The history of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (1/2)

In 2019 the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating its 100th anniversary, the occasion for the orchestra to go on a big European tour, and show how youthful and formidable they are after one hundred years of existence. To mark this year of celebration, the orchestra has put online a long text in Norwegian, with photos and videos, describing its history in details, as well as an archive with the programs of all the concert performances of the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra since its birth, and I have extensively used both sources to write this text, with the help of online translation websites, as I don’t speak Norwegian.

Complicated beginnings

The origins of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra date back to 1879, when the capital of the Kingdom of Norway, then linked to the Kingdom of Sweden, was called Kristiana. Norwegian composers Edvard Grieg and Johann Svendsen presided over the founding of the ‘Kristiana Musikforening’. But it was not until 1918, thanks to the generous donation of the shipowner A.F. Klaveness that the symphony orchestra of the capital, which had become Oslo since the independence of the country, was born. It then took only 6 months to recruits almost 60 musicians and three conductors.

The first concert was conducted on September 27, 1919 by Finnish conductor Georg Schnevoigt, and was an opportunity to showcase the richness of Norwegian music, with a program consisting of the Grieg Piano Concerto, the Festival Polonaise by Johan Svendsen and the Symphony No. 1 by Christian Sinding (1856-1941), who explained after the concert that the creation of the orchestra was a ‘miracle’.

Promotional photo for the 100th anniversary season of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra

A heated debate took place at that time on the choice of the first music director of the orchestra. Was it necessary to choose a Norwegian or could the orchestra choose a foreigner, with the risk that the place devoted to Norwegian music in the programs would be limited? Finally a compromise was adopted, and the orchestra appointed three principal conductors: the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen, the Finnish conductor Georg Schnevoigt and the Polish conductor Ignaz Neumark. It should be noted that from the beginning the orchestra attracted internationally renowned conductors and soloists such as Arthur Nikisch, Edwin Fischer, or Bruno Walter, and that the programs of the first seasons highlighted not only the Norwegian roots of orchestra, but also the standards of European music. Nevertheless, during the first decades of its existence the orchestra remained a local and Scandinavian orchestra, and only left Norway for a tour in Sweden in 1927.

The financial difficulties of the orchestra increased in the 1930s, especially with the advent of the economic crisis. Financial support from the city of Oslo and the Norwegian state began to drop sharply, jeopardizing the very existence of the orchestra, even though the musicians accepted a cut in their salary. It was finally a partnership with the Norwegian public radio, the NRK, which made it possible to secure the financing of the orchestra from 1934 onwards. Nowadays, the orchestra’s concerts can still be heard on this radio on a regular basis, and major events are also broadcast on television. But one of the unfortunate consequences of this partnership was that the number of spectators attending the concerts dropped significantly.

The turbulence of the Second World War

Norway was invaded by German troops in April 1940, and therefore the 100th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Grieg took place in an occupied country. At that time, the orchestra suffered not only financially, but was also managed by the German authorities. However, it maintained a tradition of free concerts, organized by Norwegian cultural institutions, concerts that attracted a large number of spectators, unlike the « official » concerts organized by the occupation authorities, which were deserted by the Norwegians. It is in this complicated context that the anniversary concerts celebrating the birth of Grieg took place between June 7 and 12, 1943.

The orchestra didn’t give any concert during the 1944-45 season, and before resuming normal activity, a meeting had to be held on May 22, 1945, in which the management of the orchestra had to proceed with a ‘denazification’ of the orchestra by dismissing the musicians who had collaborated with the authorities and replacing them. 9 musicians were thus replaced.

On September 10, 1945, the opening concert of the first post-war season was held under the direction of the new chief conductor, Odd Grüner-Hegge. This Norwegian conductor was an important personality for the orchestra, which he led as principal conductor from 1931 to 1933, and from 1945 to 1962. A child prodigy who had come under the attention of Edvard Grieg, whom he had met at the age of 6, Grüner- Hegge was a well-known composer and pianist, who was keen to play Norwegian music and who recorded the first albums of the orchestra.

Odd Grüner-Hegge

Opening to the international

The first major European tour took place in 1961-1962, and allowed European critics and music lovers to finally discover the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra played for more than two weeks in twelve cities, mainly in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. This tour was a great critical success, and gave an opportunity for the orchestra to show itself in its best light. The programs were always composed of a recent Norwegian piece to start with, followed by Grieg’s piano concerto and finally a symphonic work, either by Brahms, Beethoven or Svendsen. The concerts of this tour were led by the two new chief conductors, the veteran Øivin Fjeldstad, and a 35-year-old young man, destined for a great international career and still working today, Herbert Blomstedt.

Blomstedt was the chief conductor of the orchestra between 1962 and 1968, and after an absence of almost twenty years, he has been regularly invited by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra since the 1990s. He remains one of the conductors most frequently mentioned by current members of the orchestra when asked what is their most remarkable memory in Oslo. One of the reasons why Blomstedt stayed for a relatively short period in Oslo was the battle to build a new concert hall, a recurring problem as we will see later.

Øivin Fjeldstad (1903-1983) is less known to music lovers. A very talented violinist, he made his debut in the Oslo orchestra at the age of 17. He had a great influence in training a whole generation of musicians as a violin teacher at the Oslo conservatory. He started conducting quite late, in 1931, and after studying with the German conductor Clemens Krauss in Berlin, he decided to make conducting his main job. After the war he conducted many operas, including the famous recording of Wagner’s Götterdämerung with the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstadt. He shared the position of chief conductor with Herbert Blomstedt between 1962 and 1968, before being sole chief conductor after Blomstedt’s departure and until his retirement in 1970. Fjeldstad was a tireless defender of Norwegian music, which made him was worthy of being knighted to the royal order of St. Olaf by the king in 1962.

Øivin Fjeldstad

The never-ending issue of building a concert hall

During the first decades of its existence, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra had to work without its own concert hall, and it was not until 1955 that an architectural competition was launched. However the construction took a long time, so much so that the musicians of the orchestra, exhausted, decided to strike a big blow and demonstrated in the streets of the city in June 1967. Finally in December, the first stone was laid, and the concert hall was completed in 1972. However, the story unfortunately does not stop there since this hall suffers from poor acoustics, and several chief conductors of the orchestra have campaigned for the construction of a new hall, but have failed until now to get the city to build a new philharmonic hall.

The Mariss Jansons era

When the young Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons conducted the Oslo orchestra for the first time, it was apparently love at first sight. The orchestra was well acquainted with Mariss’s father, Arvid Janssons, a Latvian conductor of international renown. Here’s what counter-bassist Svein Haugen said about this first meeting with Mariss Jansons:

‘It was very special. There was something in his body language, how clear he was from a rhythmic point of view and in music in general. Soon it became the perfect match between what we were doing and what he was doing. From the first rehearsals the orchestra was much more precise.’

A very insightful documentary shows the rehearsals of Béla Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin with Jansons and the orchestra. This documentary shows Jansons’ very precise work with the musicians, as well as testimonies from members of the orchestra, such as the violinist Kristina M. Kiss, who declared that the Latvian chef arrived as a ‘Russian revolution’, that he had totally changed the atmosphere and the working attitude of the orchestra. Under his direction, from 1979 to 2002, the orchestra recorded dozens of works, mostly from the Russian repertoire, and the orchestra became internationally renowned, especially thanks to major tours in very prestigious concert venues, including a week-long residency at the Musikverein in Vienna. Jansons has also imposed a great deal of discipline on the orchestra and he totally changed the sound of this orchestra, which I analyzed in more detail in another text. Many of the current members of the orchestra were recruited during the Jansons era, and the sound of the orchestra is still somewhat influenced by this period of its history.

After Jansons

One of the French musicians of the orchestra between 1998 and 2013, clarinetist Matthieu Lescure, explained in an interview in 2009 that the orchestra was expecting from its musical directors an iron discipline. This explained, according to him, the difficult relationship with André Prévin who was chief conductor from 2003 to 2006, at a time when the American conductor was getting old and tired. Nevertheless the orchestra continued to develop under his direction, took part in prestigious tours, including concerts at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms, at the Lucerne festival, in Vienna and the United States during the 2004/2005 season. On the website of the orchestra, the musicians have left several testimonies that express their deep admiration for this great musician, who died last year.

André Previn in Oslo (Photo: A.P. Mutter)

The influence of Jansons probably explains the very good relationships the orchestra developed with Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who was appointed chief conductor from 2006 to 2013 and was much appreciated by the musicians for his precision, rigour and authority. Saraste conducted the orchestra for the first time in 1983, but following the development of his career he had little time to return to Oslo, and it was only in 2001 that he came back. At the head of the orchestra, he was noted for his artistic integrity and the depth of his performances, particularly in Mahler’s and Sibelius’s symphonies.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Photographer: Felix Broede)

Then in 2013, the Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, who had followed masterclasses by Mariss Jansons during his training as a conductor, was appointed chief conductor of the orchestra After Saraste. Like Mariss Jansons, Petrenko led the orchestra on major international tours in Europe and Asia, and he has also made a series of acclaimed recordings, including cycles of symphonic music by Scriabin and Strauss that have received very positive reviews.

A radiant present, a future full of promise

Currently the orchestra is composed of 108 full-time musicians, who play between 60 and 70 concerts in Oslo each year, not only at the Oslo Konserthus, but also in other parts of the city. The orchestra has become very feminine, some are even section leaders (Elise Båtnes, Louisa Tuck, Catherine Bullock, Inger Besserundhagen, and Birgitte Volan Håvik), who can play the role of soloists in concerts and on recordings (as for example in the recent recordings of Strauss’s symphonic poems). The orchestra has also become more cosmopolitan, with musicians who are increasingly recruited from the rest of Europe and from other continents. On the orchestra’s website, the biographies of almost all the members of the orchestra are available, and I have seen that several musicians describe a working atmosphere based on mutual trust and the joy of making music together, which is a sign of a great cohesion within the orchestra. Several musicians also explain how warmly they were welcomed into the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and how much they enjoy working with their colleagues every day:

Imagine getting to play large, symphonic works with incredibly skilled colleagues every day! Playing with others is its own form of communication, a flow of its own. The way the music sounds at its best, depends on every single individual. We make each other excel. In many ways, an orchestra is a miniature universe, a harmonious universe!’ Kristine Lisedatter Martens, cellist.

Vasily Petrenko announced last year that he was leaving the direction of the orchestra, one of the reasons apparently his being tired at constantly having to fight for the construction of a new concert hall with a more favorable acoustics, a problem that Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes also evoked in a text published on his Facebook and Instagram accounts during the recent European tour of the orchestra (thanks to the very efficient translation software available online!).

A few months after the announcement of Petrenko’s departure from Oslo, the orchestra caused a sensation by announcing the appointment of the very young, and very talented, Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, who will probably refocus the repertoire of the orchestra on Scandinavian music. Mäkelä is extremely lucky as he has this incredible opportunity of leading a superb orchestra, and it will be up to him not only to preserve the quality of the orchestra, but also to continue making high-level recordings.

Klaus Mäkelä (Photo: Charlotte Wiig)
Promotional photo on the website of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra

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