Another Postcard from Risor

Written by: Anna-Karin Brattli Aaserud

A report from the 2005 Risor Festival of Chamber Music, 28 June-3 July 2005

“I would rather have a smaller festival,” Lars Anders Tomter said. He is one of the two artistic leaders of the Risor Chamber Music Festival. This year, the highly acclaimed festival celebrated its 15th-anniversary. And this called for something extra. Like, for instance, an unfinished Mozart opera, performed in a huge factory hall, with the audience perched as birds on stands borrowed from a circus, and with Heinrich Schiff as a most unruly band-leader.

But let’s start at the very beginning. You commence queuing for accommodation one year in advance, hoping to get somewhere to stay during the festival-week in tiny Risor, this little, white coastal village in the south of Norway. Three months before the event, at five p.m. sharp, booking opens and you desperately try to get through on the telephone. Fifty-two people ahead of you. But 75 minutes later you are the lucky owner of tickets for twelve of the eighteen concerts of the 2005 festival. Soon after, all the tickets are sold out, 8000 in all, as this festival is rated by the New York Times as one of the ten finest festivals in the world.

The adventure can begin. That is, the queuing begins. Four hours before every concert you can see them: the faithful music-lovers in front of the church entrance equipped with rucksacks, folding chairs, thermos flasks, newspapers, shawls (if the morning is chilly), eagerly chatting. A happy “Good morning, Andsnes!” to the outstanding Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (the other Festival director) passing on his way to an early-morning rehearsal. People know each other, have met in the queue the year before. And the year before. The seating is open, and everyone knows what seat to head for. But not to fight for, the discipline is strict. Everyone knows his or her number in the queue.

This year, Mozart was the main focus of the festival, making a false start on his 250 years’ anniversary in 2006, when he is also going to be the festival’s main composer. “Mozart is the most obvious and magical composer of all,” Andsnes says. “That’s why we have chosen to give preference to him two years in a row”.

As usual, the Festival presented one or two contemporary composers, this year the Danish composer Bent Sørensen, and Norway’s Bjørn Kruse. Both were present at the concerts, introducing their music.

The opening concert set the standard of the whole week: Intensity, closeness, informality, and the pure joy of sharing. Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor (K516) opened the Festival, with the Arcanto Quartet and Lars Anders Tomter assisting on the second viola part. Arcanto, established in 2002, with veteran names like Tabea Zimmermann, was remarkable. No indifferent phrases, an uncompromising will to form and express, to mould, and give life to the music down to the smallest detail. It all characterised their performance. We heard Arcanto later on – and there certainly ought to be a recording contract waiting for these musicians.

Leif Ove Andsnes played The Shadow of Silence by Bent Sørensen, written especially for Andsnes, who played it for the first time in Carnegie Hall in January this year. As Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim said, after hearing music by Sorensen: “This reminds me very much of something I have never heard before”. Sorensen’s shimmering sounds, poetical, mystical and minimalist, was delicately played by Andsnes. A strange and unexpected effect came from the twittering birds through the open church windows. Somehow they seemed to belong.

And then Emanuel Ax led the Risor Festival Strings through Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat (No.22, K482). Ax lived up to any expectation, energetic, lively and inspiring, in close interaction with this young, enthusiastic and brilliant orchestra. Risor Festival Strings started up in the eighties and called Young Strings, the musicians students at that time. Now the members are professional musicians in key positions in other leading orchestras and ensembles. Some of the members have been with the orchestra from the start; others have been invited in later. And they certainly are the hard workers of the Festival, with sixteen works played over a period of six days. As one of the musicians said: “The reason for doing this over and over again is the pure joy of it all.”

But that was just the opening. The beautiful little baroque church, seating only 450 people, was packed, as it was in all the later concerts. This year the sun was shining all through the week. And you could feel the magic of the Festival walking down to the little harbour, which is five minutes’ walk from the church, meeting musicians in their T-shirts with “Risor Festival” printed in front, some with their instruments strapped to their backs. On their way to rehearsals. Or to gourmet lunch or dinner in the Town Hall. The fee these people receive, even the best known of the musical world, is rather modest. But that is compensated for with company, the joy of being with other musicians, making music. And great food. Gourmet chefs compete to go to Risor to prepare special food for the musicians. This is not a place for prima donnas. This is a place for sharing, in all meanings of the word.

There were so many memorable moments: Emanuel Ax and Andsnes playing Mozart’s Sonata in C (K521) for four hands, combining the seemingly simple and joyful with the most fastidious sonority, the Arcanto Quartet with the first of Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets – played with enormous intensity and control. Jonathan Biss with the Festival Strings in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B flat (K238), and his ‘Dissonance’ String Quartet (K465) with the Arcanto Quartet. Antje Weithaas and Tabea Zimmermann in Mozart’s Duo for violin and viola in B flat (K424). Sharon Kam, with breathtaking technique, together with Festival Strings in Bjørn Kruse’s Lakris, Concerto for clarinet and orchestra. More works of Sorensen, The Lady and the Lark, The Lady of Shalott, and ‘Schattenlinie’ – his music gives a new meaning to pppp – a ‘shadow of silence’.

But, of course, there were other composers: Bartók, Brahms, Richard Strauss, even Kurt Weill. And Beethoven, in one of the concerts that made our day; Andsnes and Heinrich Schiff in the A major Cello Sonata (Op.69). Suddenly meeting Beethoven after all the Mozart was a shock. And Schiff and Andsnes didn’t hold anything back, two musicians who created a rare and magic moment.

Something very unusual for this Festival: a once-in-a-lifetime opera performance in Risor. An opera-stunt, really, Mozart’s fragment of an opera, never finished, “Zaïde”. Italo Calvino had written a new text, included a storyteller and made a playful and cunning theatre-play from the music and missing parts of the libretto. In a rough factory hall, with no decorations, only a few pieces of ‘haremish’ costumes and with Heinrich Schiff as a lively and unorthodox conductor of the Festival Strings. Schiff even sang himself, as he led the male musicians of the orchestra in a more or less improvised ‘slave chorus’! The singers were brilliant, the lead-role sung by Isa Katharina Gericke who stepped in on very short notice. A lovely Mozart singer, and beautiful to behold.

So, the 2005 Festival is over. The clouds were gathering at the end of the last concert – for the first time during this sunny and unforgettable week. To celebrate the 15th-anniversary, Risor Kammermusikkfest has published a most interesting book, beautifully illustrated (also available in English): “The Risor Chamber Music Festival, The Adventure”.

Next year in Risor…

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