The First Summer Concert in Holmenkollen

On 19 June 1983, the first of the Oslo Philharmonic’s Summer Concerts in Holmenkollen was arranged, with Mariss Jansons conducting. This proved to be the beginning of a popular tradition which would continue into the early 2000s.

NRK’s Stein-Roger Bull had pitched the idea of this kind of concert as early as in the 1970s, but it was only in 1983 that the time was ripe: the year before, a world championship in skiing had taken place (the year when skiing champion Oddvar Brå had broken his pole) and the Holmenkollen infrastructure had just been through a thorough upgrade. 

After the world championship in skiing was over, the Ski Association took on the role of promoter. “The cost of this would have been too great for NRK to shoulder alone, but with the support of the Ski Association, it has become possible to extend the athletics arena to an outdoor concert hall”, remarked Stein-Roger Bull in Aftenposten before the concert, where he was responsible for the content and direction. 

The plans created great anticipation. VG reported: 

“An enormous platform of 440 square metres is in the process of being built at Besserudtjernet in Holmenkollen. The platform on the ski slope will be the scene of a great cultural event on Sunday 19 June. The Philharmonic Association will play Norwegian music, and the concert will be broadcast on television to great parts of Europe”. 

The project reflected international ambitions from the outset. The thought was that the Holmenkollen concerts should be Norway’s answer to Vienna’s New Year Concerts. With the ski jump in the background and the surrounding beautiful nature clearly visible, this would surely be a promotion for Norway of the best possible kind. 

Following the Eurovision fanfare and the introduction to Grieg’s Symphony in C major, host Knut Bjørnsen welcomed the audience. Eight countries in total broadcast the concert, which in addition to the music featured images of bright sunshine and musicians in sunglasses, and a ballet choreographed by Kjersti Alveberg. 

The first programme consisted entirely of Norwegian music. After an orchestral version of Christian Sinding’s Frühlingsrauschen, music from Grieg’s Peer Gynt followed, then Johan Svendsen’s Violin Romance performed by Arve Tellefsen, Ketil Hvoslef’s commission Air and music by Geirr Tveitt and Johan Halvorsen. 

In 1985, during the third concert, a tradition started which was to last a long time: the concert was concluded with Johan Halvorsen’s Entry of the Boyars. For many, the sound of these tones evoke some of the most vivid memories from the Holmenkollen concerts.

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Celebrating 60 Years with a New Chief Conductor

The Oslo Philharmonic celebrated their 60th anniversary with a festival concert in Oslo Concert Hall on 26 September 1979. The orchestra’s name was changed from the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Association to the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and, as on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 1969, a new Chief Conductor stood on the cusp of taking the helm − this time it was thirty-six year old Mariss Jansons.  

Jansons had conducted the orchestra for the first time in 1975, and the meeting made an indelible impression on both conductor and orchestra (see separate article). It was clear early on that his predecessor, Okko Kamu, did not wish to extend his contract beyond the initial four years which had been previously agreed, and Jansons was a clear first choice as his successor.  

In the anniversary booklet from 1994, Jansons describes his first impressions of the orchestra, and how everything was confirmed: 

“From the very first moments of our meeting in 1975, I have known you as a professional ensemble through and through, with your own identity and unique sound, with an exceptionally strong work ethic and discipline, with an honest dedication, engagement and reverence towards your duties, without a trace of arrogance, superficiality or routine thought.”  

Mariss Jansons was interviewed by NRK on the occasion of the anniversary concert in 1979. In answering the question as to what the duty of an artistic leader is, he offers answers which give some indication of the unique relationship he was to develop with the orchestra in the years to come: 

“The artistic leader is responsible for the quality of the orchestra. He must think of the orchestra constantly, and work for it and not for himself. An artistic leader’s primary duty is to always think of the orchestra … as his own child. And that is a great responsibility.” 

Furthermore, he was quite clear about one of his main missions as Chief Conductor: 

“We only have one problem: the orchestra is too small. We have to fight hard, so we can grow to the same size as a great European orchestra. Sweden, Denmark and Finland − they all have full-sized orchestras, so why can’t Norway? It’s a question of prestige, and a question we all have a duty to consider”.  

Significant progress was made in the following years with regards to this mission.  

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Opening of Oslo Concert Hall

In 1972, excavations for what was to become Oslo Concert Hall started in Vestre Vika. The start of this meant that the decades-long debate on where the hall was to be built, could be put to rest. It also meant that a proper concert hall was finally going to be constructed in Oslo, almost 120 years after violin legend Ole Bull started raising funds for the purpose.  

The building period was far from free of conflict. In 1964, the estimated construction costs were 64 million Norwegain kroner, but this increased gradually to 258 million, which naturally led to furious discussion regarding the financing. The orchestra had no representatives in the Building Committee, which created friction regarding the following up of the orchestra’s needs in the new building.  

The construction process was met with additional challenges. When the opening day drew close, an argument broke out concerning the programme for the inaugural concert. Should this principally consist of new Norwegian music or established classics? After a tough conflict with the Norwegian Composers’ Union, the orchestra accepted the first alternative.  

On the morning of 22 March, 1977, the offical opening took place, with the Chairman of the Board of the concert hall, Brynjulf Bull, as the main speaker. “We come late, and we come at a cost − but we are coming, your Majesty!” Bull stated. He went on: “We have not grown poorer, but richer, in investing so much in this building. Future generations will thank us for it”.  

In the evening of the same day, the Oslo Philharmonic performed the inaugural concert for a hall filled with celebrated guests, including the Royal Family. Principal Conductor Okko Kamu conducted Klaus Egge’s Symphony No. 2 and two prize-winning works from a composition competition held in honour of the opening: Opening by Oddvar S. Kvam, and čSv by Jan Persen. After the break, former Principal Conductor Øivin Fjeldstad conducted the orchestra in Johan Svendsen’s Symphony No. 2.  

The Concert Hall’s inauguration programme continued throughout that week, and in the following weeks, activity in the house remained high. In its inaugural year, every household in Oslo was sent the folder “Come and Listen to our New Home” − a great communications effort for its time.  

In the course of the first six months, 120.000 tickets were sold for various arrangements in the hall, and in the course of the first two years, the number of visitors had exceeded 400.000. There were to be numerous long discussions regarding the acoustics and other conditions in the years to follow. But that the hall was a popular success was indisputable.

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

A New Start for the Orchestra

During the last year of the Second World War, in what would have been the concert season 1944/45, the orchestra did not perform any concerts of their own. The preceding season had already been very problematic for various reasons, and from May 1944 onwards, the occupying authorities agreed to suspend operations until further notice. 

However, the orchestra gathered to play the last war year as well; it had, during the war, a parallel task as a radio orchestra in NRK. This activity continued almost into the peace of May 1945. The last concert of the "Radio Orchestra" was held April 29.

On 22 May 1945, the first board meeting after the war was held, with Johs. Berg-Hansen as Chairman. The Board’s first task was to make clearances in the orchestra’s ranks, and remove musicians who had collaborated with the German authorities during the war, as well as finding new ones to replace them with. Nine musicians were removed from their positions.  

They did not have to remove one of these: German-born flute player Rolf Schüttauf, who before the war had appeared both as a soloist and composer in the orchestra’s concert programmes. During the war he grew to be a despised member of the German security force Gestapo. He was shot and killed by the Home Front in 1944.  

On 8, 10 and 11 June, the orchestra took part in the anniversary concerts of the National Theatre, and on 12 June, the orchestra held its own anniversary concerts. Also these took place at the National Theatre, and both King Haakon, Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha were present.  

The orchestra’s new Principal Conductor, Odd Grüner-Hegge, conducted, and the orchestra played Johan Svendsen’s Symphony No. 2, extracts from Edvard Grieg’s music to Peer Gynt, Ludvig Irgens-Jensen’s Passacaglia, and Johan Halvorsen’s Norwegian Rhapsody No. 1.  

On 10 September, the orchestra opened its first concert season following the war, with the first of forty-nine planned concerts. The audience was starved for music, and filled the concert hall for concert after concert. Composers both in Norway and abroad had grown a rich collection of new music to fill the orchestra’s programmes with.  

“The Norwegian Music Week” was an important occasion in the autumn of 1945. Here, Norwegian composers were invited to present some of the music the public had missed during the war years. Symphonies by composers such as Klaus Egge, Harald Sæverud and Ludvig Irgens-Jensen were played for the first time.

New composer names from abroad were also presented: on 13 September 1945, music by British composer Benjamin Britten was on the programme for the first time: Les Illuminations for vocal soloist and orchestra. In the spring of 1946, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf were heard for the first time in Norway.  

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Edvard Grieg Centenary — Mid-War Celebrations

Edvard Grieg (1843−1907) was Director of the Music Association in 1871, one of the Oslo Philharmonic's most significant predecessors. By the establishment of the orchestra in 1919 he was, a mere decade after his death, still considered a national hero. His most famous piece for orchestra, his Piano Concerto in A-Minor, was played at the orchestra’s very first concert.

The first Grieg anniversary was in 1932, the twenty-fifth year marking the composer’s death. The planned memorial concert in early September had to be cancelled due to great economic difficulties for the orchestra. Fortunately, it was rescued, and the concert was held on 26 September, with king, queen, and the composer’s 86-year-old widow, Nina Grieg, in the audience.

“Thank God for that we are now saved from the shame it would have been, if Norway had been forced to let this day pass unmarked”, wrote Arne van Erpekum Sem in a comment following the concert, where the orchestra played Grieg’s Holberg Suite and his piano concerto.

The next big Grieg year, the centenary of his birth, in 1943, also presented great challenges, lack of funds being only one of these. During the war, concert operations had been a furiously debated topic, and the Oslo Philharmonic often found itself in the middle of the conflict.

After a while the public displayed different behaviour in relation to concerts arranged by the German-controlled broadcasting and the so-called “free concerts” the cultural institutions arranged themselves. The first were often played to empty halls, while the free concerts often attracted a good number of spectators.

It was therefore very significant for the Grieg anniversary in 1943, following a great deal of debate, that the concerts were arranged by the Oslo Philharmonic itself. Altogether five concerts were held, from 7-12 June, and the public attended in great numbers.

The Grieg anniversary as a whole was nevertheless perceived as compromised by the occupiers. The authorities spent large sums on the celebration and held a series of solemn events. The underground resistance movement viewed the anniversary as a scandal and sent out clear messages to musicians not to take part.

In spite of persistent attempts, the resistance didn't succeed in making the music scene as a whole boycott the authorities. And even if the orchestra was able to avoid compromises during the Grieg anniversary, the same cannot be said of the war years as a whole.

In their parallel work as a radio orchestra for NRK, the orchestra played on a number of events under the auspices of the occupying power. Most attention was given to the so-called State Act at Akershus, a ceremony for the Nazi takeover of power in Norway in 1942.

The orchestra's activities during the war years, together with the rest of the history of the Oslo Philharmonic, have been thoroughly covered in Alfred Fidjestøl's book Lyden av Oslo Oslo-Filharmonien 1919−2019".

Norway’s Composer Giant Celebrates 80 Years

Christian Sinding turned 80 years old in the winter of 1936, and was at this point Norway’s most famous and celebrated composer. He had been wholeheartedly present throughout the orchestra’s first years: he had held a speech during its opening concert in 1919, and his music was frequently performed. His 70th birthday in 1926 was celebrated as enthusiastically as his 80th. 

Both King Haakon and and the Crown Prince couple were present for his celebration concert on 11 March 1936. The main speech was held by the President of the Storting, C.J. Hambro, who handed the composer a large laurel wreath from the Norwegian people. The University Aula was packed full, and flowers and garlands adorned the walls. 

Christian Sinding had experienced a slightly unsteady start to his career, but had a breakthrough as a composer in Norway in 1885. Some years later, he also experienced great success in Leipzig. His work for piano, Frühlingsrauschen, from 1897, made him world famous. In subsequent decades, he enjoyed a respected position as a composer internationally, especially in Germany, and became a national hero in his homeland. From 1924, he was given “Grotten” as an honorary residence. 

Christian Sinding’s reputation took a steep downturn towards the end of his life. He fell ill and grew demented in his last years, and his enormous popularity made him attractive to the German authorities during the war. Eight weeks before his death in 1941, he became a member of Nasjonal Samling, the Norwegian far-right party. Little is known about what this really meant to him. In any case, it led to his music being removed from concert programmes after the war. Norway’s great composer hero was forgotten for a long period of time, and his reputation has never quite recovered. 

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

The First Open-Air Concert

In August 1922, the orchestra preceded the start of its fourth concert season with a sensational bit of news: the first concert of the season was to take place in the open air − specifically on St. Hanshaugen, a part of central Christiania. This opened for the possibility of a far greater number of spectators than what a concert hall could contain, and 15,000 tickets were sold!

Critics were overjoyed by the fact that concerts could now compete with football when it came to audience numbers. “The best thing about it is the breadth of the audience, and that youth from every household is drawn in to the music, which whirls like a maelstrom around the orchestra” wrote a critic in Ørebladet.

Members of the public stood pressed tight up against one another in the space in front of the stage, where they could hear the music clearly. Yet, with such a big mass of people, the lack of amplification was a considerable challenge: for the many who stood farther away, the music was simply not audible.

Fortunately, those who were present could enjoy a unique atmosphere on this early autumn evening:

“Half a thousand coloured lanterns glowed entrancingly between the beautiful leaves of the park, and in place of the incessant rain, a starry sky arched over the town, the most beautiful to date this autumn. The poplars stood serenely on this calm evening, and the coloured lamps were reflected in the glistening lakes”.

Already the following Saturday, a new outdoor concert was arranged, and this time, both the amplification and the design of the stage made the music more accessible to a greater number of people. The weather was not as glorious, but 6,000 people attended nevertheless.

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

The First Concert

The establishment of a home-grown symphony orchestra in a city which was still known as Christiania, the capital of a young nation, was an event of great significance − as important as the establishment of the National Theatre twenty years earlier. Among the prominent guests in Gamle Logen were King Haakon VII and Queen Maud. 

Some must have breathed a sigh of relief when the national anthem, Ja, vi elsker, sounded as the first work on the programme of the orchestra’s inaugural concert, which at that time was known as the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Association. Some tears might have been shed too. It had been no easy task to get the orchestra on its legs, and several of its predecessors had failed due to lack of financing. 

The most significant individual in this process was shipping magnate A.F. Klaveness. In 1918, he donated 500,000 kroner towards the establishment of a symphony orchestra, and in February 1919, he chaired the meeting on the establishment of the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Association. In the course of the next six months, nearly sixty musicians and no less than three Principal Conductors were engaged.

The Finnish conductor, Georg Schnéevoigt, led the orchestra during the opening concert, while the programme consisted of solely Norwegian music. After the national anthem, the orchestra played Johan Svendsen’s Festival Polonaise, Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, and Christian Sinding’s Symphony No. 1.

Christian Sinding (1856−1941) was the most prominent Norwegian composer of his time, and was highly respected also internationally. He, too, was present in Gamle Logen’s great hall this evening, and in his speech following the concert he described the founding of the orchestra as “a miracle”.

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)