Creative Fest Fare Piques Curiosity And Sensibilities

‘Venter,’ or ‘Waiting,’ is an adaptation of Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt’ music. Conceived as monodrama by Calixto Bieito and Karl Ove Knausgård, it takes a contemporary look at Solveig. (Photo by Thor Brødreskift, courtesy Bergen International Festival)

BERGEN, Norway – At the May 22 opening of this year’s 67th Bergen International Festival, which runs through June 5, Norway’s Minister for Culture Trine Skei Grande publicly underlined the festival’s long-standing mission: to rattle its city. Name me a festival director who would ask for more. The directive is the stuff artistic dreams are made of. But it’s also a double-edged sword: What can be a seismic rattle to some audience members may be a mere tremor for others; with any given offering, some audiences will be wanting more and others will find the challenge completely overwhelming.

Anders Beyer, the festival’s 15th director, has been in the chair since 2012, and for his seventh iteration he presents the classic festival programming structure of world premieres and experimentalists (such as neo-classicist minimalist Nils Frahm) alongside the institutional festival brand name of theater virtuoso Robert Wilson. Beyer’s two-week, 30-venue program is framed in subcategories of Friction, Foundations, and Festivities, making it clear for audience members how much rattle is in play. Tread carefully for Friction, less cautiously for Foundations, and with light abandon for Festivities. You are forewarned.

Beyer’s artistic rattle began opening night with the world premiere of Venter (Waiting),  a symphonic passion for solo soprano, choir, orchestra, and video based on selections from Grieg’s Peer Gynt symphonic suite and a cappella choral works.

‘Waiting’ video designer Sarah Derendinger and director Calixto Bieito. (Brødreskift)

Conceived by Spanish opera and theater director Calixto Bieito with author Karl Ove Knausgård, Waiting reinforces the quiet revolution of the symphonic concert experience. It is with us. We don’t have to look far for examples such as the Peter Sellars/Simon Rattle staging of St John’s Passion or Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth to know this, or that the momentum is gaining.

But we are yet to find the nomenclature for the new form. So, at this stage, we choose to call these hybrid visual and musical forms deconstructions or re-imaginings of the symphony and oratorio. We maintain the historical names such as symphony or passion because these 21st-century manifestations owe more to classical music than to avant-garde theater. As a result, we should experience these works within the framework of the artist’s intention.

Solveig (Mari Eriksmoen) is child/daughter, wife/mother, old woman. (Brødreskift)

Bieito’s Waiting is consummate. The work takes us closer to a new form of integrated music-drama than we have seen before. The world premiere, impeccably executed by the luminous soprano Mari Eriksmoen, the vocal ensemble Edvard Grieg Kor, and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was a mesmerizing and wondrous occasion.

Waiting’s text is a philosophical dialogue between Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867) and Kirkegaard’s The Lilies of the Field and the Bird of the Air (1849), combined in a new libretto/novella called The Birds Beneath the Sky by Norway’s populist and internationally embraced literary figurehead Karl Ove Knausgård.

The theme of waiting is explored through Solveig’s voice, not as she is conceived through Ibsen’s drama, but as the central protagonist through the perspective of the life cycle of child/daughter, wife/mother, and old woman. The layers of image, text, voice, and songs vivify Solveig’s experience of loneliness, alienation, and expectations through philosophical encounters that extend beyond and through Kirkegaard’s/Ibsen/Knausgård explorations of what it is to be human. We experience existentialism, present-day mindfulness theories, and Aristotelian contemplations of nature as an expression of the divine and as lessons of spontaneity. The multiple layers are simultaneously delivered in a parallel and complementary narrative offered through the remarkable video images designed by Sarah Derendinger and the distinctive renderings of the musical interludes of choir and orchestra. The synergy is seamless.

Radiant as a contemporary Solveig, the bravura soprano films herself. (Brødreskift)

The chapters of Solveig’s journey are interspersed with Grieg’s Symphonic Suite, but in this setting, under the interpretive guidance of Eivind Gullberg Jensen, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra aims for a rustic, folk song quality.

Soprano Eriksmoen is the heart and lifeblood of Waiting. Her voice is radiant; her performance, breathtaking. Framed in a canvas room of her own and onstage for 90 minutes, the delicately framed, barefoot soprano, dressed in a simple white smock, not only brings a fresh interpretative acuity to Grieg’s songs, but during the course of the evening she recites Knausgård’s affecting text. Additionally, she must film herself with a handheld camera/phone for live interactive projections. Through Eriksmoen’s bravura, complex performance we hear Solveig’s songs in a refreshed light. The song cycle becomes a monodrama of a contemporary woman’s life and love.  Waiting is a co-production with Tivoli Copenhagen, Teatro Arriaga de BilbaoVilnius Festival, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and Iceland Symphony Orchestra, but many more festivals should be knocking at the door. Steal it now.

Bergen’s population is less than a million, but the annual seven-decades-old multi-arts festival follows the success of other international festivals based in small cities such as the Edinburgh Festival and its model, the Salzburg Festival. These festivals resonate with a common embrace of their civic responsibility to challenge local constituents and to include the companies based in the city and the leading artists of their nation.

In ‘Primal,’ by the Carte Blanche company, dancers “breathe” arias. (Tale Hendnes)

Carte Blanche, the national contemporary dance company based in Bergen, produced the double bill Echo Flux for a short season at its company premises. The opening work, Primal, based on chance theories, is a love-it or hate-it kind of work.

It is more than well established that contemporary dancers can be called upon to do anything but traditionally dance; for decades now, the mundane walk has been elevated to theatricality. It is also not unusual for dancers to vocalize. In Primal, breathing is the central choreographic interest.  The nine dancers enter the space one by one. Amplified by a radio microphone, each dancer offers a “breathing” aria. At the same time, the dancers morph into a series of kinetic sculptures resembling primordial man, as directed by choreographer Ayelen Parolin. The movements consisted of various angular distortions and sporadic twitching affectations. But the orchestrated breathing grew very wearying very quickly. The “set” – a rudimentary, multi-tiered series of grey platforms – suggested that all attention should be on the performer. For the work to succeed, the performance needed a troupe of dancers with a greater sense of self-possession of their material. The lack of ownership here, together with the bleak electronic score, had a stifling and ultimately dulling effect.

Framed by an overarching theme of “Longing,” Beyer’s festival focuses heavily on classical music with a roster filled by the names of Yo-Yo Ma, Kathryn Stott, Steven Isserlis, and Michala Petri with Mahan Esfahani. I admire and applaud the festival’s patriotism for its own. The recognized names of the Norwegian Vertavo String Quartet, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, and the Edvard Grieg Kor truly fortify civic pride and provide an inspiration for its local young musicians.

For the opening weekend, pianist Paul Lewis presented Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for a select and intimate audience of only 75 people in Grieg’s idyllically set home villa, a short 15-minute drive from the main city center.

Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations requires a pianist to be heroic and virtuosic in equal parts. In the close confines of a small parlor, these challenges are amplified. How to impart the colossal theatricality of the work without overwhelming the audience seated inches away from you?

Grieg’s villa, Grieg’s Steinway: Paul Lewis on the ‘Diabelli’ Variations. (Brødreskift)

Performing on Grieg’s own 1892 Steinway, Lewis scrupulously and intelligently provoked interest in each of the variations, mining the remarkable harmonic content of the third variation, conquering the complex double fugue of the 32nd variation, and eliciting the elegance of the final movement. Above and beyond this detail, Lewis imagined the full dramatic capacity of the work, never drawing attention to the technical wizardry required. It was an exquisite agony. At the end of each movement Lewis left us suspended, as if we were on a mountain ledge or stranded at the top of a Ferris wheel. We simply did not want to come down to earth.

Dialogue is an important democratizer, and the Bergen festival welcomes debate and most importantly invites the cultural critic to participate on various platforms. The gesture recognizes the critic as a vital interlocutor and equal protagonist in the artistic endeavor. At the Bergen Kunsthall, the critic’s contribution is further recognized in The Disintegration of the Critic, an intriguing and lively exhibition and research project dedicated to cultural critic, writer, and lesbian icon Jill Johnston, whose weekly dance columns in the Village Voice chronicled the avant-garde movements of her time.

The Bergen International Festival has a splendid program for families. Beyer has also invited Korea’s Unsuk Chin as festival composer and artist-in-residence, and welcomes pop, jazz, and experimental crossover to satisfy its broad and committed base. The 68th festival will take place on May 20-June 3, 2020. For more information on the 2019 festival, which continues through June 5, go here.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.