A Finger in Every Pie

"Live music for all" has always been its goal. After 29 years, NorConcert is still alive and kicking, in Norway and abroad.

It seems a long time since 1968 when the Norwegian State Foundation for the Nationwide Promotion of Music (now called NorConcert) started its activities with 510 concert arrangements and an annual budget of NOK 1 million. Its purpose was to bring music to the whole country. The fact that this is not easy in the face of Norway's major geographical and meteorological obstacles, was a good reason for the establishment of NorConcert, and somewhat later the Travelling Theatre and the National Touring Exhibitions: measures designed to give the reconstruction process after World War II an artistic content.

Norway is a young nation from the cultural point of view. The Norwegian National Opera was not established until 1957 and the Norwegian State Academy of Music first saw the light of day in 1973. Post-war reconstruction took longer in the areas of the country that were hardest hit. In Finnmark county in the far north, some people lived in Sami turf huts for several years, and the local facilities were not always proportionate to the musical ambitions. Not so very long ago, getting a piano tuned was a major problem in the northernmost counties of Norway, and there was talk of appointing one piano tuner to cover three counties (the same distance as Oslo-Barcelona). It is said that when a local concert organiser was asked if the piano had been tuned, he answered, “Don't worry. We had it done last year.”

However, modest facilities didn't stop the pioneering artists who braved the weather and the geography to bring high quality concerts to this region, concerts that brightened people's lives and are still remembered today. These artists helped to pave the way for NorConcert, which experienced a freezing, stormy birth in January 1968 in Hammerfest. It was only with great difficulty that those involved in the opening concert arrived in Hammerfest in time, due to iced aircraft and winter weather of the type you have to go to North Norway to experience. The head of NorConcert, composer Finn Mortensen, had a fear of flying, as well as suffering from agoraphobia and claustrophobia. And he was to open the whole thing. He did, too - in the end.

In the 1990s, NorConcert is still frequently reminded of our difficult geography and unpredictable weather conditions. When NorConcert was to celebrate its 25th anniversary last year, one of the arrangements was an anniversary matinee at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, and one of the main elements of the programme was a series of television broadcasts by satellite from concerts arranged simultaneously by NorConcert other places in Norway. For a while it all functioned perfectly in a manner worthy of our technological age, but when the turn came to Hammerfest, the North Norwegian weather had done its worst: the soloist had just managed to reach Hammerfest, but the production team was stuck in Tromsø and the technical team in Alta thereby demonstrating to the full Norway's peculiarities as a venue for concert tours.

But NorConcert has survived: in 1995 we can look back on a diverse and, in the best sense of the term, colourful musical landscape. Today, NorConcert is the biggest employer of musicians in Norway: approximately 600 of them play for NorConcert each year in one connection or another; from nursery school concerts to major festivals, for instance in Berlin. They play on African drums and cellos, synthesizers and gamelans. They play baroque music and rock, children's songs and newly-composed minimalist music. Local musicians travel many miles by boat to rehearse for joint orchestral concerts.

Today, we at NorConcert are responsible in one way or another for almost 30 concerts per day, all the year round. We arrange for musicians to play at all types of schools and nursery schools, for old people in institutions and for everyone at public concerts, we offer Norwegian and multi-national music, we launch new talent and present the “Young Musician of the Year”, we run long and short-term special projects and joint ventures with local musicians, and we arrange workshops, master classes and seminars. But most important of all, we create meeting places where people can enjoy music together.

Many young musicians have had their first professional concert experience travelling on tour for NorConcert. Launching and providing financial support for young talent is a major priority, and the list of young musicians who have received guarantees against financial loss for debut concerts over the years is extremely long. After 22 years, it includes the names of some of the leading musicians in Norway today: Terje Tønnesen, Truls Mørk, Leif Ove Andsnes....

It is not long since Andsnes auditioned for NorConcert and the members of the jury wept for joy over his playing. Now, only a few years later, he has an international profile, both as a recording artist and a concert pianist.

Leif Ove Andsnes is only one example of the qualitative improvement that has taken place in Norwegian music in recent years, where local music schools, regional conservatories and the State Academy of Music in Oslo have contributed towards a breadth and quality that could only have been dreamed of fifteen or twenty years ago. NorConcert has played a major role in this development too, by giving thousands of children their first experience of professional music from all genres, and also by giving a large number of talented musicians concert experience at the moment in their development when they most need it. That these meetings are not irrelevant is shown not least by the piles of drawings that children send to NorConcert after meetings with visiting musicians.

NorConcert has been inviting foreign performers to appear in Norway for many years, particularly in connection with public concerts. The rise in quality has been such that today the standard of many of the public concerts would not be out of place at international festivals: Brigitte Fassbaender, Yuri Bashmet, Jordi Savall, the Moscow Soloists, Subramaniam, the Borodin Quartet...

This type of far-reaching cooperation between artists is in many ways a natural base for extended exchanges between Norwegian and international musicians. NorConcert is currently increasingly directing its attentions outside our national borders. It does not seem unnatural for NorConcert, with its knowledge of Norwegian musical life and 26 years of experience in the promotion of music, to play a role in presenting Norwegian music and musicians abroad.

The authorities have also recognised this, and NorConcert is increasingly involved on the international scene, among other things in connection with assignments from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. NorConcert has cooperated on programmes with the Baltic countries, sends school concerts to Iceland and the Faeroes and is cooperating more and more closely with its sister organisation in Sweden: we organised several tours featuring leading Norwegian musicians in Sweden in 1993, the Grieg Anniversary year, and have planned swedish return visits in the 1995-96 season, in addition to close tripartite cooperation with the Danish Music Information Centre in 1994 on the two-week Scandinavian Music Festival in Berlin, which culminated in the complete concert version of Peer Gynt (in Norwegian!) for a packed Konzerthaus. At the moment NorConcert is planning a musical project for children and adolescents in New York in autumn 1995 at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

NorConcert's music policy is also transcending national borders in other ways. For many years we have been organising multi-cultural music events, which have increased enormously in recent years. Today it is a matter of course for music from many cultures to be included on NorConcert programmes all over Norway. It is the basis for comprehensive research projects, NorConcert's Norwegian Multi-cultural Music Centre organises cultural exchanges with developing countries in cooperation with NORAD, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, and these activities have currently culminated in the major multi-cultural music festival “The World in the North” in Oslo.

Doors have been opened to many rich cultures, and today it is possible to explore music from other countries that only a few years ago was unknown to many Norwegian audiences. Today, NorConcert sends African musicians to concerts in the Faeroe Islands, and when NorConcert sends ten musicians from seven countries and three continents to meet a local school choir and a group of folk musicians and dancers, new, exciting forms of musical expression emerge to live their own lives. The world has changed and Norway has changed. Meetings like this seem natural today, in a country where, at one Oslo school, the pupils speak more than thirty different languages. NorConcert has also become a promoter of music in this new reality, and thereby also a bridge-builder between peoples.

The AfroBrazz project is a perfect example of this kind of meeting between two musical cultures. In 1993, NorConcert arranged for the Tatunane group from Tanzania to meet the Norwegian brass quintet The Brazz Brothers in the small Norwegian mountain community of Vågå, to work together for two weeks in schools and nursery schools, with local choirs and folk musicians. And no sheet music, thank you! The project culminated in an unusual final concert for all the participants, with a quarter of the local population as the audience and everyone finally taking part in a Masai dance from Tanzania. The process was reversed the same autumn, when the Norwegian musicians paid a return visit to Tanzania. You can acquire a taste for this kind of thing.

Today, contemporary music has its place on NorConcert's programmes, featuring both Norwegian and foreign musicians. Guests from the international major league - the Kronos and Arditti Quartets, Meredith Monk and the London Sinfonietta - have contributed towards attracting an increasingly diverse audience to the concerts. Things have not always been like this. Stories are still told about a certain concert of contemporary music a few years ago when new compositions by Arne Nordheim were to be performed for the first time and the only people present were the com-poser and his wife, the NorConcert representative and the local organiser.
Today, NorConcert cooperates with Norwegian contemporary music festivals, not least the ULTIMA festival in Oslo, where NorConcert, as one of the founders, will be responsible for a number of ambitious cooperative projects in 1995. NorConcert also commissions approximately twenty new works each year from both established and brand new Norwegian composers. The promotion of music for the audiences of tomorrow through school concert’s has been important for NorConcert right from the start, and these activities have grown and multiplied over the years until they now involve almost five thousand concerts for children and adolescents each year. NorConcert would like to have the opportunity of arranging more experimental activities as a necessary factor in keeping such enormous artistic activity vital and interesting.

Although we would like to have more resources to achieve this, it has still been possible to get several interesting projects off the ground with the available funds. Not least, several projects based on the creativity of children and adolescents have brought surprising results, particularly through the close cooperation that has been established with the London Sinfonietta in the form of Response, a composition-based educational project in several stages, with participants aged from eight to nineteen composing under the experienced leadership of an educational team from the Sinfonietta.

In winter 1993-94, this process culminated in public performances of children's compositions in connection with several of the London Sinfonietta's own concerts in Norway. Composer Robert Saxton characterised the result as “outstanding work of real dramatic quality”, while critic Hilary Finch wrote in the Times Educational supplement: “The advanced group ... constructed a composition of true virtuosity - one of the most imaginative and inventive the Sinfonietta members had come across in all their work”.

One side-effect of the project was immediately evident in the involvement of the young participants in the rest of the London Sinfonietta's concert programme, a set of contemporary works which, according to the musicians, would have been tough going even at home in their own Queen Elizabeth Hall. And when teenage school kids from a local community on the west coast (pop. 6500) start shouting with excitement after Xenakis' Thallein, the NorConcert organisers, who have obviously been keen on de-mystifying contemporary music and giving it its natural, central, integrated plate on programmes, are enthusiastic, to say the least.
It is tomorrow's audiences we are talking about. And the music they are offered reflects the whole breadth of NorConcert's programme policy, from the classical to the new, from the basic, traditional, local Norwegian to the exotic. It offers a richness of genres, crossover, innovative musical meetings, rock and contemporary music ... Not so very long ago, many people regarded NorConcert as something relatively grey and indefinable. Some people even said that NorConcert was like taking a dose of cod-liver oil. This has changed. Today we hear young representatives of the rock community saying that much of what NorConcert does is “hipper than most”. 1968 seems a long time ago. NorConcert's methods have become far more differentiated, its area of contact much larger, its level of activity far higher. But the goal is the same: live music for all.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.3 - 1995 No. 1
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