Change in the wind: Second chamber music festival draws on centuries-old classics to highlight rapid local shifts

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It was a breeze for kids who learned to play it in an hour or so before their performance and a breezy challenge for longtime pros performing it in an old tent. But the mix of vast differences an shared similarities characterized a festival whose theme was “change” even though it highlighted music performed hundreds of years ago.

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The Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra performs during the opening concert of the Arctic Chamber Music Festival at Huset. Photo by Eva Grondahl/ACMF.

Ensembles in concert halls performing masterpieces as they were heard centuries ago, “War and Piece” pieces from post World War II resounding though the workshop of an old (but still functioning) coal mine in a mountain, and an impromptu collection of guitars being strummed by computer-controlled miniature fans were among the sounds of sights at the second Arctic Chamber Music Festival. The four-day event that ended June 9 attracted nearly 1,200 people to 17 events in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, with organizers choosing this year’s theme to match  the unprecedented rapid and startling changes the communities are undergoing at every level of existence.

“The Arctic Philharmonic says about itself in the program that ‘we will explore travel in the unknown,’ but it’s not just the four days of travels and classical comparative music,” Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen said during the opening show at Huset, where he played the honorary first note. “It’s a dance and comparative experience on top of the world, but it also makes room for the reflections and the discussions of the changes that are taking place on top of the world. It also makes room for Barentsburg, which is also experiencing big changes.”

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A string quartet led by Anders Melhus performs a Norwegian folk song during a concert inside a pair of connected lavvo tents during the chamber music festival. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

For Anders Melhus, a violinist with the Tromsø-based Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra who’s performed a half-dozen times in Svalbard during the past eight years, presiding over of a “midnight sun” concert of Norwegian folk music by 20 musicians in a pair of connected lavvo tents in a wind-swept valley outside Longyearbyen added plenty of new touches to his novel experiences here.

“We know there are polar bears on this island and maybe for those here it’s no big deal, but for us in Tromsø it’s quite a big deal,” he told the audience of several dozen people sitting at rustic picnic tables with drinks and large bowls of traditional Norwegian meat soup. “Also, some did a lavvo concert during the winter, but it cannot compare to here.”

And even though “things can happen tonight if it gets really windy,” he said as the tent walls flapped noisily, “this is a lot of fun, actually. We haven’t performed pieces like this in this kind of place.”

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Audience members applaud the 20 musicians after a piece during the lavvo tent concert. Photo by Mark Sabbatini/Icepeople.

The songs themselves ranged from reflective to upbeat singalongs, a diversity reflected by one composition Melhus said is popular at both weddings and funerals.

“This might get people to understand life and death are connected,” he said.

This year’s festival during the wedding month of June was a marked departure from the inaugural festival in February of last year. While the warm weather and 24-hour daylight made events such as the tent concert and a dayboat trip to Barentsburg for a concert there possible – and may have been a more attractive option to some visitors compared to the cold and still mostly dark conditions in February – it also occurred at a traditionally slow time for local cultural activities since many residents are either engaged in outdoor activities at cabins or elsewhere, or preparing for summer holidays on the mainland and abroad.

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Aggie Peterson, left, takes a photo as festival musicians carry their gear outside the lavvo tent after their concert. Photo by Mark Sabbatini/Icepeople.

Also, attendance at many cultural events, including longtime festivals, have been diluted in recent years due to both an increase in their number and a rapid shift in the population that has seen many longtime Norwegians replaced with foreigners working short-term jobs with incomes and work hours detrimental to their attendance. But Aggie Peterson, the festival’s director, said this year’s attendance was 28 percent high than last year’s despite concerns about low ticket sales during the weeks before it started.

“Yes, there was definitely a last-minute sales boost – the last days the graphs were only going up,” she noted in an e-mail interview. Although discounts for early bookings were offered “Longyearbyen people like to decide last minute. It’s understandable – the weather, the buzz, etc.”

“I am content with the slight growth – this is how it should be – a little better and a little bigger every year,” she added. “I don’t believe in this becoming a too big festival either. We are in Svalbard and growth should be sustainable and within certain limits.”

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The Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra performs a “War and Peace” concert inside Mine 7 on the penultimate night of the chamber music festival. Photo by Mark Sabbatini/Icepeople.

While other events are pondering major scalebacks, or cancelling altogether for at least a year, Peterson stated chamber music festival organizers are committed to another event next year, although it will again take place in February.

“The program (will) soon be outlined,” she wrote. “There might be some variations in number of days, etc., mostly due to logistics.”

She said her biggest regret this year was not being able to feature a concert for children, “but this will definitely be on the board for 2020.”

Which is not to say local youths weren’t involved. Four violinists from Longyearbyen Kulturskole performed a short “pop up” concert of short compositions on the second day of the festival, including solo pieces featuring individual students, in a hallway at Lompensenteret after a mere single lesson to learn the unfamiliar material. But Marie Stokke, the philharmonic’s children’s director, said the material was both simple enough for almost any instrumentalist and interactive.

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Four student violinists from Longyearbyen Kulturskole perform a short concert in Lompensenteret as a “pop up” event during the festival. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“It was easy for them actually,” she said. “It’s for beginners. But that’s what them feel ‘we are doing this.'”

She said that while only a few students performed, it’s inspiring working with a local culture school where 95 students out of about 270 total public school students attend is a ratio that “must be a record here in Norway.”

“We are doing a really interesting and big thing next time,”Stokke said, noting that while the specifics are not set it will involve “children’s songs famous for generations.”

“I think I can say say to you this will be the opening show next year,” she said.

The Mine 7 concert by the full visiting philharmonic before a full crowd on the penultimate night of the festival revived a headline event from the first festival, while daily early-afternoon performances at Kulturhuset offered classic pieces for fans of more intimate small ensembles in a proper setting. Formal meals accompanied by music on the first and last nights offered high-end option for those able to obtain and afford the limited tickets.

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A Sami art exhibit by Iver Jåks is presented at Svalbard Museum during the chamber music festival. Photo by Catharina Roos Bilsbak/ACMF

Those seeking true “change” away from classical music, an event with that title at Svalbard Museum featured a presentation of Sami art by Iver Jåks and Arctic storytelling by museum director Tora Hultgren (plus a performance by an octet of musicians) to begin the weekend. That was followed by an afternoon discussion hosted by political leaders at Longyearbyen Library about the community’s near- and long-term future.

Also venturing far from the conventional path – along with the artist himself – was an artistic/musical installation of guitars by Rubén D’Hers at Artica Svalbard during the festival, capped by a presentation by him on the final day of the festival. While the notes being played by the tiny fans as the guitars lay about on the floor and on walls were harmonious, there were by no stretch anything one might consider chamber music.

“It’s a different sort of music I’m doing, sort of an unconventional way to experience music through the exhibit,” he said. “It’s sort of a contrast.”

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Rubén D’Hers discusses his guitar exhibit at Artica Svalbard on the last day of the chamber music festival. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

While he’s done exhibits elsewhere with similar themes, “I’ve never been in a place like Svalbard. For me it’s meaningful to be here and have some chats with people. I’m still processing where I am.”

Among D’Hers’ most memorable experiences was a trip to the now-closed Mine 5 outside town, where he spent an hour recording the wind using a microphone set into place.

“There was a lot of things happening because that day it was particularly windy,” he said, noting he’s not sure yet how he will use the recording.

Peterson stated that while the festival is relatively new, and therefore they’re struggling without the public funding  larger and long-established festivals get, organizers see their effort to commit to next year an investment in both the event’s and community’s future.

“We do believe that ACMF is and will be, an important festival and arena in the future,” she wrote in her e-mail. “And we believe it is best that a Norwegian orchestra and the northernmost professional orchestra, based in the North – the Arctic Philharmonic … should be the core of this festival – making an arena for Norwegian and Nordic culture – performed by top notch musicians in this very special place that we love so much.”