During the summers in the early 70’s, a group of young musicians were brought together under the direction of Bjarne Fiskum in Harran in Trøndelag to make music together and give concerts. These gatherings culminated in a concert in Oslo in the summer of 1975 under the name of The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. The initiative died away, but two years later, some of the musicians who participated, namely Kristina Kiss, Helge Stang Aas, Arild Solum and August Albertsen, came together to revive the orchestra. I was studying in Switzerland at that time and was asked to join as the orchestra’s artistic leader.
The orchestra was an alternative to the established music scene and provided a new platform where highly talented young musicians could play together without conductor.
In the autumn of 1977, we practiced our debut programme: Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7, Eivind Solås: Skogens Øyne (World premiere), Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and finally Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings: a program that lasted over two and a half hours and for this, we spent 100 hours rehearsing. The concert was a big success and as far as I can remember, Reimar Riefling at VG wrote enthusiastically: Festival Strings are born in Oslo!
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra 1977-2017
For many years, the orchestra lived hand to mouth. None of the musicians could get paid and having a fixed rehearsal space was just a dream. But quite a lot happened in the first years and engagements that inspired us continued to come its way. Within just a couple of years, we had already made three recordings for BIS Rercords, including an all-Grieg programme with Holberg Suite. The orchestra also played concerts with Mstislav Rostropovich, and was closest to his protégé for several years. The famous violinist Iona Brown joined the orchestra in 1980, and we shared the artistic directorship for 20 years, she as the artistic and musical leader and I as the artistic leader.
Iona was a central figure in British music-making and brought to the orchestra a know-how that we still get the benefit of. During her time with the orchestra, some of the most notable record labels launched our recordings. In addition we toured the world and received a good number of Spellemann's prizes in Norway. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra is also the only orchestra that has ever performed for the House of Lords in London.
Iona was a traditionalist, and the orchestra became a prominent figure in the established European music scene. In the course of the 90's, we also received a kind of paradoxical motto: while the orchestra should preserve the tradition and develop it, it should also challenge it. We have tried to live up to this through different approaches, such as performing Vivaldi's Four Seasons as a journey through time with recorded sounds on tape, presenting Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata in the form of 'radio theatre' with Tolstoy’s text as the supporting element, or setting a jazz trio against the baroque orchestra for Bach's Goldberg variations.
In the last couple of years, we have been committed to taking communication with the audience to a new level. All types of scenic productions are an interaction with the audience, a give-and-take. With this in mind, we began learning our core repertoires by heart – this being one of the several ways to tear down the 'fourth wall', a theatrical term for the imaginary ‘wall’ that exists between those on stage and the audience. Furthermore, in the same spirit, we have collaborated with the American actor and pantomime artist, Bud Beyer who has devoted decades to helping musicians with their stage presence.
In one of our major projects in the autumn 2017, a collaboration between the Dutch organisation Oorkaan and Kulturtanken and the NCO, we will put what we learned from Bud into practice and present a musical theatre production for young people derived from Schoenberg’s Verlärte Nacht and here, we will attempt to expand our role as a musician.
I would like to welcome you to the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s 40th anniversary with the hope that you will follow us in the next 40 years to come.
Terje Tønnesen, Artistic director