Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Everyone’s in Bergen

June 11

Two days could hardly be more different. June 11 was full of artistic beauty – a music seminar, recital and joint concert – while June 12 was abundant with natural glory – the drive and ferry rides from Bergen to Geiranger.

June 11: Artistic Abundance
Early Saturday morning, most of the 95 Study Travelers attended an optional seminar at The Grieg Academy, a school for college and master’s degree level musicians.

Our guest speaker, Harald Bjørkøy, is a professor at the academy. He’s one of three brothers who are tenors and who hold three major vocal teaching posts in Norway. Dan Dressen introduced Harold as part of the Bjørkby music mafia.

Bjørkøy played excerpts from an opera we’d never heard. Neither had any Norwegians until recently, when Bjørkøy and others got the opera recorded on CD and then into production. This is part of ongoing work to record and perform the works of forgotten Norwegian composers. These days there is respectable interest in and attention to contemporary Norwegian composers. Yet, a virtual black hole exists with regard to 19th-century music other than Grieg’s.

The opera excerpt we heard was engaging and colorful, accessible and appealing. Based on one of the kings Olav, its story line is classic opera: love, war, power, death, betrayal.

Bjørkøy and a faculty pianist played a firecracker of a piece in the tradition of Schubert Lieder. Four students sang quartets with beautifully cultivated voices. They were thrilled to receive complimentary tickets to the joint concert that night.

Personal Contact Trumps Technology
Previously I mentioned Dan Dressen’s work to establish a library of Nordic song at St. Olaf. Bjørkøy showed us about 10 photocopied, bound books of Norwegian songs that had been published long ago, but had disappeared from the cultural scene. He promised to make a set for Dan to augment the Nordic song library at St. Olaf. This re-discovered repertoire will serve St. Olaf students and other scholars with “new” literature for study and performance.

As we left, Bjørkby and Dressen were hatching a scheme to bring Bjørkøy to campus for master classes, study and performance. In this day of e-mail, when it’s easy to contact colleagues around the world, it’s still face-to-face conversation among scholars that really moves education and research forward – to the ultimate benefit of students.

Other examples of the power of personal contact: St. Olaf President Chris Thomforde was also in town for the concert and Study Travel. He visited his counterpart at the University of Bergen and discussed potential educational exchanges. While in Oslo, John Ferguson met with Harald Herresthal, professor of organ at Norges Musikhøgskole about opportunities for St. Olaf and Norwegian students.

Festival Atmosphere in Bergen
During free time, many Study Travelers and students intermingled with the international crowd around the Bryggen and the harbor. Several old sailing ships were docked. Their modern-day crews looked like they’d sailed in from a previous century. Crafts booths, dried-fish tasting, and folk music created a festival atmosphere on a mostly sunny day.

Marketplace Lunch
The best lunch in Bergen on a sunny day (or a rainy one if you’ve given up) is at the harbor market. A salmon and shrimp sandwich and fresh fruit from the stalls make an inexpensive, healthy meal in a country noted for the high cost of food and more emphasis on meat and bread than on fruits and vegetables. Todd Nichol says you can travel the whole United States and never find a strawberry as flavorful as Norwegian strawberries. Having sampled, I agree.

Troldhaugen: Grieg’s Home and Cottage
Besides time and Internet access, the biggest challenge to blogging is conveying aural and visual experience in words. You can’t capture the grandeur of fjord and mountains even in photos much less in words. How then to convey the quality of the artistic experiences of June 11?

The seminar at The Grieg Academy would have been a day’s worth of highlight. There was more to come. The three Study Travel groups traveled to Troldhaugen, Edvard and Nina Grieg’s home in the outskirts of Bergen.

In keeping with his interest in folk music, Grieg incorporated peasant elements, such as wood-plank walls.

Photos of his buddies and heroes, such as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, adorn a corner wall. Family portraits show the composer and his wife as people from not so long ago. The most compelling portrait of Grieg is unfinished. Grieg fired the artist, probably because the portrait came too close to the truth. In it, Grieg’s very handsome face shows signs of the illness that plagued him. On the other hand, he dedicated a piece to the artist who truly captured Nina's spirit in his portrait.

If Ole Bull’s home on Lysøen (The Isle of Light) is a shrine to himself and testimony to his world travels as the pop star of his day, Grieg’s is more understated. Nonetheless it’s grand enough to convey the stature of the composer who still overshadows all others from Norway.

Below the crest of hill on which the house sits is Grieg’s cottage. His desk faces a picture window that peers through pines to the fjord. It reminds me of Churchill’s cottage on the grounds of Chartwell and Dickens’ writing room overlooking the sea at Margate. Professors Charles Forsberg and John Ferguson, both gifted composers and arrangers, commented they would write more and be more famous if they had a place like that!

St. Olaf Recital at Troldhaugen
A small concert hall at Troldhaugen was the venue for a faculty recital and lecture demonstration. All seats sweep down to the focal point: a grand piano in front of the floor-to-ceiling window that serves as the backdrop for all performances.

Study Travelers, having seen the faculty leaders as teachers, now heard them as performers. They were wowed. Charles Forsberg played several of Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces” for piano and accompanied Dan solo and Dan and Margaret in duet. Margaret demonstrated a traditional style of folk singing, unadorned by vibrato.

We sang Norwegian songs and learned their background. We’re here in the perpetual light of midsummer. Yet darkness and longing comes through in many songs, the consequence of long weeks at sea, summers spent alone tending sheep, winter darkness, and the isolation of people who lived short, hard lives, never leaving the valleys in which they were born.

Valhalla sang a customized version of “Um! Yah! Yah!” about their Study Travel experience and the students’ concerts. Not to be outdone, Fram! Fram! has their response ready: “Beautiful Norway” set to the tune of “Beautiful Savior.” They debuted it on the bus and John Ferguson provided an instant "scholarly" review.

Bergen Concert: “A Happy Encounter with Strong American Ideals”
After dinner (and for the Viking group an uproarious final exam), we entered Grieghallen’s hall. Used by the Bergen Philharmonic and other orchestras, the acoustics naturally served the St. Olaf Orchestra best.

Seeing the red acoustical and decorative ceiling, John Ferguson speculated that the Lego company was a major donor. The hall is modern, yet feels close and intimate with the first row of seats on the stage floor.

The Study Travelers plus Oles in town for the occasion sat front and center. Sure, we started the standing ovations, but applausen å dømme (thunderous applause) came from the whole hall.

Excerpts from the June 12 Bergens Tidene review convey the success:
"Happy encounter with strong American ideals: Impressions of Norwegian culture, but something more, too

"The band, orchestra and choir have definitively appropriated Norwegian repertoire and interpretive practice; and at the same time the ensembles have fascinating additional qualities. St. Olaf College uses large forces, something that gives the sound fullness and breadth. Here at home we are not always faithful to such an ideal.

"Another asset is the directors’ definite artistic leadership. They are highly competent people who don’t just lead, but rather communicate in a truly effective and appealing manner. In so doing, they lift the amateurs’ performances at times up to a professional level. A third factor is the blending of respect for their Norwegian origins with the will to still make their own artistic choices. Because of that, Norwegian music doesn’t harden into hackneyed interpretation, but rather gives an impression of something more. This was a concert both to reflect upon and to delight in."

Celebrating with Ice Cream
On the walk back to the hotel, a small crowd of Study Travelers gathered impromptu at Bon Appetit, an ice cream and burgers place doing brisk business at 11 p.m., as were bars and restaurants. We’re a pretty wholesome lot, celebrating the splendors of music, camaraderie and midsummer nights with ice cream.


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