Still Going Strong: Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra at 250

By Harriet Smith, Gramophone

With its Music Director Andrew Litton, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra has been busy increasing its international profile. With a Proms concert, anniversary commissions and a new conductor all on the horizon, the future’s looking bright for this little ’Harmonien,’ writes Harriet Smith

Googling ’Bergen Philharmonic’ doesn’t lead you quite where you’d expect landing on the other Bergen Philharmonic in New Jersey. That outfit doesn’t have quite the kudos or the longevity of the Norwegian orchestra, though, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.

That an ensemble not exactly at the heart of Europe and not even in a capital city should have garnered the accolade of one the world’s oldest orchestras might initially, seem curious. Established in 1765 as a musical society, the orchestra became officially known as Musikeliskabet Harmonien, although the locals simply call it ‘Harmonien.’ Strikingly, it was set up not by a court or the church but by the bourgeoisie – the businessmen of Bergen, They had grown wealthy, in part due to the powerful alliance of the Hanseatic League, helping Bergen to become the country’s largest city at the time (with a population of around 14,000) and highly international in outlook. Its businessmen wanted to show they were men of culture too, hence the enthusiasm for an orchestra. Embracing the new has always been a vital element – it performed Beethoven’s Second Symphony in 1804, the year the piece was published. And just before Christmas last year it established a new ’digital concert hall,’ which allows concerts to be streamed for free. As the orchestra’s Communications Director Henning Målsnes, explains: “The feedback has been really good so far. We are learning as we go but so far we’ve had about 8000 views. We streamed a concert with Andrew [Litton] from January and have one on from there: Edward Gardner’s Glagolitic Mass, Mahler songs with Alice Coote. We’re also hoping to stream Mahler’s Fourth and Unsuk Chin’s Scenes from Alice in Wonderland with Juanjo Mena.”

The orchestra’s anniversary has proved a used hook for all sorts of activities – contemporary music foremost among them. As Henning comments; “We have a commissioning programme which we’ve called Opus 250, which features more than 25 works by Norwegian and international composers. And we’re also commissioning a special project for the anniversary itself in which three Bergen-born composers from different generations – Ketil Hvoslef, Knut Vaage and Ørjan Matre – will respond to a poem we’ve commissioned on the different meanings of the word ’Harmonien.’ It will be exciting to see what they do with it.”

The birthday itself falls on October 8, celebrated by a gala concert with music directors old and new – Andrew Litton and Edward Gardner – plus, of course, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. He’s the city’s favorite musical son, having gone to study at the Bergen Music Conservatory aged just 16. Another innovation is a new youth orchestra for 16- to 25-year-olds, which will make its official debut in the same month with Holst’s The Planets, conducted by Kristjan Järvi.

The orchestra’s increasing profile internationally perhaps reflects the fact that in the past 30 years it has had successively Italian, Russian, Australian and then American music directors (Aldo Ceccato, Dmitri Kitajenko, Simone Young and Andrew Litton). Its repertoire has changed palpably under the latest incumbent, who took over as Music Director in 2003, with lots of juicy Russian repertoire – Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, but also ’Mahler and Richard Strauss. And the direction will switch again when Edward Gardner takes over next season, with more Brahms, Schumann and Janáček the pipeline.

Litton is refreshingly candid about the way his relationship with Bergen began. “I first arrived to conduct the orchestra in October 1998, thinking to myself, “Has my career tanked so much that I’m coming here to conduct this orchestra I’ve never heard of? It didn’t help that it was pitch black and pouring with rain. The next morning I threw open the curtains, the sun was shining, there was snow on the mountains. And I went over to the hall and gave them the preparatory, beats for Shostakovich’s Fifth, already rolling my eyes inwardly, and the lower strings came in. Bah Dum! I was stunned. As I’ve said before, it was love at first beat. Great chemistry – and that doesn’t happen every week.”

In 2000 the orchestra started asking him to become its next Music Director. “They asked three times, and the third time was over dinner – the quickest way to my heart!” Litton is known for an uncanny ability to raise the profile of whichever orchestra he happens to be heading, be it Bournemouth, Dallas or Bergen (though his biggest challenge is surely the next one, the Colorado Symphony). That raised international profile is partly a result of a much-increased tour schedule, including significant tours in 2007 (conveniently hooked to the centenary of Grieg’s death) to Vienna, debuts at the BBC Proms and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and a major tour of the USA. Later this summer they return to the Proms with a typically eclectic programme: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Springand Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto combining with new works by Alissa Firsova and Ørjan Matre. All this, as Litton. points out, has helped the orchestra’s perception at home too. “When people in Bergen suddenly started reading great reviews we were getting of concerts in Oslo or the United States, it made them realize it was no longer just their little ‘Harmonien.” To have an orchestra of this standard in a city of this size is extremely unusual but again to avoid the provincial feel you have to get out – you have to play away game. And one of the most exciting things about this ensemble is its international nature : the players are about 50 per cent non-Norwegian, from countries such as Latvia, Switzerland and New Zealand, as well as the UK and Germany.”

On the evening I heard them the Litton effect was clearly evident, with a programme centred around Korngold’s luscious Sinfonietta. “I’ve wanted to programme the Korngold for 12 years because the Bergen’s string section has such a gorgeous sound. And we came up with this Vienna theme, so you’ve got the darkness of the Mahler songs contrasting with the beauty and sentimentality of the Lehár – all sung with typical finesse by baritone Bo Skovhus.

One of the other aspects that Litton has developed with the orchestra is recording. “BIS was already here recording a Grieg cycle but that could have been it. I came in and they got interested in Prokofiev and Mendelssohn. And we then learnt the discipline of recording for BIS, who are incredibly ‘persnickety’ about the quality, which is fantastic. I’m thrilled with the Prokofiev Fifth, our latest release. The orchestra are on great form: they have a way of playing Russian music which is similar to how I was taught by Rostropovich, which is basically that you take no prisoners. If you’re not in a puddle at the end, you haven’t given enough!”

The appointment of Edward Gardner is, by common consent, a smart move. Litton talks of Gardner’s ’youthful energy,’ continuing: “I’m thrilled he wanted the job because it certainly takes him out of the UK spotlight. It’s a natural fit and he also brings with him recording experience with Chandos, which is terrific for the orchestra.

As for what makes the Bergen Philharmonic stand out today, Litton puts it down to a unique sound quality: “The warmth of the strings, who can really sustain a sound through the bow – that’s special. And the quirky woodwind, so full of character. And then my principal trumpet and trombone are both American and we’re kind of known for brass players. So it is definitely a hybrid sound but the interesting thing is that the bulk of the Norwegians are in the string section so the warmth obviously comes from the drinking water!”

Perhaps it’s the drinking water that accounts for Bergen’s illustrious musical history. Even today, the city is dominated by two figures: the violinist Ole Bull, who was reckoned by Schumann to be as prodigious a player as Paganini, and of course Edvard Grieg. Both are conspicuous within the city but, even more so, in Bergen’s remarkable public library. Just as the orchestra is far more than a regional ensemble, that is equally true of the library, which functions more like a national than a public institution and houses the collections of both Bull and Grieg. As Siren Steen, longtime Head of the Grieg Archives, comments: “Grieg bequeathed his collection to the library because he wanted local people to get to know good music. And of course he bequeathed his earnings from copyright to the orchestra, which was very good news when you think how popular the Lyric Pieces were, played in homes everywhere.” The Grieg Archive is vast, encompassing some 5000 letters, and 150 manuscripts as well as his diaries, account books, private collection of printed scores (enormously interesting because so many people sent their own music to him, wanting his opinion) and articles, clippings and concert programmes from, his time as a student in Leipzig. And his books too, From even the most cursory exploration you build up a picture of a man for whom detail was all, from the fastidiously executed manuscripts to his account books which note every train fare, every order for nails relating to his other great love, the house being built for him and Nina at Troldhaugen. To visit that house today is to get still more of a sense of the man. Not only the house itself – which combines a fairy-tale exterior with a simple wooden and airy interior that seems strikingly modern – but even more so his composing hut; little more than a shed with a vast picture-window overlooking the fiord below. An apt reminder that, while it’s extraordinary to be able to explore so much online via scanned manuscripts and the Bergen Philharmonic’s digital concert hall, nothing beats the real thing.

Courtesy of Gramophone, July 2015