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Seen and Heard Artist Interview

"In Touch with Music" : An Interview with Bjarte Engeset by Göran Forsling

Bjarte Engeset. 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 Requiem 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 conductor.

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 want silence.

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 is

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 the time.

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 8.557991).

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 Sinfonietta.

Göran Forsling

* 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.

Göran Försling's review of the Tan Dun / Grieg concert mentioned in the interview is here.

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Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

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