Norwegians Can

As funding cuts put the kibosh on ambitious orchestral projects around Europe, Norway’s second city has an orchestra which is funded and sponsored to the hilt, and beginning to flex its international muscle.

by Andrew Green, Classical Music Magazine

“I went kicking and screaming,” says Andrew Litton of his 1998 debut with the Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester (BFO). “I was expecting the place to be pitch black, with rain pouring down. Why am I doing this? I said to myself. But I was bowled over not just by the sun and the mountains, but by the players’ energy and passion at my first rehearsal.”

Litton didn’t exactly kick and scream before accepting the orchestra’s music directorship in 2003, but he needed persuading. “I knew what would be involved in getting the world outside to take notice of us, but two players took me out to dinner and said the whole orchestra wanted me. I couldn’t argue.”

“Andrew has played a key role in enhancing the orchestra’s international visibility, through both tours and recordings,” observes the orchestra’s chief executive. Bernt Bauge. “Our partnership constitutes a very strong brand.”

This spring’s major exercise in enhancing that visibility for one of the world’s oldest orchestras (it has a 250th birthday in 2015) is its 11-concert tour of Germany, Austria and Sweden – including visits to Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and Gothenburg. The BFO’s leader, Melina Mandozzi, is very clear about the benefits of being on the road. “We tour relatively little, so it’s a thrill and a challenge to explore new concert halls and audiences, performing in different acoustics where we have to adjust our ears. Although a tour demands a lot of physical and emotional energy, the orchestra comes back stronger each time.”

“Competition between orchestras is tough,” adds fellow violinist Jutta Morgenstern. “No one would go and search for us in Norway, so we have to make the orchestra visible and prove ourselves.”

The BFO has been fortunate to have the Norwegian DnB NOR bank as a major tour sponsor. “For example,” says Bauge, “in 2007 this enabled us to visit the Concertgebouw, the BBC Proms, Carnegie Hall, and the Vienna Musikverein. The partnership supports the profitability of Norway’s biggest bank while also demonstrating its social and cultural responsibility.”

However lucky the BFO is to have such steadfast support in tricky times, nervous concert promoters who engage the orchestra still have to be mollified over the repertoire. The upcoming tour features Norwegian contemporary composer Rolf Wallin’s Das war Schön! for solo percussion and orchestra at every venue. The deal? “Promoters were reassured by the fact that the soloist, Martin Grubinge, is verypopular,’ says Litton. “But the parameters were clear – promoters wanted a popular repertoire as well. At one point it looked as if that meant all eleven performances of Tchaikovsky Six, so then I offered Rachmaninov Two, in which the orchestra’s string sound is my pride and joy!”

As for the orchestra’s concert activity within Norway, the key factor in weathering economic storms is – the lack of economic storms. “Norway hasn’t been affected by the financial crisis to the same extent as many other European countries, thanks to our oil and gas resources,” says Bauge. “The Norwegian state is running a big annual surplus, so the current coalition government isn’t cutting budgets, at least no so far – it’s actually promised to increase annual spending on arts and culture.”

Currently, the BFO receives 85% of its running costs from the state, although in recent years there has been no real-terms increase in funding, says Bauge, “except for the important fact that we’ve been given extra money to finance the buy-out of the employed musicians’ media rights. That gave us more flexible working regulations.”

As for the audiences, the BFO is seeing steady growth. “There’s always a buzz about our concerts,” says Andrew Litton. “People are always enthusiastic about winning teams. When we arrive back from our tours, we’re greeted as returning heroes! And a younger audience is being built. For example, we tap into the local university’s 20,000 students using SMS, offering cheap or free seats. When they get excited at concerts, they’re likely to stand up and scream!”

“Programming is a fascinating process, with orchestra members fully involved. We play much more than the top 40! There’s a whole range of stuff, including world premieres. Between now and 2015, we’re commissioning the top composers of today – and will carry the audience with us.”

A key element of the orchestra’s advancing visibility is clearly its growing roster of recordings for the likes of Chandos, BIS, Hyperion, and Aurora. “At the moment, we’re the number one orchestra in Scandinavia when it comes to recording,” says Bauge. “In 2009, we released six, the same in 2010, and we’ll achieve the same level in 2011 with, for example, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring conducted by Andrew Litton, and recordings of music by Norwegian composers Johan Halvorsen and Johan Svendsen, both conducted by Neeme Järvi. In June, we’re recording Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, conducted by Junjo Mena.”

“A musician in this orchestra enjoys a high quality of life,” observes Morgenstern. “This isn’t to do with high salaries, but rather the fantastic recreation possibilities in this wonderful country and a very human attitude to work with. You may find orchestras with higher individual technical ability, but what you won’t find here is the destructive power of frustration, arrogance, and any unwillingness to work together.”

As for the role of the BFO in lightening Bergen’s winter gloom? “To anyone who might be overcome by melancholy, music can certainly be very meaningful and necessary,” says Mandozzi. “But what struck me in my first summer was how the extended light affects the culture scene. Music and art explode from every corner of the city. It’s a very special feeling when you leave the building after a concert and the sun is still shining brightly!”

Originally printed in the February 2011 issue of
Classical Music Magazine
Copyright © 2011 Classical Music Magazine.