For those with a “see it before it’s gone” mentality, this may be the final year of Polarjazz as we know it.
The world’s northernmost jazz festival has been a moneymaker each of its 21 years – until last year – by featuring evenings of overlapping music and mingling, and a mix of familiar and boundary-stretching performers. But facing the drastic economic and societal changes that have disrupted so many other longtime aspects of life here the past few years, festival organizers are making some notable changes this year before a likely major overhaul – and possible downsizing – next year.
Free early evening concerts, a multimedia Svalbard-themed suite in Mine 3 composed by visiting musicians and first-ever seating sections during the featured nightly concerts are among the notable happenings at this year’s five-day festival that begins Wednesday (see concert details and full schedule). For jazz purists there’s also an uptick from many years with concerts by three visiting groups, in addition to performances by local musicians three nights.
Ticket sales as of Saturday are about half the typical level of previous years, said Lasse Stener Hansen, the festival’s director since 2004. He said the festival should break even if two-thirds of the tickets are sold – otherwise the festival’s board of directors is responsible for making up the difference.
“We just have to hope people show up at the door,” he said.
The now-familiar problem – affecting other longtime local events to the point the landmark Dark Season Blues is considering putting this fall’s festival on hold – is the massive loss of mining-related workers who’ve been largely replaced by tourism employees who earn less, lack traditional societal ties and are likely to be working leisure-time events rather than participating in them. Furthermore, since available flights are already full this time of year it’s not like Polarjazz organizers can make a big push to expand the number of visitors attending.
As such, this year’s ticket sales indicate the festival will likely have to implement broad changes that were considered for this year, including reducing the number of days and making it essentially a weekend event, Hansen said.
“We didn’t believe (sales) would be cut down that much,” he said. “We should have made the changes this year.”
“I think we just have to change it back to what we had in 2004.”
At that time artists might be paid 1,500 kroner to appear, so their motivation was obviously to experience the uniqueness of Svalbard, including being some of the first each year to take dogsled and snowmobile tours under the Northern Lights and lengthy midday twilights. But in recent years Hansen said the festival has paid as much as 300,000 kroner to lure some of the biggest-name performers.
“People just don’t don’t want to come here without getting paid,” he said.
Another critical question for future festivals is who will organize and fund them, given the liability the board has faced, Hansen said.
“We as the board have given this festival to the community as a gift,” he said.
Now, however, companies operating hotels and restaurants may be approached to see if they are interested in taking over some or all of the event.
“Hotels are full already, they don’t need the festival, but maybe they can use it to offer people something more,” Hansen said. “It’s a name. It’s a brand. It’s become quite big.”
Among the most notable changes is the seating sections during evening concerts at Kulturhuset that will be offered at a slightly higher cost. Attendees previously spent anywhere from a couple to a several hours standing in front of the soundstage and/or near the bar in an adjacent lounge room, which longtime with a handful of seats available for those absolutely needing them.
“There’s been some people who’ve said ‘we don’t want to stand three nights in a row,'” Hanson said.
About 20 to 30 percent of the space will be designated for seating, but more can be added if necessary, Hansen said.
The most notable single concert is the finale at 5 p.m. Sunday since it features music and visual themes composed for the festival in addition to the cold rustic ambiance inside the now-closed coal mine. Norwegian jazz musicians Tore Brunborg and Per Oddvar Johansen, collaborating with Norwegian actress Juni Dahr and the Store Norske Men’s Choir, will perform “SPOR” (English translation: “Footprints”), described as the first part of a larger “Listen to Svalbard” work being developed this year.
“‘SPOR’ is a concert inspired by our encounter with Svalbard through newly composed music for saxophone, samples and drums, with lyrics from some of the women’s lives on Svalbard,” Dahr said in a description of the concert on the festival’s website. “The material will also mirror light and darkness and mining. The musical and thematic expressions will seek a common sound base, mirror refraction and relationships between endangered nature and man in the Arctic area. ”
Other notable “name” jazz performers include Norwegian violinist Ola Kvernberg with the percussion-heavy ensemble Steamdome he founded in 2016, the modernistic female trio Gurls, and the jazz/pop Eberson quintet headed by the group’s father/daughter namesake Jon and Marte.
There will also be some familiar returning bands, notably Saturday night concerts by longtime Norwegian rock band Hellbillies plus a subsequent dance concert by Norwegian “party band” Cirkus Dos Mosquitos at Huset that lasts well into the early morning hours of Sunday and has become part of the regular schedule in recent years.
As for attendance, two concerts Hansen and other Polarjazz organizers don’t have to worry about: 1) The opening Vorspiel, a three-hour showcase of pretty much every local musician performing pretty much everything heard locally, starting at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Kulturhuset, and 2) the already sold-out show by Thom Hell, an acoustic pop musician featuring works inspired by the ’60s and ’70s, at 5 p.m. Saturday at Gruvelageret, due to the restaurant’s rustic mining setting that has made past shows there highly intimate and successful.
For those on a budget, several free concerts are scheduled:
• 5 p.m. Thursday: Svajazz, a local group playing straight-ahead standards, at Polfareren restaurant at Svalbard Hotell.
• 5 p.m. Friday: J.G. Hansen, a singer/songwriter who has lived in Svalbard the past 23 years, will perform originals and covers at Polfareren.
• 9 p.m. Friday: Vidar Villa, a Norwegian hit pop singer, at the Longyearbyen Youth Club. The concert is limited to youths from grade seven to those 20 years of ago.
• Noon Saturday: Klang Bein, a music/mimicry duo, will perform a family-oriented show at Rabalder Café and Bakery at Kulturhuset.
Polarjazz 2019 schedule
Wednesday, Jan. 30
• 8-11 p.m.: Polarjazz Vorspiel. Kulturhuset.
Thursday, Jan. 31
• 5 p.m.: Svajazz. Polfareren.
• 8 p.m.: Janove. Kulturhuset.
• 10 p.m.: Ola Kvernbergs Steamdome. Kulturhuset.
Friday, Feb. 1
• 5 p.m.: J.G. Hansen. Polfareren.
• 8 p.m.: GURLS. Kulturhuset.
• 10 p.m.: Sol Heilo. Kulturhuset.
• 9 p.m.: Vidar Villa (free concert for youths grades 7 through age 20). Longyearbyen Youth Club.
Saturday, Feb. 2
• Klangbein (family-oriented concert). Rabalder Café and Bakery. FREE.
• 1 p.m.: Charlotte Audestad & Freddy Holm (jazz lunch concert). Kroa.
• 5 p.m.: Thom Hell. Gruvelageret. Free bus from Lompensenteret at 4 p.m.
• 8 p.m.: Eberson. Kulturhuset.
• 10 p.m.: Hellbillies. Kultuhuset
• Midnight: Cirkus Dos Mosquitos. Huset. Free bus from Kulturhuset at 11:30 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 3
• 5 p.m.: Juni Dahr, Brunborg and Johansen w/ Store Norske Men’s Choir. Mine 3. Free bus from Lompensenteret at 4 p.m.