introverted boy from a provincial island, I didn’t have professional musicians around me, I needed someone to show me the passion and commitment and life of music, someone every day telling me the importance of contrasts in the music, the storytelling, showing me all the possibilities. It had such an impact on me and made me realize I couldn’t do without music. He was into the Russian school, whatever that actually means, maybe there is a system at least for children, or the sense of movement at the keyboard. But anyway he had played for Gilels and even once for Richter, who was also my idol in the first years. Later on I changed my tastes and came to know Lipatti, Michelangeli and many others, and became much more diverse, but first I was crazy about Richter.

Bergen was important because I’d never heard a professional orchestra – well, as a 14 year old I played with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, and the Mozart D minor Piano Concerto was my first experience of hearing these sounds. But then I came here and first concert I went to had Mahler One in the second half, and I was blown away, I thought is this what an orchestra can do? Simply to come and hear it and get those impulses, getting to love the orchestra, getting to love chamber music, because in my first year at conservatoire I played with a viola-player, a mezzo-soprano, and I loved that and used as much time on that as my solo studies, almost. It was a tiny conservatoire, under 50 students, and the quality was up and down, but I had a great teacher, I was so dedicated, as a piano student music was the only thing in life for me during the first few years

The festival was a very important inspiration. In 1987 students could sign up as volunteer ushers, which meant you got a free seat. I look at the programme for that year now, and there was so much going on, so many singers - Lucia Popp, Katia Ricciarelli, Teresa Berganza; in the Håkonsaal [pictured below with the Borodin Quartet] they had a great singer every night. 

Four or five song recitals also blew me away. That was so exciting, we felt that the world came to our little town. Now it's not quite as unique in Norway as it was then, it really was the national event. It still holds that position, it's still the biggest arts festival in the Nordic countries, I think. But then it made such an impression. It remains a bit of a fairytale for me.

And 'fairytale' is exactly what his two concerts with friends young and contemporary - Sibelius's magic mix of spoken poetry and instrumental magic, Kurtág's kaleidoscope of quasi-naive fantasies with Liszt's sighs and swoons - will always remain for me. But what we still need to explore are the mountains and glaciers inland. I caught only a glimpse of them on the flight back.


Willym said...

Very subtle Mr Nice... Congratulations to you and the diplomate.....
baci e abbracci

David Damant said...

Is it really true that Bergen was cut off before then 1990s ? I am almost sure that I took one of my committees there before that. We went to a concert at Grieg's house at which the performers were inside and the audience sat in the open ( I think it is now covered with a glass roof). It began to rain, and in the interval I said to the Secretary General that I was leaving. She replied that I couldn't as President. It would be an offence to our hosts. However I tried to sneak away round a corner - but everyone was watching me and I doubt if the performers had an audience for the second half. AND we couldn't get a proper drink until the evening ( laws to control alcohol). Wonderful fish though

David said...

Thank you, Willym. A photo of at least one of us garlanded in the Garden Museum may be forthcoming, though as you know Dplmt hates full-frontal images of himself on the blog. I'll certainly email you one or two, anyway.

'Cut off from the rest of Norway' never meant 'cut off from the world', David. No doubt you flew in. My notes from a chat with Berit and Inge have 'ferry until 1986' and 'tunnel 1990', so the big connections had to wait as late as that. I think you could drive south to Oslo but not inland. So connections with the UK were always stronger than with the heartland. Remember it was a big Hanseatic port and the harbour is still huge. The answer to your wondering whether the Troldhaugen concert hall is now covered with a glass roof is in one of the photos: it's now perhaps the most beautifully situated/back windowed hall I know, and a state of the art building recently renovated and re-opened the week before I went. As I write in the Arts Desk piece, one pianist plays a whole week of lunchtime concerts every summer - and 800 people went to the recital on the day I caught the late-night concert in the house.

David Damant said...

Well we had our meeting in Oslo so we must have come up from there.

You explanation of your silence as due to Norway, Denmark, Marriage and Sicily reminds me of the remark by Lady Bracknell

" The general was eccentric, I admit, but that was the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion, and other things of that kind"

David said...

Now THAT I like - and it's not a line from that timeless masterpiece I remember. But we should take you to Gerald Barry's rather ...unusual operatic take on the play this coming season, if only to see your face. You might even admire it, if not as immoderately as I do.

David Damant said...

Is that the one that begins - "Don't touch the cucumber sandwiches" ? I heard snippits of a musical version starting like that, a few years ago

Wilde cut the play, and having read the cuts I would agree that the result is cleaner......but one line was lost that I regret. When Algernon queries Cecily's report that John Worthing had drunk the 1889 champagne for lunch ( " 1889? Are you sure?") she replies

" O yes. It is on medical advice. Even the cheaper clarets are forbidden to him"

David said...

We've been here before, Sir David - the first line is as in the play, 'Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?' (if you come with us to the production first aired in the Linbury, you'll find Algernon listening to his personal stereo). The Lucy Bailey production of the play, done as posh am-dram, had hilarious running gags with the cucumber sandwiches - never there when they were needed, and then a whole plate appeared when they were supposed to have gone.

It's a short play anyway, isn't it? And an even shorter opera. The only interpolations are pattered lines of Schiller's 'Ode to Joy' auf Deutsch from Lady B and (I think) Canon Chasuble.

Laurent said...

It seems that quite a few composers had composing huts, I remember in Salzburg seeing the composing hut of Mozart. It must have been or maybe still is a fashion to have such a place, quiet and meditative to allow for composing without interruption from kids, family, friends or loud neighbours.

Also my congratulations to you both.

David said...

Many thanks, Laurent. Sir David was there, of course.

The famous composing-hut examples are Mahler's at Steinbach and Maiernigg. I've seen the former, rather sweetly done up inside (and it may even be a replica), but not very poetic, being stuck in the middle of a campsite on the lovely Attersee. I was surprised to find Grieg's hut so Mahleresque. Our equivalent here is the Englishman's shed. My good friend Stephen Johnson has a lovely one too, and I want one, but then I'd need a garden first. Some day...

Susan Scheid said...

David, what a grand time you've been having, and now I want not only to go to Bergen, but also to have a composing hut. I've actually been coveting Mahler's at Maiernigg for some time, and if I recall correctly, both John Adams's (Coolidge and Luther) have them (or anyway, I think JCA had one, not sure now). Of course I don't know what I'd compose in mine, but should that matter? Ole Bull was QUITE the character, wasn't he--and Bergen overall looks to be chock full of interesting things to do and places to see. Ah, well, one day, one day, perhaps we shall get there, too. While I won't offer congratulations, per se (you and I share a similar view on this, I think, on the order of the law catching up on very old news), I am pleased you're availing yourselves of your full share of rights--and if it proved to be a good excuse for a trip to Sicily, well, all to the good!

David said...

Well, Sue, you COULD have a composing hut. And you two MUST go to Bergen. Plenty of Ole Bull traces your side of the pond - there's a statue in Minneapolis, apparently.

As for the formalities, it just makes it that much easier to be comfortable wherever we go (well, not certain parts of the UK, but they're in a minority). It also seems a good symbol between the Irish victory and the American one. In this we're nothing if not zeitgeisty.