Roza Nolčeva-Angelovska
© Erik Larsson
The city of Gävle sits on the coast of the Baltic Sea, approximately 160 kilometres north of Stockholm. An industrial community with an important port, it is perhaps best known outside Sweden as the home of the Gävle Goat, a yuletide symbol that earned a spot in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest straw goat. But culture lovers value the city for an entirely different reason: the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, which has stood as the centre of the town’s artistic life for more than a century. The number of international music mavens introduced to this illustrious outfit grows by the year.

Founded in 1912, the Gävle Symphony Orchestra is one of Sweden’s three oldest orchestras, preceded only by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (1902) and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (1905). In keeping with its location, in a city of roughly 100,000 inhabitants, the orchestra emphasises long-standing relationships between musicians and its connection to the community.

“We are on the small side of a symphony orchestra,” Roza Nolčeva-Angelovska, the orchestra’s Director of Programming and Artistic Planning, tells me. “When it was founded it was quite miraculous, because this was a very industrial centre – a city in which culture was not prominent. It was quite a new and big thing, and it has continued to be a vital part of the city ever since. There has been over 100 years of growth, and I think right now we are in one of the best years that the orchestra has had, historically.”

The orchestra gained almost instant local acclaim following its inception, though it arguably remained a regional phenomenon in its early years. The rest of Sweden – and the world – began catching up after they had been around for a couple decades, with the orchestra’s first commercial recordings made in the mid-1960s. This coincided with a cultural boom that influenced the life of Gävle as a whole.

“In this city, there have always been people who appreciate culture,” Nolčeva says. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, in particular, there was a strong push for the arts. A lot of sculptures were commissioned, or built and brought here, including a very big piece by British sculptor Henry Moore. Regardless of the fact that this is a city of workers, of factories, there has always been a strong sense of people here being drawn to art. Gävle has been known as a city of culture for a long time now.”

The Gävle Symphony Orchestra
© Nikolaj Lund

The prominence of the Gävle Symphony Orchestra has also had an influence on the city’s urban planning. Even in its founding days, there was a sense that the symphony would eventually outgrow its digs at the Gävle Theater, a shared space. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the outfit earned a dedicated concert hall, built on the banks of the river Dalälven.

“Next year, in January 2023, we are celebrating its 25th anniversary,” says Nolčeva. “It’s a full concert hall in its own right. We run our own concert series and it’s a home for the orchestra, but it also hosts other cultural events – including pop and jazz. And this shows the strong link between the orchestra and the city itself, because we are financed by the municipality. That also speaks volumes for how fruitful this is for the life of this city in particular: the orchestra is a very strong asset to the local community.”

Its value has always been clear to classical musicians. The roster of luminaries who have stopped off in Gävle is distinguished in any context. Nolčeva believes that the unique sound and close relationships forged by the orchestra have made it a desirable stopping point for everyone, from Martha Argerich to Esa-Pekka Salonen.

“I was stunned to see the track record of the orchestra,” she told me. “If you just work backwards and see how the likes of Mitsuko Uchida have played on this stage, it’s quite amazing, and there is a sense of privilege and pride within the community. The orchestra members are quite used, these days, to hosting world-class conductors and soloists. Sometimes guests artists might not be fully familiar with the ensemble, and they are completely blown away by the quality and sound of the orchestra. They recognise the very dedicated and almost palpable passion the orchestra plays with. They have great energy and are amazingly committed.” 

The Gävle Symphony Orchestra
© Nikolaj Lund

“Because the ensemble is on the smaller side, there is also that very special feeling of a tight, strong connection among the players,” Nolčeva continues, “and that's actually quite obvious when you see them onstage. When we hosted Janine Jansen, recently, she was absolutely amazed at how easy it was to work with the orchestra and with Chief Conductor Jaime Martín, even if she was here for the first time. She was absolutely thrilled to be invited back the following season, and that is often the case with the artists we host.”

Under Martín’s tenure, which ends this year, the orchestra has made strides in shedding its hidden-treasure status. Now signed to the Finnish label Ondine, they’ve upped their recording game, most recently issuing a disc of Brahms and Hubert Parry in 2019. Nolčeva also categorises the pivot to digital programming due to the lockdown as a blessing in disguise, since it allowed viewers from all over the globe to experience the orchestra’s high level of artistry from their own homes. Still, as Europe continues to reopen its borders and its concert halls, they are eager to play more international engagements and make strategic connections. “We also have had a very fruitful relationships with composers over the years,” adds Nolčeva, “and we are keen commissioners of new music in our own right, as well as co-commissioners alongside the big orchestras.”

The Gävle Symphony Orchestra
© Nikolaj Lund

In 2023, the orchestra will also return to the United Kingdom, where they toured successfully in early 2020. Nolčeva emphasises that touring also allows the symphony to highlight the great Swedish music that has sometimes been lost within the standard repertory, and which they have taken up as a calling card.

“The only composer who comes from this part of Sweden is Bo Linde, who was born in Gävle,” she tells me. “His son has played the French horn in the orchestra throughout his career. That is something we want to highlight. We’ve done so in the last few years by playing his Violin Concerto and his Cello Concerto. In 2023, we are going to perform his Pezzo Concertante for bass clarinet and orchestra, which is completely out of the standard repertory. We are going to continue featuring his works and bring his name more into the music world. And we are going to bring one of his overtures with us, when we come to the UK.”

From a small corner of Sweden, the Gävle Symphony Orchestra now stands as an ambassador to all of Europe, proving that great legacies can grow in the most unexpected places. Where once copper and iron were the primary goods transported to far-flung locales, culture is now the primary export. 

Click here to find the future concerts of the Gävle Symphony Orchestra.
This article was sponsored by the Gävle Symphony Orchestra.