Vasily Petrenko Draws Full Houses

Vasily Petrenko conducted the Oslo Philharmonic for the first time in December 2009, with Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto and Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 on the programme. A critic described his experience of the concert in Aftenposten


“…Petrenko’s interpretation sets itself aside from all others I have heard of the Fifth symphony in an almost brutal fashion. Even the lyrical and ethereal parts were passionately formed in a way which I have never experienced before.” 


Petrenko provoked great enthusiasm also from the musicians. When the time came to find a new music director, he was a clear favourite, and the news broke in February 2011: Vasily Petrenko was to take over as Principal Conductor from the autumn of 2013.


There was enormous interest when, just a few days later, on 19 February, Petrenko squeezed in an extra concert with the orchestra, performing Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony: 


“It was as crowded as if the Wine Monopoly had announced its closing down sale. It seems a few more people are hoping to get in, we heard drily from one of the many who were obliged to turn back empty-handed in the ticket office, while a number of hopefuls pushed and shoved in the hope of sneaking into the last free seats in Oslo Concert Hall”, wrote Aftenposten the following day.  


Since he took over as Principal Conductor, Vasily Petrenko has led the orchestra in a number of tours in Norway and beyond, in addition to leading countless outstanding concerts in Oslo Concert Hall. The orchestra has made several critically-acclaimed recordings with him, not least a series featuring the music of Alexander Scriabin.  


During the last few years, Vasily Petrenko has consolidated his position as one of the leading conductors of his generation. In 2017 he was named “Artist of the Year” by Gramophone, and in 2018 he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  


Watch Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic perform Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony from 2011 here: 


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Jukka-Pekka Saraste as Chief Conductor

Jukka-Pekka Saraste was twenty-seven years old when he conducted the Oslo Philharmonic for the first time, at the Freia concert in September 1983. Composer Johan Kvandal gave him top marks in his review in Aftenposten:


“The young conductor maintained excellent tempi; primarily not too fast in the first movement, and he displayed a considerable feel for the character and nature of the music. On the whole it was a fresh and clear performance which was warmly received, creating a dynamic atmosphere in the hall”.


In August 1985, Saraste returned to conduct music by Mussorgsky, Mozart and Sibelius. Jarle Sørå wrote in a review in VG


“The party started with Pohjola’s Daughter, where Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste proved that the music of Sibelius is in his blood. The music’s primal intensity and roughly-formed architecture was expressed with particular power.” 


In an interview in Dagbladet with the title “The Finnish international star with a baton”, he is cited as follows regarding the orchestra’s phenomenal development under Mariss Jansons: 


“Norway needed a chief conductor, and now you have one. The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the leading orchestras in the world, and its musicians keep giving and giving”. 


Jukka-Pekka Saraste was named Principal Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1987 and Music Director of Toronto Symphony in 1994. After many busy years and a shortage of time for guest conducting, he was warmly welcomed back to Oslo in 2001 by both the orchestra and the public. After this he returned regularly. 


Five years later, it was Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s turn to become Principal Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, in the season 2006-07. The choice garnered a great deal of interest both at home and abroad. Touring offers streamed in from both international and Norwegian promoters. VG’s critic Tori Skrede described one of his concerts in September 2007 as follows: 


“When The Firebird by Stravinsky sounded in the hall on Wednesday night, every expectation was met. What sound! What dynamics, what power right down to the softest pianissimo! What an orchestra Saraste holds in the palm of his hand: it’s always equally impressive to watch when he stretches out his arm and virtually pulls towards him an incredibly tight, fully-formed sound from a group of more than a hundred individuals”. 


Over the years, Saraste has received praise for his artistic depth and integrity. Throughout his career he has paved the way for including both older and newer Nordic music in the international standard repertoire, while being a leading international conductor within the great European orchestral tradition. 


Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s concerts of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies have also been notable, and in 2013 he received the Music Critics’ Prize for his farewell concert with the Oslo Philharmonic, performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. The jury justified its decision as follows: 


“Throughout the last seven years, Saraste has given us many great musical experiences. On this May evening, we were given yet another auditory demonstration of how he succeeds in lifting the orchestra up to a level that seems almost impossibly high. In Mahler’s second symphony there are also singers, both soloists and choir, and he succeeded in a masterful fashion in making these glide in as a completely natural part of the overall sound” 


Jukka-Pekka Saraste was named Conductor Laureate of the Oslo Philharmonic in 2013, and has conducted the orchestra regularly since.


Watch Jukka-Pekka Saraste conduct the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 here: 
 
 

Mariss Speaks From the Heart

In the late autumn of 1984, a collection of unusual articles appeared in Aftenposten. In a series of four articles, each of which covered an entire page of the paper, the Principal Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, Mariss Jansons, sought to share his ideas with the public under the title “The Problem of Art in Norway”.


At this point, nine years had passed since his first engagement in Oslo, and five years since he became Principal Conductor. He introduces his first piece like this:


“For a long time, I reflected upon whether I had a moral right to write this article. I felt unsure if readers would understand me correctly, whether it would create a feeling that here comes this Jansons, a foreigner, criticising a country other than his own, forcing his own thoughts upon us”. 


But every time I posed myself this question, I answered it: I am not really critiquing; I simply wish to express my observations and desires, and I am not forcing them upon anyone.” 


After underlining the great meaning of art in his first article, he starts his second article stating concretely in which areas he believes Norway ought to prioritise the arts more highly, not least in the sphere of music. After a paragraph concerning the low wages of the musicians, he dwells on his relationship with the orchestra he stands at the helm of: 


“Yes, I care about my musicians − because they deserve it. I am prepared to do everything possible for their welfare. Besides, it is my duty as Principal Conductor. In the way in which a father cares about his family, every leader should consider the people he is working with”. 


Mariss Jansons’ statements on leadership were what led to much of the debate surrounding the series of articles, and the interest which was subsequently piqued in the business world regarding the orchestra and its conductor paved the way for future sponsorship.


Another topic which sparked debate was Jansons’ opinion that talent wasn’t being actively cultivated in Norway. He suggested a special school for children from the age of seven to seventeen, where they would have access to the best possible musical education. Cultivation of talent was a controversial theme, something the writer had been made clearly aware of:


“When I first suggested this idea, I heard that this would be an impossible proposition in Norway; that this would give privileges to one group of children and that this stands in opposition to the principles of the country (…) 


Yet in art, and I’m not just thinking about art, it’s impossible to treat every individual equally. One has a talent for one thing, another for another thing. The fact that one person is occupied with something he has a talent for, does not imply that he is privileged or denigrates another’s worth or rights”. 


Although not all the ideas expressed in these articles were convincing to readers, they succeded in creating a lively debate and attention surrounding the Principal Conductor of the orchestra. With his combination of dedication and candour regarding local cultural life, Mariss Jansons came to occupy a leading position in the Norwegian public sphere. He concluded his series hopefully, writing: 


“Norway has every opportunity to raise the level of culture and art, and to create its own traditions…”


(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)

Okko Kamu as Chief Conductor

In the autumn of 1975, at the age of twenty-nine, Okko Kamu took on the position of Chief Conductor for the Oslo Philharmonic.


After having started his career as a violinist, he started conducting opera in his native Helsinki and in Stockholm, before becoming Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1971. In 1969 he had won first prize in the prestigious Herbert von Karajan conducting competition.


From the very beginning, he had made it clear that his period as Chief Conductor was to last only four years, so when he in 1979 passed the baton to Mariss Jansons, it was quite devoid of drama. In the course of these four years, he became a much-loved figure both in the orchestra and in Oslo’s music life in general.


It was very clear, particularly around the time of his farewell concert, that Okko Kamu had found his way into the hearts of many. Morgenbladet reported the following: 


“Not least in the current season, Kamu has been responsible for a series of memorable performances, and it is simply regrettable that the nation is about to lose a great musical personality who, through his expertise and strong work ethic, has become a respected figure among both musicians and the public”.


“During his time as the organisation’s permanent Artistic Director, this Finnish dynamo has brought the orchestra to a formidable standard − not least considering its modest number of musicians”, wrote Jarle Søra in VG of the same occasion. 


Aftenposten’s Mona Levin remarked in the introduction to her farewell interview with the conductor:


“In the four years which have passed, Okko Kamu has grown to be such a familiar, well-loved figure in our musical life, that it will feel strange to be without him”. 


Kamu himself explained in the same interview that he intended to distance himself from music for a while:


“In eight months’ time I intend to take a sabbatical. First I will try not to do anything. Then I will stay open for what the future brings”. 


The future was to include positions in Birmingham, Copenhagen, Lausanne and in his native Finland, as well as several engagements as a guest conductor with the Oslo Philharmonic. 
 


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

The First Meeting with Mariss Jansons

In September 1975, the thirty-two year old Mariss Jansons arrived in Oslo for the first time. He was born in Riga and was the son of Arvid Jansons (1914−1984), an internationally acclaimed conductor with a fruitful and enduring relationship with the Oslo Philharmonic. He had been the first to indicate to the orchestra that his son was a promising conductor.

Mariss Jansons’ first engagement with the Oslo Philharmonic extended beyond three weeks, and included different programmes. In the first week, the orchestra played Serge Prokofiev’s music from Romeo and Juliet, and from the first note, the musicians noticed that there was something unique about the young guest.

Double bass player Svein Haugen relays the following about their first meeting:

“It was very unusual. There was something about his body language; the clarity of his beats, and of the music in general. A clear communication quickly arose between what we were doing and what he was doing. The precision in the orchestra got much better already from the first rehearsal.

He also demonstrated some formidable knowledge of detail in his instructions, for example when it came to matters of intonation and the building up of chords. We already knew his father as a very thorough conductor, and in many ways, Mariss continued that same school in his own work”.

The week following Jansons’ visit, the new Principal Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, Okko Kamu, arrived for his first concert week with the orchestra. Kamu made a very good impression and grew popular both with the orchestra and with audiences. But he had signalled clearly in advance that he would not stay longer than four years, no matter how the collaboration went.

The following year, Mariss Jansons returned, and this proved to be yet another inspiring experience. Discussions started surrounding whether Jansons could be a possible successor to Kamu, and ultimately, one of the orchestra’s musicians, Reidar Hjelde, who was fluent in Russian, phoned Jansons directly. He could confirm that the interest was mutual.

Much detailed diplomacy was required in order to agree on the conditions of the agreement, not only with the conductor himself, but also with the Soviet-Russian authorities. Yet, in 1979, on the 60th anniversary of the orchestra, Mariss Jansons could begin his tenure as Principal Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic. It was the beginning of a unique partnership.


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Miltiades Caridis as Principal Conductor

Miltiades Caridis was born in Gdansk in 1923, and grew up in Dresden with a Greek father and a German mother. After studies in Athens and Vienna, he worked in different German opera houses, from 1959 as conductor of the Cologne Opera. In the 1960s he also led the Hungarian exile orchestra, the Philharmonica Hungarica, and it was with this orchestra that he conducted his first concert in Oslo, in Folketeateret, in the autumn of 1963.


Two years later, he conducted the Oslo Philharmonic for the first time, and he returned both in 1967 and 1968. He began his tenure as Conductor and Artistic Director in 1969, after Øivin Fjeldstad had made it clear that he was withdrawing from the position. In a telephone interview which was printed in Aftenposten on 11 January 1969 on the occasion of the engagement, he tells of his preparations for the role as Chief Conductor:


“I am well aware of the fact that it’s a good orchestra. I grew to know the musicians well during the three concerts I led recently in November and December. I know my task will be demanding and interesting. New fields are to be ploughed, and I hope that having a foreigner like myself as director will be an advantage for Norwegian music life someone who sees the situation from the outside, with an objective viewpoint.


The first thing I have done, is to request the Philharmonic Assocation’s general programmes for the last ten years. It is the line of direction which interests me. When I have immersed myself in the repertoire played in the last ten years, I will be able to see where it is beneficial or necessary to focus my efforts.”


Miltiades Caridis’ first concert as Chief Conductor was at the orchestra’s 50th anniversary in September 1969, and included Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. In the following year, the 25th anniversary of Bartók’s death was marked with two weeks of concerts featuring the composer’s music.


Caridis’ efforts to expand the orchestra’s repertoire was perhaps the most important footprint he left of his work in Oslo. Marit Gaasland, writing on behalf of the Oslo Philharmonic, sums it up in a commemorative article published at his death in 1998:


“Through Miltiades Caridis, Oslo’s audiences had their horizons significantly expanded. He introduced us to a series of composers who until then had been little performed in Oslo or not at all, such as Henze, Ligeti, Poulenc, Milhaud, Janácek, Walton and not least Bartók, who was his declared favourite”.


Of the more established composers, he offered a series of first experiences for the orchestra, such as Mahler’s third symphony, Bruckner’s eighth, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14, which had recently received its world premiere.


Given Caridis’ background in opera, it was natural that vocal music lay close to his heart, and we think that many, both among musicians and the public, will remember with a unique joy his many and great performances within this genre”.


Caridis was also very interested in new music, and championed Norwegian composers, promoting the new writing of the younger generation as well as that of more established artists. In 1972, he was, together with the Oslo Philharmonic, awarded the first Norwegian Grammy Award (The Spellemann Prize) for classical music in the category “Serious Recording of the Year”, for a recording of Fartein Valen’s music.


Miltiades Caridis was a good linguist and learned to speak Norwegian fluently during his time in Norway, although he didn’t reside here. In 1975, he continued on to be Music Director of the Duisburg Philharmonic, but returned several times to Oslo as a a guest conductor. In 1981 he received the Béla Bartók medal for his work in promoting Bartók’s music.


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Øivin Fjeldstad as Principal Conductor

Øivin Fjeldstad (1903−1983) performed his first concerts with the Oslo Philharmonic (at that time known as the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Association) already as a seventeen-year-old in 1921, as a substitute in the violin group. Two years later, he had a permanent contract with the orchestra.


Fjeldstad eventually became one of the capital’s most outstanding violinists: he was engaged early on as Concertmaster of the Radio Orchestra of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) and as third Concertmaster in the Oslo Philharmonic. As a violin teacher and Head of Studies at the Music Conservatory, he was part of forming the next generation of orchestra musicians. 


Øivin Fjeldstad made his debut as a conductor with the Oslo Philharmonic in 1931, and directed several individual concerts in the course of the 1930s. Yet, it was only after having studied with the legendary conductor Clemens Krauss in Berlin in 1939 that his conducting career took precedence over his other activities.


After the Second World War, Fjeldstad was constantly given new engagements. In 1946 he was engaged as Chief Conductor of the NRK orchestra, and he conducted a great deal of opera in the 1950s. In 1956, he conducted a well-known recording of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung which included Kirsten Flagstad, and in 1958 he became Music Director of the Norwegian Opera.


When Odd Grüner-Hegge left his position as Chief Conductor of the Philharmonic and the orchestra started advertising for his replacement, it received 96 applications from 21 countries. Øivin Fjeldstad was the sole Norwegian applicant, but he was also a well-deserving and popular conductor with the orchestra. Fjeldstad and Herbert Blomstedt (see separate article) shared the position from 1962−1968, and after this time Fjeldstad continued alone until he left in 1970.


In the course of the 1970s, Øivin Fjeldstad continued to serve both as guest conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, as well as with international orchestras, and as leader of the Cæcilia Association and Vestfold Symphony Orchestra. In 1977, he conducted the inaugural concert of Oslo Concert Hall. Fjeldstad’s rich contribution to both Norwegian and international music life is summed up in Norwegian Biographical Encyclopedia: 


“Fjeldstad’s inexhaustible contribution to Norwegian music life, which includes his work with popular music, opera, new music, amateur music and communication, was widely acknowledged and appreciated, and he was made a Knight 1st Class of The Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav in 1960. He also received international awards, including high Swedish, Dutch and Belgian orders, and in 1952 he received the Arnold Schoenberg prize for his contribution to new music”.  


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Herbert Blomstedt as Chief Conductor

Herbert Blomstedt had just turned thirty-five years old and was already an established conductor when he started his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic together with Øivin Fjeldstad in the autumn of 1962.


Blomstedt had won a prestigious conducting competition in Salzburg in the 1950s and had studied with some of the greatest conductors of the time, including Leonard Bernstein. From 1954 until 1962 he was the Chief Conductor of Norrköping Symphony Orchestra.


Almost sixty years after he started as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor, Herbert Blomstedt remains one of the Oslo Philharmonic’s most dearly-loved guest conductors. In their biographies, many of today’s orchestra musicians mention Blomstedt’s concerts as counting among the highlights of their orchestral careers.


Blomstedt was also highly popular in Norwegian music life during the 1960s. In his farewell interview in Dagbladet on 28 March 1968, he is described as follows:


“It is as big a tragedy for Norwegian music life today that Herbert Blomstedt has taken on the position as Principal Conductor of the Danish Radio Symphony as when Johan Svendsen became Music Director for The Royal Danish Theatre ninety years ago. He has been an indispensable and life-enhancing inspiration during these last six years, and it isn’t just the Oslo Philharmonic’s musicians who are going to miss him, although they will feel the loss the most acutely”.


Herbert Blomstedt reciprocated with equal warmth when referring to the orchestra in the same interview:


“I wish I could bring the whole orchestra with me to Copenhagen. I am very fond of it; its ability, its blithe and positive can-do attitude … it’s a miracle that the orchestra works as well as it does, considering that it is undermanned and without a home”.


Blomstedt was referring to the ongoing battle for a new concert hall in Oslo as a primary reason for withdrawing from his position as Principal Conductor. However, he returned as a guest conductor already in the early 1970s, but then almost twenty years would pass until his next visit in 1992, when he conducted Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.


Violinist Arne Monn-Iversen, who had worked in the orchestra since 1953, described the concert as follows:


“The response to Blomstedt was overwhelming. We had always had the greatest respect for him, but this was still a very special week. He had asked for the original Mahler bowings, something we at first were not thrilled about as we had to change everything we had worked on. The resistance soon abated, and the rehearsal period was unforgettable.


We went deeper and deeper into the material, and felt truly inspired. On the concert evening, everyone’s concentration was sharp. Mahler’s bowings created, as they were intended, an elated mood. I realised that evening that Mahler was a genius  and Blomstedt too!”.


In recent years, Herbert Blomstedt has conducted the Oslo Philharmonic regularly. In the autumn of 2018 he was a guest in the "Orchestra Couch”, where he in conversation with NRK’s Mari Lunnan recounted numerous stories from his time in Oslo in the 1960s.  


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Odd Grüner-Hegge as Chief Conductor

Odd Grüner-Hegge was born in Christiania in 1899 as the youngest of four brothers, and began playing the piano early. When he was six years old, Odd attended a concert where he saw Edvard Grieg himself perform. Following this, he declared that he wanted to become a composer.  


His mother wrote a letter to the renowned composer, and only half a year before Grieg’s death, little Odd had the opportunity to meet both him and his wife, Nina. The meeting must have been a memorable experience for both the little boy and the old man, for not only did Odd have the opportunity to play for Grieg, but he was also invited to sit on his lap afterwards.


After this visit, Edvard Grieg wrote to Odd’s mother, Olga, convinced of the boy’s talent. At the same time, he warned against piano playing taking over, and pleaded with his mother to give the child sufficient time to play with his friends. It is possible that the composer had seen enough examples of the opposite in the course of his own life.


Yet, composition was not to be Odd Grüner-Hegge’s principal career in his adult life. It was to be for one of his childhood friends, however − Ludvig Irgens Jensen. Nevertheless, he did make his debut as a composer in 1917, playing the piano, and with his brother Finn playing the violin.


The following year, he made his debut as a pianist. Both debuts garnered a lot of positive attention and good reviews, and he was declared to be a great pianist of the future. Nevertheless, he continued studying both composition and conducting during his time abroad, and in the end, his conducting took precedence over everything else. 


In 1927, he made his debut as a conductor with the Oslo Philharmonic, with Christian Sinding’s Symphony No. 3 on the programme. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the composer David Monrad Johansen wrote: “Grüner-Hegge followed the composer’s intentions with a warmth, authority and equally, an intimacy, which was truly striking”.


In 1931, he was engaged as Chief Conductor of the orchestra in a shared position with Olav Kielland. After various discussions on the approach to different repertoire, Kielland was given the full position, while Odd Grüner-Hegge was not informed of the decision. A furious debate ensued in the press.


Fortunately, the episode did not result in any bad blood between the conductor and the orchestra, and Grüner-Hegge conducted it regularly in the years leading up to the war. During these years, he worked as conductor at the National Theatre and also appeared as a guest conductor internationally, not least with the Berlin Philharmonic, where he received good reviews.


When Olav Kielland did not wish to continue as Chief Conductor after the war, Grüner-Hegge seemed his natural successor. He continued in his position until 1961, which proved to be a rich period of growth for the orchestra. He performed the world premieres of a number of new Norwegian works, and conducted the orchestra on some of its very first recordings. He was highly respected for his great knowledge and experience.


From 1961−1969 he was Artistic Director of the Norwegian National Opera. He was also active in a number of other positions in Norwegian music life, for instance in TONO and in the Norwegian Composers’ Association. He died in Oslo in 1973.


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Olav Kielland as Chief Conductor

Olav Kielland grew up in Trondheim, and started his musical education early. His father was an architect, and Olav followed in his footsteps, before breaking off his studies at the age of twenty and moving to Leipzig, where he studied composition, conducting, piano and bassoon.


Just two years after his departure to Leipzig, he conducted his first concert with the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Association in Christiania. From 1925, he was the conductor at Stora Teatern in Gothenburg, where he successfully performed operas by Carl Nielsen and Richard Wagner. 


In 1931, both the Stockholm Opera and Oslo’s Philharmonic Association attempted to engage Kielland as their Artistic Director. The latter succeeded, but a change in management led to complications, and he was not formally engaged until 1933. In the early days, he shared the position with Odd Grüner-Hegge, but in the years between 1933 to 1945 he held the position alone.


Both as a composer and as a conductor, Kielland was an adherent of the so-called national line in Norwegian music, and folk music was an important inspiration for his own works. Composers such as Eivind Groven, Geirr Tveitt, Bjarne Brustad and Sparre Olsen were some of the composers whose works he conducted repeatedly during his years as Chief Conductor. 


As a conductor, he he gained international recognition early on in his career, and made his debut in Paris in 1926. In 1939, he was offered a position at the New York Philharmonic on a half-year basis, but the outbreak of war interfered with these plans. In 1941, he moved to Bø in Telemark, where he lived for the rest of his life. 


At the beginning of the war, Olav Kielland served on an advisory board which was established by the German occupying authorities, which also included composer Geir Tveitt, among others. After the war, he was temporarily suspended from his work. He was quickly pardoned, but demonstrations outside the Aula still ensued when he was due to conduct again in 1945. Despite support from the Philharmonic Association, he chose to withdraw from his position as Chief Conductor. 


Kielland’s tendency to find himself at the centre of conflict might have had something to do with his temperament. He was known for being difficult amongst the orchestra’s musicians. 


Still, that he was endowed with an exceptional musical talent was beyond doubt. He had a rich influence on music life, both in Norway and internationally, and served as Music Director in Trondheim, Bergen, and Reykjavik, while being a successful guest conductor in a number of countries.


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Issay Dobrowen as Chief Conductor

When Russian-born Issay Dobrowen started his tenure as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor in 1927, he was only thirty-three years old, but had already gained a rich amount of career experience. 


He had made his debut as a pianist in his native city of Nizhny Novgorod at the early age of four. He completed his studies in piano and composition at an early age in Moscow. After stays in Vienna and Paris, he established himself in Moscow, taking on a conducting position at the Bolshoi Theatre.


Dobrowen’s circle of friends consisted of legendary figures in history. He wrote music for the theatre associated with the illustrious director Constantin Stanislavsky. The writer Maxim Gorky was also one of his close friends from his native city. During a visit to Gorky’s house, he even met Vladimir Lenin, and performed the latter’s favourite sonata, Beethoven’s Appassionata, for him.


Following his years in Moscow, he worked for a number of years as a conductor in Dresden and Berlin, and was already well-known by the time he arrived in Oslo. Issay Dobrowen’s first concert with the orchestra, on 12 September 1927, was very well-received in the press. A critic from Morgenposten expressed great hope for the future in the following words:


“He transformed the orchestral mass to a vibrating nerve, and his tempi rubato breathed new life into often stereotypical music- and dance rhythms. Here, the Russian artist Dobrowen harvested his great triumph. And we are grateful for it, for we take it as a sign of, and a promise that he will come, as an emissary from the great Slavic kingdom, and unveil for us an unknown world, which might air out the stale Central European musical atmosphere, which threatens to quell fresh impulses…” 


The orchestra and the public received Dobrowen as warmly as the critics did. In the years which followed, the orchestra often performed a great deal of new music with him, but he also revived interest in earlier music; music written before the time of Beethoven. This type of music had not been played much in Oslo before Dobrowen’s arrival.


Dobrowen was increasingly in demand also in Great Britain and in the United States, and became the Music Director of San Francisco Symphony in 1930. Scheduling difficulties ensued, and after a conflict with the Board the following year, Dobrowen terminated his contract in Oslo. 


He continued to be a popular guest conductor, however, and was given Norwegian citizenship after some years, assisted by his close friend Fridtjof Nansen. He was forced to flee to Sweden during the war, due to his Jewish heritage. He died in Oslo in 1953.


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

The First Principal Conductors

Only a few weeks after the very first meeting concerning the establishment of the orchestra, and several months before its first concert, a discussion in the press appeared on the subject of who should be given the honour of being Kapellmeister of the Oslo Philharmonic (at that time, the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Association) — a role we today describe as Chief Conductor.



The central argument revolved around whether the conductor should be Norwegian or from abroad. Some of those involved in the debate were of the opinion, supported by certain Norwegian composers, that Norwegian music might suffer with a foreign conductor in charge. Others felt that quality should stand above national interests.  


After a while, a compromise was suggested: to divide the role between several individuals. And that’s how it was settled: from 1919, the orchestra had three main conductors: Johan Halvorsen from Norway, Georg Schnéevoigt from Finland, and Ignaz Neumark from Poland.  



Johan Halvorsen (1864−1935) was fifty-five years old at the start of the orchestra’s first season, and was already one of the pillars of Norwegian music life. In addition to his role as conductor, he had already produced a great body of work as a composer, having achieved international success with Entry March of the Boyars.  


From 1899 to 1919 Halvorsen led the orchestra of the National Theatre, the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Association’s most important predecessor. In the spring of 1920, he terminated his work with the Philharmonic due to disagreements concerning the financial terms, and returned to the National Theatre.  


Georg Schnéevoigt (1872−1947) started his career as a cellist, but began conducting at the turn of the century, and established himself in the next decade as one of Europe’s most promising conductors. He became known eventually as a very strong-willed and temperamental orchestra leader.  



When the orchestra was first established, Schnéevoigt took control over who should be given the principal roles within each of the instrument groups. This created bitter conflicts. Still, there was little doubt that he was a highly skilled conductor. He was a good friend of Jean Sibelius, and often conducted his music.  



Ignaz Neumark (1888−1959) was born in Poland, but started his conducting career in Copenhagen. He came to Norway in 1917, where he in his first years conducted concerts at the National Theatre. He conducted the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Association regularly from its first days until 1922, in the first years as Kapellmeister.  


Neumark became a target in newspaper debates on whether the conductor should be Norwegian or from abroad, but had many fans and supporters. He drew a large audience as conductor of the first popular concerts, as well as the first school concerts. He continued as a regular guest conductor also after 1921.  



From 1921 onwards, José Eibenschütz (1872−1952) took over the position as Chief Conductor, and kept this until 1927. Aftenposten’s critic Gerhard Schjelderup expressed great optimism on behalf of both orchestra and conductor after their national day concert on 17 May in 1921: 



“A permanent conductor of real authority will be able to achieve great things with our orchestra, which now occupies a high position, and can be compared with the best international ensembles”.


One of Eibenschütz’s achievements as Chief Conductor was to program large-scale works, such as a concert version of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. After his time in Oslo, he became Music Director of a broadcasting company in Hamburg. In 1950, he became the first German conductor after the war to make recordings for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation


(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)