Welcome to Bergen in May

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January 06, 2010

The late spring days are long in Norway, a country that tends to take an admirably enlightened view on life – as its thriving music and theatre scenes demonstrate; but in 2010 there will be a dark side to Bergen International Festival.

Established in 1953, and the largest arts festival in the Nordic region, the Bergen International Festival will embrace 160 events in 2010, covering music, opera, theatre, dance and the visual arts. Bergen, Norway’s second city is an historic Hanseatic port, gateway to the fjords, location of Edvard Grieg’s home at Troldhaugen, and home to one of the world’s oldest orchestras, the Bergen Philharmonic founded in 1765 and now under the directorship of Andrew Litton.

This year, the festival will showcase musical talent from Norway – including pianist Leif Ove Andnes, violinist Henning Kraggerud two Norwegian trumpeters Tine Thing Helseth and Nils Petter Molvær who performs with the Bergen Big Band, Norwegian conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen with the NDR Radiophilharmonie from Hanover, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra – and from around the world, including violinist Nicolas Znaider, pianists Gabriela Montero and Saleem Abboud Ashkar, the Faust Quartet and Les Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowski.

The festival’s director is Per Boye Hansen, who has held the post since 2005, having previously spent a number of years at the Komische Oper in Berlin. “We have some thrills and chills lined up for 2010,” he explains, “as we explore some of the darker aspects of Norway’s past.”  The central music-theatre production is a collaboration with the host city’s Den Nye Opera and the Norwegian Armed Forces Band, Western Norway. Staged on the historic parade ground at Bergenhus Fortress – which dates back to the 13th century – it is the opera Anne Pedersdotter, composed in 1971 by Edvard Fliflet Bræin (1924-1976). Set in the late 16th century, it is the story of the wife of a distinguished Bergen priest who falls obsessively in love with her stepson; when her husband falls ill and dies, she is put on trial for witchcraft.

Anne Pedersdotter is a gripping psychological drama,” says Hansen, “and the opera – written in a tonal idiom which perhaps seemed conservative in the early 1970s – is probably the best stage work by a Norwegian composer from the last 40 years or so. It is superbly crafted and enjoyed a great success at its premiere. The dramatic structure is very strong, and the darker themes are leavened with touches of lyricism and humour.” Anne Pedersdotter is based on a successful play by Hans Wiers-Jenssen (1866-1925) which also gave rise to Respighi’s opera La fiamma (with the action transferred to Ravenna). The title role will be played by the Swedish soprano Ingela Brimberg, the conductor is Peter Szilvay and the director is Knut Hendriksen, former managing director of the Norwegian Opera and long-standing director at the Stockholm Opera. He also happens to be the great-grandson of the Bergen-born violinist Ole Bull, whose 200th anniversary is celebrated at the 2010 festival – and who was a consummate showman ready to propagate myths about his own ‘supernatural’ powers.

The more shadowy side of Norway’s past – and maybe its present too – is also explored in another piece of music theatre,Svartediket (Black Ditch), written by Arild Brakstad. It is billed as a ‘black metal musical’, black metal being a frenetic form of rock in which Norwegian bands lead the world. Svartediket is the name of a lake near Bergen which acts a reservoir for the city – and which until the late 18th century was a watery grave for unwanted children …

The show will be staged at Den Nationale Scene, Norway's oldest permanent theatre. Its origins lie in Det Norske Theater founded in 1850 by Ole Bull. Beyond his stellar international reputation as ‘the Nordic Paganini’, Bull – whose admirers included Schumann and Liszt – was, as Per Boye Hansen explains: “responsible for creating a cultural infrastructure for Norway, which at the time was a very poor country … He had an impact on iconic figures like Grieg and Ibsen.” Bull’s extravagant villa inBergen, Lysøen, which sports a distinctive onion dome, is a regular concert venue for the festival, and he will be celebrated with an hommage from Vadim Repin and with an exhibition of important violins, including his own Guarneri del Gesù. Bull’s influence seems to live on: Hansen is keen to point out that Norway’s education system is now producing a strong crop of young musicians, notably violinists, such as 22-year-old Vilde Frang, who first captured the attention of Anne-Sophie Mutter at the Bergen International Festival some ten years ago and is now recording for EMI Classics. In 2010, there will be a number of recitals by young performers at Grieg’s house at Troldhaugen.

If Grieg’s work is intimately linked to the Norwegian landscape, it is the natural and urban vistas of the USA that are evoked inPhilip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsithe 80-minute soundtrack for the wordless 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio. The composer himself brings his eponymous ensemble to Bergen to join forces with the Bergen Philharmonic for the European premiere of his orchestral version of the score.

Visiting from Catalonia will be the sometimes controversial director Calixto Bieito, who is collaborating with Copenhagen’sBetty Nansen Theatre on a new piece which recounts a modern version of the Passion through a collage of literary texts and of music by Bach. Bieito has already visited Bergen with two productions of plays by Ibsen: a Peer Gynt imported from Barcelona and a Brand with Oslo’s National Theatre company. “Bieito is both highly imaginative and deeply analytical,” observes Per Boye Hansen. “His work is many-layered and the audience can feel the intensity of his personal involvement. His previous productions in Bergen were well received by both the press and the public ... There was a lot more controversy when I worked with him in Berlin, but that was in opera rather than theatre. Yes, he makes use of strong effects, but his aim is not to provoke.”

The dance component of the festival is represented by New York’s Paul Taylor Dance Company, an emblematic ensemble in modern ballet,  the Oslo-based Jo Strømgren Kompani which focuses on “direct communication, physical rawness and absurd humour through a crossover style”, and Norway’s national contemporary dance company,  Carte Blanche.

The Bergen International Festival is indeed, as Per Boye Hansen claims, “the meeting point for the most interesting creative and performing artists in the Nordic region and beyond”. 40,000 audience members will be converging on Bergen to experience their work, so – even if things get a little frightening as dark forces rise to the surface – visitors can rely on safety in numbers

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