Chamber spot: Svalbard’s first classical music festival brings ‘music of friends’ to historic and new performance sites

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A few hours after people in Longyearbyen experienced their first hour of sunlight in nearly four months, Tim Weiss promised a small group of them “you will get tired of the sun” within minutes.

The declaration/warning preceded a performance of the Swedish modern classical composition “Sun Song” during the inaugural four-day Arctic Chamber Music Festival that ended Sunday. Weiss, a conductor from the U.S., said the Friday night performance reflected what he perceives as a local love/hate relationship with the sun.

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Soprano singer Berit Norbakken Solset (standing at back) performs the “Sun Song” suite under the guidance of conductor Tim Wiess on Friday night at Kulturhuset. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“I don’t know what it’s like to live here, but I imagine the dark time can be very great – but it can be very sad,” he told the audience of a few dozen (deliberately kept small by setting out a limited number of chairs on the floor in front of the stage at the 250-seat Kulturhuset). “But when the sun comes back you must have so much anticipation and excitement.”

“It is OK if you go like this,” Weiss added, plugging his ears with his fingers. “Do you get tired of the sun? There is a moment (during the performance) where you will get tired of the sun – even the musicians go eeeeeie. Sometimes the dissonance can be really ugly in their piece – so enjoy it.”

The festival featuring the Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra, whose members have performed numerous individual concerts in Longyearbyen since 2013, and other visiting musicians sought to capture the intimate nature of chamber music in a variety of the town’s historic and modern settings. Settings included an art gallery, museum, luxury hotel restaurant, library and – in perhaps a classic music first – the mountaintop Mine 7 about 10 kilometers outside town (a last-minute change from the original plan to have the concert in Mine 3 that was necessitated by electrical problems).

The size of the ensemble and variety of performances was equally diverse, ranging from ensembles of more than 30 musicians playing well-known opera and classical music from centuries ago to a single person who closed out the festival with a modern experimental electronica sound/visual interpretation of Chopin.

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Longyearbyen youths play instruments they made from cardboard tubes, rubber gloves and other items during a festival workshop Saturday at Artica Svalbard. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

As with “Sun Song,” locally-relevant interpretations of themes were offered during some of the festival’s other 17 performances, workshops and other events featuring 44 visiting musicians. A late Friday night “Winterreise” concert featuring the last compositions of Schubert, for example, portrayed the similarities of the musician’s chilly end-of-life thoughts and the Arctic winter.

“The scene for the cycle, the travel through winter, is of course an internal one,” a description of the concert by organizers notes. “But set in the harsh, untamed environment of Svalbard, it is easy to make the connection between the images in the text and piano part, and the desolate, internal landscape that the composer meant to evoke.”

The “Sun Song” suite earlier in the evening was, as promised, something other than the tranquil soundtracks likely to accompany typical film footage of Svalbard in sunlight (although no plugged ears in the audience were observed). It was the second half of a two-composition concert by soprano soloist Berit Norbakken Solset and members of the Arctic Philharmonic Sinfonietta, who opened with the composition “Witch Hunt.” As with “Sun Song,” the opening piece was preceded by an narrative by Weiss to guide the audience through what they were about to see.

“It’s like she’s a victim of these terrible acts of humanity,” he said, referring to Solset’s lyrics and movements on the stage. “The clarinet and flute, it’s like a school yard. Sometimes children can be the meanest people, yes. Sometimes the sweetest,but also very mean and this is like a musical gesture of someone teasing or mocking.”

“As she walks throughout the group she puts her hand on the shoulder of a musician, but they will not look at her. She tries to make contact with them as she sings. I am not going to tell you this music is beautiful, but not all art can be beautiful, can we agree?”

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The audience gives a standing ovation to orchestra members at the conclusion of a Saturday night concert in Mine 7. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Extensive narration (often in English) accompanied many of the other concerts, as the performers went to great lengths to make the “music of friends,” as chamber music is often known, accessible to listeners even if they had little knowledge of the genre. The premise of the Saturday night concert in Mine 7 featuring the works of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, for instance, was despite chaos and fear “one of the strongest feelings the human being have is hope” – emotions those working in the mine could certainly relate to after the near-collapse of the industry here the past few years.

But as with many things Svalbard, the unique setting and environment meant ordinary things such as the pre-performance announcements referred to things other than silencing mobile phones.

“One of the most important safety matters for a coal mine is it’s very forbidden to use any kind of open flames,” said Per Nilssen, the mine’s manager. (So much for lighter tributes.)

The rustic setting – with coal, pickaxes and other gear strewn liberally on and near the stage – also meant notably different acoustics than what patrons and performers were used to in concert halls. While some quiet passages at the beginning were somewhat difficult to hear, most of the performance was more intense and – in the mind of the performers – the harsh soundstage was a fitting match for the harsh nature of the main suite.

“It’s not music I want too polished,” said Henning Kraggerud, a violist and artistic leader for the orchestra who oversaw the performance.

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A sparse crowd watches a music/dance performance of Stravinsky compositions Saturday at Kulturhuset. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

While the mine concert and some events attracted large crowds (meaning enough the fill the often deliberately set number of seats), others saw scant attendance. Among the latter was a music/dance show featuring the works of Stravinsky at Kulturhuset just before the mine concert, with the modest-size ensemble outnumbering roughly a dozen listeners.

But Catharina Bilsbak, the orchestra’s program director, said attracting large crowds wasn’t a primary goal of the inaugural festival. Instead, organizers and performers are focusing on the variety of offerings and how to make them appealing to those attending. The festival’s website is already promoting future events in June of 2019 (with a theme of change) and August of 2020 (extremes).