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Seen and Heard Artist Interview
"In Touch with Music" :
An Interview with
Bjarte Engeset by Göran Forsling
Picture © Pro Arte International Management
Norwegian conductor Bjarte
Engeset has had an important international career
for quite some time, appearing with the Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic, The
Radio Symphony Orchestra in Moscow and the Royal
Scottish National Orchestra, to mention just a
few. He has also recorded extensively, mainly
Nordic music. For Naxos he is currently recording
the complete orchestral works of Edvard Grieg; the
first three volumes have been lavishly praised and
the release of the fourth is imminent.
From this autumn he is artistic leader and chief
conductor of Dala Sinfonietta in Falun in central
Sweden and the day before his first concert in his
new position I met him over a cup of tea in a café
with fine old traditions, a stone’s throw from
Kristine Church, built in the 17th century
and an important part of Falun’s skyline.
Bjarte Engeset is talkative, well articulated and
knows what he wants. He has distinct opinions on
not only music, is open-minded and a good
listener. Our two-hour-long afternoon tea
conversation evolved in many directions and the
interview below is in effect an edited summary of
some of the essentials that emerged.
To start from the beginning:
where did your relationship with music start?
Honestly speaking, music was
always there as part of my early life. My mother
was a pianist and singer, on an amateur level, and
music was nothing strange, no luxury. It was as
natural as breathing. But your question also
implies something more specific: when did I
realize a deeper meaning of music, when did it
start talking to me, and that’s a complicated
question. There are moments, maybe seconds, when
one listens to music and something goes directly
to the heart, a revelation, and I had revelations
but I can’t say specifically which and when. Later
in life a special performance of Verdi’s
touched me deeply. I started playing quite early,
recorder and then flute and somewhere along the
path it dawned on me that music was what I wanted
to devote myself to.
Like so many other Nordic
conductors in the front ranks you studied at the
Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with the “guru” Jorma
Panula. What’s so special with him?
His greatness lies in the fact
that he doesn’t have a formula, he doesn’t cast
his students in the same mould. On the contrary,
his message is that each and everyone has to find
one’s own way, to trust oneself and one’s ideas.
Conducting, making music in general, isn’t a
matter of copying others. Panula’s method is also
based on putting things into practice more than
theorizing. We worked with orchestras and
afterwards we sat down over a glass of beer or in
the sauna and discussed: Why did you do that?
Conducting has nothing to do with poses,
conducting is conveying musical ideas. With a
professional orchestra I need not go into basics;
I trust that the musicians know when to play forte
or piano. My mission is together with them to make
some something organic out of the written music.
Giving musical ideas is a main point for a
Communication is your
“buzzword” and your motto, also the header of the
General Programme for the Dala Sinfonietta this
year, is Musik som berör, literally “Music
that touches”, which I rendered more freely into
“In Touch with Music”. Today we live in a society
where music, very often commercialized music or
“wall-paper” music, seems to surround us around
the clock. Isn’t there a risk that people get so
impregnated with music in a kind of media noise
that they lose the ability to listen – they hear
but they don’t listen actively.
I see your point and I can
agree to some extent, but we must remember that
music is so many-faceted, has so many functions.
What we are primarily talking about is music as
art and art is a matter of existence, but music
has so many more purposes: for playing, for
dancing, for religious purposes and just for
relaxation – functional music. And this doesn’t
exclude active listening. But I don’t want to hear
music all the time. When I go to a restaurant I
I also “test-listen” a
restaurant before I go in. But we have another
aspect on music which is mainly social – and not
only music. In Sweden there is finkultur
(approximately snob culture) and populärkultur,
which I hope is self-explanatory. Going to the
opera is finkultur, going to a rock concert
I think this is a universal
phenomenon. In Norway we talk about “folk” versus
“elite”, But this is too vast a subject to go
deeper into at the moment. We should be careful
with both words, I think. History has shown that.
Art for me is mostly about existence, about being
a human being.
Let’s change the subject then
and talk about your new assignment as chief
conductor of the Dala Sinfonietta. This is a
provincial orchestra with 27 full-time employees.
What were your reasons for accepting this post?
I have been working with them
as guest conductor and it is a good orchestra.
With a small orchestra you can have a more open
dialogue than with a full-size symphony orchestra
of 90 to 100 players. But naturally there are
limitations. There is a lot of repertoire that is
out of reach for a sinfonietta and for the
musicians it is physically tough. Naturally I
would like to amend the orchestra, and I am going
to work for that but it is of course in the last
resort a political issue.
As artistic director you want
to create a distinctive image for yourself and the
orchestra. In what ways?
It is important to find new
categories of listeners – without frightening away
the established concert goers. Traditional
classical music is core repertoire but we also
have to find music that attracts younger
listeners. We have to widen our horizon. I think
the concert tomorrow with Tan Dun’s “Concert for
Water Percussion”, which is also visually
spectacular, is a step in that direction. But of
course variety is a key-word and I have to get a
better over-view of Swedish music, which of course
is an important commitment for an orchestra
financed by the tax-payers. We are also going to
tour more outside the province.
Talking of variety, the
programme this autumn is truly varied. You start
with the aforementioned concerto by Tan Dun,
juxtaposed with Grieg’s only symphony. Contrasts
indeed! Then there is Speglingar, a mixture
of folk music, jazz and classical music with Nils
Lindberg, one of the leading exponents in Sweden
of this kind of cross-over. The next concert
juxtaposes Beethoven with contemporary composer
Albert Schnelzer’s brand new Asraéel
symphony, inspired by Salman Rushdie and then
there is a corporative production with opera,
theatre and dance, where Riksteatern, Folkoperan
and Norrlandsperan are involved. English church
music, conducted by Ian Watson, is also on the
agenda and in mid-November there is Musika
akustika, where promising young
instrumentalists are soloists with the orchestra.
Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 and Brahms’ Violin
Concerto are of course standard works but at the
same concert you play an Overture by Fanny
Mendelssohn, which is a rarity indeed and the
violin soloist is no less a star than Henning
Kraggerud. Finally there is a Christmas Concert.
But of course you don’t conduct all
these concerts yourself.
I am scheduled to conduct 6 to
7 productions a year and this autumn there are 3.
But next spring I will be more under fire, not
least on tour.
You will also have activities
besides the Dala Sinfonietta.
I am doing a project with new
music with a Norwegian Youth Orchestra. Then I
continue the Grieg project on Naxos, where I will
be recording the complete Peer Gynt music with
Malmö Symphony Orchestra, singers and actors
within a couple of weeks. There is more Norwegian
music coming up too. In 2008 it is the centenary
of Geirr Tveitt’s birth, there is a Svendsen
anniversary coming up and I am busy working with
the manuscripts: there are also CD recordings
of the music of Ludvig Irgens-Jensen (1894 – 1969)
whose Passacaglia and Symphony are among the best
Norwegian orchestral works.
Apart from strictly musical
activities I write a great deal. I regularly write
the liner notes for my CD productions, which also
involves a lot of research. In my spare time I
read – I am trying to catch up with some Swedish
literature and read all three books by Stieg
Larsson* in one go. My family is of course the
most important and I want to be with them as much
as possible. I have quite small children.
Let’s go back for a moment to
tomorrow’s concert. You are playing Grieg’s only
symphony which he withdrew after a few incomplete
performances and famously wrote “Must never be
performed” on the cover of the manuscript score.
It lay un-played for more than a century but in
1980 it was performed in Russia – or the Soviet
Union as it then was – and after that it has been
played and recorded a number of times. To pose a
question of morals: Is it ethically right to
disobey a composer’s expressed wishes?
It is a well-founded question
and I have to admit that sometimes when I see the
photocopy of the manuscript score and read the
words in Grieg’s own handwriting “Må aldrig
opføres. E.G.” (Must never be performed) I feel a
sting in my heart. But there is more in this issue
than a strict ban from the composer. First of all
he kept the manuscript – he could have burnt it,
which he did many early works – and he published
the two inner movements as Op. 14 for piano four
hands (The piano concerto is Op. 16. GF). We must
also remember that it was a work by a very young
man, barely out of his teens, with low
self-confidence and he developed fast and realized
that the symphony wasn’t representative of him any
more. He wanted to go in other directions. The
symphony is a Sturm und Drang work. But it isn’t
weak as a composition and it is demanding. The
musicians and the conductor have to be active all
It isn’t known exactly when he
wrote that note on the score but most scholars
believe that it was after hearing Johan Svendsen’s
first symphony in 1867, which he found “the most
sparkling genius, the boldest national tone and a
really brilliant handling of the orchestra”. He
probably felt that he couldn’t compete with
Svendsen in this field.
During the years that it lay
un-played, many noted scholars turned it down as
being ‘clumsy’, ‘barely out of school’, ‘not
Norwegian enough’ but when it finally was
re-awakened both Harald Saeverud and Arne Nordheim,
two of the most important latter day composers in
Norway endorsed the decision. Ironically enough it
was in the Soviet Union that it was first
performed and recorded by Vitaly Katayev, who had
acquired a photocopy of the score. This almost
caused a cultural cold war, but since the damage
was done it had to be performed in Norway as well
and to date it has been recorded about ten times.
(The latest by Bjarte Engeset himself with Malmö
Symphony Orchestra, recently issued on Naxos
Not having heard the symphony
before I am very much looking forward to the
concert tomorrow (see review). Thank you very much
for a pleasant conversation. I hope you will enjoy
the next three years together with Dala
* Stieg Larsson was a
journalist and author who died in 2004, aged 50,
from a heart-attack and left behind three criminal
thrillers that have become tremendously popular
with sales figures that are almost astronomical.
review of the Tan Dun / Grieg concert mentioned in
the interview is
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