Eivind Gullberg Jensen: chains of communication

Norwegian conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen makes professional musicians rediscover the quintessential joy of playing, and makes audiences come alive to play their part in the sacred communication of a perfect concert. Critics hail the young Norwegian as a rare music maker, and in Hanover the season is sold out even before the new chief conductor has taken up his post.

Eivind Gullberg Jensen (Foto: Paul Bernhard)

    -My official premiere with NDR (Nord Deutche Rundfunk) is on September 17th, says Gullberg Jensen. -A commissioned piece by Norwegian composer Ketil Hvoslef. In the role of chief conductor it is natural for me to pull some strings for Norwegian and Scandinavian music. However, Norway is small, so there has to be a balance; I am not going to act as a musical ambassador. For the premiere with NDR it felt right to bring in Ketil Hvoslef. We come from the same place, more or less, and I thought it would be fun to try out someone from the older generation.

    From the island of Stord outside Bergen, Gullberg Jensen studied violin and music theory in Trondheim before he moved on to conductor studies in Stockholm and Vienna. After impressing the jury at a conductors’ competition in Frankfurt back in 2003, the German scene opened up for the young Norwegian. Over the past few years he has been watched very closely, not least by some of the directors of NDR. After a triumphant guest performance with the orchestra in early 2008, the position of chief conductor was his.

    -They had been looking for a new chief conductor for a while, says Gullberg Jensen. I don’t know exactly what made them decide in my favour, but I guess the orchestra wanted something new; a different approach after ten years with the same chief, the renowned Japanese conductor Eiji Oue.

    Gullberg Jensen stresses the responsibility he always feels in front of a world-class orchestra:

    -I am acutely aware that my right to stand before an ensemble of professional musicians and be their leader is that I have made every effort to penetrate the work and grasp the intention of the composer. It is only on the basis such understanding that I can faithfully take on the job as interpreter on the behalf of so many others.

    Gullberg Jensen misses the time when he could spend weeks delving into a new piece; reading relevant literature and researching the zeitgeist of the period. Now things happen a little faster.

    -Of course I have my methods for acquiring the necessary sense of the work, which include allowing for the interplay between intuition and theoretical analysis. I find that my intuitive responses to a piece of music often stand affirmed after a thorough musical analysis of the work. But the theoretical study cannot be skipped or taken lightly, because it is only when you understand your intuitive solutions, that you can put them into play as devices of a professional interpretation. Theory can sometimes dissolve itself, i.e. it sort of vanishes, but it must always be consulted, because only then can it be rightfully transcended.

    It is a Wittgensteinian point we agree: only by reading the argument will you understand that you must burn the book. Theory is the meta-language that stands as guarantor for the possibility of communication.

    -Being a conductor is first of all a matter of communication, i.e. having the ability to overview and control an entire chain of communication. This chain starts with the composer and his discourse with his contemporary context. The next step is making this expression communicate with the musicians today –often over major leaps of time. And the final step is making the orchestra communicate with the present day audience; i.e. making the music work our contemporary context. The conductor is the one who must be able to consider every link, and he must try to ensure that communication takes place; he cannot simply rely on impulse and intuition and hope for the best. This is where the hard work and long hours of solitary preparation come in.

    A long list of successful appearances with the top orchestras of Europe testifies that Gullberg Jensen really has this power of communication. The musicians seem to respond to him immediately, and the audiences follow suit. Critics agree that orchestras excel under Gullberg Jensen. How much of this is has to do with hard work and musicality and how much depends on psychology and human interplay, we wonder?

    -Of course the chemistry between the people involved is critical. But this phenomenon is easier to recognize in its absence really, which makes it hard to analyse. I don’t have any clear notions of what about my work-style or my personality that make the musicians shine except that I allow them a lot of freedom. I think it is important to ignite their joy of playing and the sense of creating something special in the moment. Strange as it might seem, professionalism is not necessarily a positive concept here. In fact, awakening the amateur spirit, the un-jaded love of playing, is often the key factor.

    The aspect of communication and the hard work of managing the chain of communication is the chief concern of the conductor, and 90 per cent of his working hours Gullberg Jensen spends in preparation; reading scores, which is a pure analytical process. But he also tries to take on the meditative role where theory and instruction recede into the background and the music itself takes charge.

    -I have to be able to let my self go, and be transported away by the music. The bottom line is that I cannot take the audience to a place where I myself am not. I don’t know if it is right to say that transcendence motivates me as a conductor, but I do believe that music can be such a vehicle and I think my job is to keep this possibility open. Being a conductor is being an interpreter, but there also has to be a profound will to express something. My will and drive as a conductor is of course bound up with all the works that I still have not touched. There is so much music I want to realize!

    Gullberg Jensen is the leading Norwegian conductor of his time, yet the amount of domestic attention is still fairly slight, not like in Germany, where his name is becoming more and more well known.

    -In Norway a conductor is foreign almost by definition. We have been more skilled at profiling our soloists I guess. But really, the lack of attention around my person is a good thing. It takes a very long time to establish oneself as a conductor, and too much attention and praise too soon can be very unfortunate. It is important to understand that as a conductor you have much less quality control than a soloist will normally have. So you must always read reviews as an appraisal of en entire context and try not to pay to much attention to personal focus. That being said, I must add that it is a great privilege to work in Germany where classical music is such a strong and vital part of the culture and musicians are in fact noticed in the media.

    As for Norway, the country is slowly waking up to the fact that we have a world-class conductor.

    Yes, I’m starting to get a lot of offers, says Gullberg Jensen, even some for the position of chief conductor. I will certainly be working in Norway –like I am now– alongside Hanover and all my other engagements. But my goal is to limit my travelling to 200 days a year.

    Gullberg Jensen’s premiere of Ketil Hvoslef’s commissioned piece takes place on September 17th in Hanover. Later the performance will travel to Oslo, in February, and to Bergen in 2011.

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