Salzburg will always have Mozart, but – when it comes to evoking the resident spirits behind a major arts festival – Bergen can call on iconic composers Edvard Grieg and Harald Sæverud, violinist and cultural mover-and-shaker Ole Bull, and groundbreaking dramatist Henrik Ibsen, who spent several highly productive years at the city’s theatre. Bergen ’s deep-rooted cultural credentials also include one of Europe’s longest-established symphony orchestras and, as a former Hanseatic port, a long history as Norway ’s gateway to the world.
The director of the Bergen International Festival, Per Boye Hansen, describes the event as “the meeting point for the most interesting creative and performing artists in the Nordic region and beyond”. In 2011, the festival – which embraces music, theatre, dance and the visual arts –focuses on the relationship between innovation and tradition. Hansen feels that, in the context of Norway ’s thriving arts scene, the festival has a duty to innovate while respecting tradition. “In Norway at the moment there is a great emphasis on finding new ways to communicate with audiences,” he explains, “but tradition has its place too, as a provider of knowledge and insight to form a foundation for innovation. In return, innovation is the way to secure a future for tradition.”
Established in 1953, and the largest arts festival in the Nordic region, the Bergen International Festival will present some 150 events in 2011. It makes use of a variety of established venues – notably the concert halls Grieghallen and Logen and the theatre Den Nationale Scene – and also of outdoor spaces, including the city’s main square, which will host a large-scale free concert on 5th June.
At the heart of the 2011 festival, and exemplifying many of its values is a project called The Flame of Ole Bull; it will extend over several seasons and, in its inaugural year, espouses the theme of ‘Playing for the future’. Bull was born in Bergen in 1810, and his 200th anniversary was celebrated at last year’s festival. He achieved international celebrity as a violinist, becoming known as ‘the Nordic Paganini’, while his advocacy of Norway ’s folk music played a key role in the country’s assertion of its identity following separation from Denmark in 1814. As Per Boye Hansen adds: “Bull was responsible for creating a cultural infrastructure for Norway , which was a very poor country at the time – he made a significant impact on such figures as Grieg and Ibsen.”
The last four days of the 2011 Festival (4-7 June) will see established and rising performers celebrating Bull with a total of twenty events – chamber concerts, masterclasses and a large-scale outdoor concert – all with an emphasis on cross-generational interaction and the participation of young people, including a 200-strong youth orchestra. Some of the smaller events will be staged at Bull’s domed villa Lysøen (a visual symbol of Bergen ) and his country house near the city, both regular venues for the festival. Among the visiting participants are violinists Ida Haendel (who, still a vital force in her eighties, can trace a connection back to Bull through her teachers), Gidon Kremer (with his string orchestra Kremerata Baltica), Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Alexander Sitkovetsky, and cellists Truls Mørk and Christian Poltéra; Norwegian violin talent is represented by Arve Tellefsen and, from the younger generation, Vilde Frang, Henning Kraggerud, Guro Kleven Hagen and sisters Ragnhild and Eldbjørg Hemsing, who excel on both the classical violin and the Hardanger fiddle – the essential Norwegian folk instrument – which they played at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December 2010. In the context of The Flame of Ole Bull, the festival is also collaborating with the El Sistema in Venezuela to present players who have come up through that country’s revolutionary music programme.
Major pianists appearing during the rest of the festival are Evgeny Kissin (in all-Liszt recital), Khatia Buniathishvili (Chopin, Liszt, Stravinsky), Fazil Say (in a duo programme with Patricia Kopatchinskaja) and Antti Siirala.
Guest ensembles appearing in the main programme include: the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Manze in a concert comprising works by JS and CPE Bach, Stravinsky and Pärt (the Trumpet Concerto on the notes of Bach’s name with Tine Thing Helseth as soloist). Visiting from the UK is the viol consort Phantasm, conducted by Laurence Dreyfus, while coming in from Oslo are the vocal Trio Mediaeval and also Ensemble Allegria, playing masterworks by Grieg, Sinding, Saeverud and Arne Nordheim (who died in 2010) in collaboration violinist Peter Herresthal, who is curating the festival’s exploration of Norwegian chamber music.
Citing the example of Leif Ove Andsnes’ 2009 project with the South African video artist Robin Rhode, Per Boye Hansen feels that Norwegian music is seeking a closer connection with other art-forms. At the 2011 festival, the relationship between sound and vision comes to the fore in a series of chamber concerts staged under the banner The Theatre of the Ear and each with its own intriguing title: Day/Grass; Four ways to die; Group therapy; Storytellers. Each comprises a number of pieces performed by a variety of ensembles and vocal and instrumental soloists, once again including Peter Herresthal; the shortest work (by John Cage) lasts just two minutes, the longest (by Frenchman Gérard Grisey) lasts 42. Providing a focal point is the music of contemporary Norwegian composer Henrik Hellstenius, but more than 20 composers are represented, including Schubert and Shostakovich. The venue for The Theatre of the Ear is Logen, an intimate space, built in the late 19th century, that Hansen compares to Wigmore Hall – but it will be transformed to reflect the theme of each programme. For the first concert, the seats will be removed so the space can be transformed into a lawn on which the audience can loll.
Two of the festival’s large-scale musical events call on the participation of the Bergen Philharmonic. One is Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann, who enjoyed major success with Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at Bergen 2008 and with Le Grand Macabre at English National Opera in 2009, and the other is the Verdi Requiem, conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director, Andrew Litton.
Oedipus Rex sees Eirik Stubø, former artistic supremo of the National Theatre of Norway and internationally celebrated for his productions of Ibsen, directing his first opera; in the title role is German tenor Andreas Conrad, while Finnish mezzo Tuija Knihtilä plays Jocasta and the spoken role of the narrator will be shared between no less than 60 members of the choir. Per Boye Hansen feels that Stubø’s “concentrated visual language” will be well suited to the opera’s “monumental minimalism”.
The mighty fresco of the Verdi Requiem will be inhabited by an exciting quartet of soloists: Argentinian soprano Virginia Tola (a former winner of Norway’s Queen Sonja Singing Competition), Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili (recently Carmen at both La Scala and the Met), rising Czech tenor Pavel Černoch and bass Georg Zeppenfeld, one of today’s leading interpreters of Mozart’s Sarastro.
Still in vocal vein, countertenor Andreas Scholl gives a recital of Purcell, Handel and Haydn, while, exploiting a similar register, Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg joins Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques in arias associated with the legendary castrato Farinelli. In a tribute to an operatic idol of a more recent era, a concert with orchestra and violinist Henning Kraggerud sees Swedish tenor Mathias Zachariassen (a pupil of the great Nicolai Gedda) celebrating Jussi Björling’s centenary with nostalgic songs by Sjöberg, Peterson-Berger and Alfvén.
The future of Norway ’s musical life comes to the fore on 29th May, which brings the final of the Norwegian Soloists’ Prize. It features five outstanding instrumentalists, all aged under 27, nominated by five orchestras around the Nordic region: from Denmark , cellist Andreas Brantelid; from Sweden , cellist Jakob Koranyi; from Finland , pianist Visa Sippola; from Iceland , violinist Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, and from Norway , violinist Anders Nilsson. They are all competing for a prize of 100,000 Norwegian krone (more than £10,000).
The highlights of the festival’s theatrical programme include a piece on the theme of Greenland developed and directed by Swiss-born Christoph Marthaler, a major force on the European stage. It is called ±0 (i.e. plus/minus zero), the point where solid and liquid meet, and explores a society in which extreme natural conditions and social isolation dominate everyday life. After its premiere in Greenland, it will travel to Vienna before its staging in Bergen.
Remaining near the Arctic Circle , the ancient Nordic sagas provide the source material for Gerpla – the Happy Warriors, presented by the National Theatre of Iceland and based on a 1952 novel by the Icelandic Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness, which takes a harshly satirical view on Viking heroism.
Sweden is represented by contemporary circus company Cirkus Cirkör and its new show Wear it like a crown, while theatre and symphonic music meet when the Oslo-based Nordic Black Theatre (a company which normally works from a boat moored in a fjord) joins forces with the Bergen Philharmonic for a performance of Romeo and Juliet to the accompaniment of Prokofiev’s ballet score. The orchestra will be on stage, while the actors will move around both the stage and the auditorium, joined by young amateur performers for the scene at the Capulets’ feast.
Coming from much further afield is the Shanghai Theatre Academy, the first Chinese company to appear at the Bergen International Festival, presenting a new production – in Mandarin – of Someone is Going to Come, a 1976 play by Norwegian writer Jon Fosse. A further Chinese tribute to Norwegian masters of theatre comes with Dolls in the House, a new play by Gao Zi-min, inspired by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and presented by a student theatre company from the Northwest University in Xi’an.
The festival’s dance offering includes Carte Blanche, the Norwegian national company of contemporary dance, in a new work by Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal, and Manta by the Tunisian-born French choreographer Héla Fattoumi, an examination of a woman’s relationship with the veil traditionally worn in Islam.
For full programme details please click on the following link.