The world’s most northerly orchestral institution, the Arctic Philharmonic, performs in a variety of combinations, from full symphony orchestra to intimate chamber ensemble. This week it travelled to the Bergen International Festival in sinfonietta form, with a programme of uncompromisingly modern music – decidedly not for the faint-hearted.

The Arctic Philharmonic Sinfonietta with Sarah Herchkowitz © Anita Veda
The Arctic Philharmonic Sinfonietta with Sarah Herchkowitz
© Anita Veda

Unsuk Chin, the festival’s composer-in-residence, provided two pieces for the evening, held within the austere confines of the city’s cathedral, its plain stone and whitewash interior alleviated by a few fine examples of Gothic tracery filled with indifferent 19th-century glass. But contrary to its bleak appearance, its acoustic is warm and well-suited to music that requires intense concentration.

Things did not start well. Chin’s Double Bind is a work for solo violin and electronics, which initially seems to be a joke at the expense of the performer, who is required to comically shake a jumble of recorded musical sounds out of his instrument before he can play, but it quickly loses its ability to amuse, lost in an irritating series of glissandi and con legno passages, not dissimilar to the superior Chin piece heard the previous evening, ParaMetaString, played by the Oslo String Quartet .

Soloist Peter Herresthal, a great champion of new music in Norway, fared much better in Eivind Buene’s Violin Concerto, claimed in the programme to be a world premiere but in the event the first outing for a heavy revision of an earlier version.The opening movement settled into a quiet meditation on the sonority of the open strings of the violin, with microtonal adjustments from both soloist and orchestra peeping through the texture.

An extended accompanied cadenza occupied the entire second movement, providing a virtuosic introduction to the finale, which began with a quote from Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, which is itself a quote from Bach, before returning to the still waters of the first movement, bell-like harmonics from the soloist drawing the piece to a pianissimo conclusion.This concerto lacks any real fireworks but under the careful direction of conductor Timothy Weiss its arc-like construction gave it a refreshingly satisfying sense of calm orderliness.

There is nothing orderly about the text to Chin’s 1991 Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Acrostic Wordplay) for soprano and ensemble. Chin draws lines from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende and Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and chops them up, reversing some words and scrambling the syllables of others. Nothing the soprano sings makes any sense. Instead, we are invited to devise our own fairy tales from these scraps as we listen to seven short scenes, each markedly different in character – some dark and mysterious, others downright funny, such as "The Game of Chance", where brave soprano Sarah Herchkowitz had to sing the alphabet in entirely the wrong order, or "Domifare S", where she sang solfège syllables applied to the wrong notes.

While none of this made for easy listening, one had to admire the sheer brilliance of Hershkowitz’s singing, the wit of Chin’s ideas and the skill and sensitivity of the orchestra, particularly the gorgeous sound made by several tuned percussion instruments.

Stephen's press trip was funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in London and Bergen International Festival.