Bringing Norwegian Music to the Far East

The Oslo Philharmonic has had several tours to the Far East following its very first tour to Japan in 1988. The most recent tour to the region − to China and Taiwan − took place in the spring of 2017.

Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko led four concerts in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and Truls Mørk was the soloist for all the concerts, playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto.  

Ingrid Røynesdal, Chief Executive of the orchestra, described the tour in a travel column on the orchestra’s website: 

“The Hong Kong Arts Festival is a prominent cultural event which extends over five weeks. The city is wall-papered with signs and posters; an aesthetic which may seem a little chaotic to our eyes. Still, the many advertisements and photos of the Oslo Philharmonic, up for many weeks, make for a unique communication on our native city and Norwegian cultural life.  

The music of Jean Sibelius has also been important to the orchestra for many years. The fact that we come bearing Nordic music is deeply appreciated here: we also perform the music of Geir Tveitt (Hardingtonar), and Edvard Grieg, as well as Sibelius’ second symphony.

The countries in this region might be described as “younger nations” when it comes to the development o classical music. Yet, they are all the more vital for it. We were told by one of the promoters that in the Far East, it is mostly younger people who attend classical music concerts. Hearing Grieg’s music playing through the loudspeakers as we arrived at our gigantic hotel in Taipei yesterday evening was in every way a unique experience.  

After two concerts for almost 4000 people in Hong Kong, accompanied by a literally roaring enthusiasm, the two concerts in Taipei were next. Nearly twenty journalists were present at the press conference following our arrival in Taiwan”.  

Watch the Oslo Philharmonic perform extracts from Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 at the National Concert Hall in Taipei.  

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

New Touring Destinations in Sight

Throughout the first decades of its history, the Oslo Philharmonic only performed a few concerts outside Norway. After some major regional tours within the country in the 1950s, the orchestra left for its first European tour in 1962, and embarked on its first tours of the United States in the 1970s.  

In the 1980s, the ground was prepared for a whole new level of touring activity than ever before. Mariss Jansons had taken on the role as Principal Conductor with a clear vision of how the Oslo Philharmonic would achieve international recognition, and together with its recordings, touring was to be a key method through which to attain this goal.   

When a symphony orchestra is considered to be an unknown entity in the great music nations of the world, doors to the most important concert stages do not automatically open. The Oslo Philharmonic’s tour to the United Kingdom in 1982 was in this way a sort of test which might open up for new possibilities.

Fortunately, the orchestra passed the test with flying colours, and when it returned for a new tour in the autumn of 1984, both concert stages and everything surrounding the orchestra had received an upgrade. The orchestra arrived armed with a trump card up its sleeve: the fresh Tchaikovsky recording with Chandos.  

The start of the tour − in Middlesborough − involved a poignant experience. At the beginning of the rehearsal, the orchestra was told that Arvid Jansons, Mariss’ father and a beloved conductor of the orchestra, had passed away earlier in the day in Manchester. After a minute of silence, the musicians completed the rehearsal and the first concert of the tour, with 1300 listeners present.  

On 3 December, the orchestra completed its tour of the United Kingdom in London’s Barbican Hall. The British press published excellent reviews of the concert, and the tour was described in the Norwegian press as a triumph. The resonances from the success of the tour lasted until the end of the year: King Olav V mentioned the tour as an example of that it had been “a great year for Norwegian music” in his new year’s speech that year.  

The following year there was a tour to West Germany, Switzerland and Austria. On this occasion, the most important destination was Vienna, where the Oslo Philharmonic was to perform for the first time in Musikverein; home of the Vienna Philharmonic and its New Year’s Concerts − and one of the most prestigious stages in the world for classical music.  

Aftenposten printed the following comments prior to the start of the tour: 

“The tour of seven German cities, among them Frankfurt, Mannheim and Essen, has been a success, with splendid reviews throughout, full houses and a warm response from the public”.  

“But Vienna will be the big test”, Mariss Jansons told Aftenposten.

“No city has a comparable relationship to music than that of Vienna, and no concert hall such a knowledgeable and critical audience. There you’ll see audience members following the concert holding their own scores”.  

“The growing reputation of the orchestra has spread to Vienna, and the concert is sold out to the very last seat”.  

“I feel an enormous responsibility for presenting the orchestra in Vienna, and am very excited”, says Mariss Jansons.  

Both audiences and critics gave the conductor and orchestra a very warm reception. According to Aftenposten’s journalist on the scene, concertmaster of the evening, Terje Tønnesen, described the experience as follows: 

“Fantastic from beginning to end…this is a magical hall, and it has a magical audience. It’s astonishing how much they know about music! We felt as if the audience was our family; an equal partner. That struck me the most”.  

In the course of the 1980s, international tours were an annual event for the Oslo Philharmonic. It rose to new challenges in the years to come: a tour to the United States in 1987 and the orchestra’s first tour to Japan in 1988 − where the orchestra was met with as great an enthusiasm as they had been met with in the West.

Mariss Jansons was sitting in the bus with the orchestra musicians as it drove through London during their UK tour in 1984. When they passed the Royal Albert Hall he turned around and shouted: We’re playing there some day!”, and was met with expressions of humorous disbelief from the musicians. Three years later they entered London’s biggest concert arena for the first time − and not for the last time.

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Orkesterprøve i Wiens Musikverein.

The First Tours to the United States

In the spring of 1974, the Oslo Philharmonic crossed the Atlantic for the first time in order to tour the United States. The tour lasted nearly a month, and involved as many as twenty-four concerts along the West Coast. The pianist Jens Harald Bratlie was the soloist, and Romanian-Israeli Mendi Rodan conducted the concerts.

The media was far more present when the orchestra again travelled to the United States in 1978, this time to the East Coast. Once again, it was on the road for a whole month, from the first concert in Miami, via a series of cities in Florida, Alabama, North- and South Carolina, to the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C, and the grand concluding concert of of the tour, in Carnegie Hall, New York.

The orchestra’s Principal Conductor at the time, Okko Kamu, conducted the concerts. Some were critical of the fact that Swedish pianist Staffan Scheja was the soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, although Norwegian violinist Arve Tellefsen was also part of the tour − in Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane.

The fact that none of the twenty-four concerts contained music after Grieg’s time also provoked reactions. VG’s commentator, Jarle Sørå, even remarked: “The Philharmonic Association has let Norwegian contemporary music down completely during its US tour”.

The orchestra’s Director, Alv Rasmussen, explained the conditions for the tour in an article in VG, referring to the collaboration with the orchestra’s touring agent, CAMI:

“They wanted − how shall we put it − a Scandinavian profile for the programme. Grieg’s piano concerto was a must … In return they would pay the costs of the tour, and make all the practical arrangements in a professional way (…)

We had to agree to it. Without their financial and practical support, the tour would have cost us such a high sum that we would not have managed to cover it (…) 

We are not doing this to enjoy a holiday in the United States. An orchestra of this importance needs to feel the air under its wings from time to time. It’s inspiring for the musicians to experience different conditions, and to play in concert halls other than their own, for different audiences”.

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Turnéprogram fra USA-turneen i 1974

A Concert at the Acropolis

On 9 June, 1965, the Oslo Philharmonic travelled from Fornebu Airport, Oslo, to its most far-flung international touring destination to date − Greece. The orchestra was invited to perform in the opening concert of the Athens Festival on 1 July with a concert in the Herodes Atticus theatre on the Acropolis.

Financially, the project was a challenge. It was calculated that the tour would cost 140,000 Norwegian kroner, and that the performance fee from the festival would only amount to 85,000. Nevertheless, the invitation created a great stir, and promised a myriad of possibilities for promoting Norwegian culture, and this opened up for the possibility of public funding for the remaining 55,000.

The orchestra’s musicians were unaccustomed to playing in the open air and in such a large amphitheatre, but the acoustics were excellent for the 5000 listeners. They had the opportunity to hear a varied programme directed by Principal Conductor Øivin Fjeldstad: Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Robert Riefling as the soloist, Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and a symphony by the recently deceased  Greek composer Manoli Kalomiris.

The Greek reviews of the concert were very positive, and the critics praised the conductor’s interpretation of Kalomiri’s symphony in particular. There were also Norwegian journalists in attendance, who were able to communicate something of the atmosphere to their homeland. Veronica Reff wrote in Aftenposten:

“Never before has the Philharmonic Association had such an overwhelming response as it has experienced here in Athens. Never before has it delivered such a precise and dazzling performance as it did during the opening of the Athens Festival last night … Those of us present felt ourselves part of something quite outstanding, as we sat on the hard marble benches without a backrest, our backs nearly giving in, but we sat there with Norway in our hearts. It was as special as winning an Olympic gold medal”.

The following day, the orchestra’s other Principal Conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, conducted another concert, where Greek pianist Rita Bouboulidis performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The orchestra also performed music by Arne Nordheim (Canzona per Orchestra), Harald Sæverud (Sinfonia Dolorosa) and Carl Nielsen (Sinfonia Espansiva).

The third and final concert of the tour took place in Volos, also in an old amphitheatre. The orchestra played Egil Hovlands Symphony No. 2 and music by Grieg, Weber and Brahms to a large and enthusiastic audience.

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Fra utendørskonserten i Athen 1. juli 1965.

The First European Tour

The Oslo Philharmonic’s first European tour in November 1962 was an ambitious affair. In the course of sixteen days, the orchestra performed concerts in as many as twelve cities: Hamburg, Hameln, Heerlen, Hagen, Bonn, Amsterdam, Haag, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hildesheim, Kiel and Copenhagen.

Norwegian audiences and press followed the international response to the orchestra with great excitement, not least the reception in well-known music cities such as Hamburg, Berlin and Bonn. Concert reviews were very positive overall, and the tour was perceived as strengthening Oslo’s reputation as a musical centre.

Achieving recognition from the European music world as an orchestra on a high international level was a new and exciting experience for the musicians. “We didn’t know how good we were before we read about it in foreign papers!” mused a musician taking part in the tour.

The orchestra’s two new Principal Conductors, Herbert Blomstedt and Øivin Fjeldstad, took turns conducting. Two soloists were also part of the trip: Aase Nordmo Løvberg, who sang songs by Grieg and Wagner, and the pianist Robert Riefling, who played Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s third Piano Concerto.

All the concerts opened with Norwegian contemporary music: Bjarne Brustad’s Symphony No. 2, Harald Sæverud’s Galdreslåtten and Fartein Valen’s The Graveyard by the Sea, across different programmes. The second part of the concerts featured a Brahms, Beethoven or Svendsen symphony.

International critics reported their impression that the orchestra represented a unique Nordic sound which distinguished itself from its European counterpart. The tour resulted in a series of invitations to new destinations. Still, three years were to pass before the next international tour, which went to Greece.

(The quote from the musician is taken from the anniversary programme of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra on its 75th anniversary in 1994.)

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

De store landsdelsturneene

Orkesteret får en varm mottakelse på en av sine landsdelsturneer.

The First International Tour

The orchestra travelled abroad for the first time in the winter of 1927 − to Stockholm with conductor Georg Schnéevoigt. Symphonies intended to showcase the orchestra’s best qualities had been selected: Beethoven’s third symphony, Sibelius’ first, Brahms’ fourth and Tchaikovsky’s sixth. 

The Swedish press was very enthusiastic about the orchestra’s concerts, and underscored the advantages of the connection between the two neighbouring countries having grown stronger in the years following the First World War. The only question they posed was as to why there hadn’t been any Norwegian music on the programme.

A number of members of the Swedish Royal Family were present at the first concert, and some of them attended both concerts. One of these was the then twenty-five year old Princess Märtha, who only two years later became Crown Princess of Norway, and later, patron of the Oslo Philharmonic.

Princess Märtha dispatched a short message to the orchestra following the concert: “Greetings to the orchestra, and say that mummy and daddy are so sorry they couldn’t make it tonight!”.

Overseas orchestral tours happened infrequently until the 1960’s, and when they did take place, were regarded as important occasions by the national press. 

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)