Wind bands are to Norway what male voice choirs are to Wales. It seemed only right, therefore, that Oslo University’s Festival Hall, with murals by Edvard Munch adorning its monumental walls, should have been the setting for a concert given by the Sjøforsvarets musikkorps and Det Norske Blåseensemble, two of the country’s most renowned wind bands. Showcasing three Norwegian compositions, this was one of 50 events that make up Ultima, the largest contemporary music festival in Scandinavia, held annually in Oslo.

© Ultima Festival 2016 | Andreas Turau
© Ultima Festival 2016 | Andreas Turau

Bergen’s Sjøforsvarets musikkorps opened with the première of Øyvind Mæland’s Vinaigre. Bass clarinet, alto flute and French horn laid murky foundations, fermenting slowly as more instruments were added to the slime, then picking up pace and pitch and culminating in woodwind and percussion screaming at the top of their registers. Suddenly, there was silence. The drone returned, this time with ethereal, Harmon-muted trumpets and trombones sliding around the note and giving a distinctly sour taste to the sound quivering in the air. As its title suggests, the music was not sweet, but the textures were sublime. The stop-start nature of the slides that would splutter uneasily into life was made tantalising by subtle variations in pitch, dynamics and orchestration.

Erlend Skomsvoll’s wonderfully-titled Dsjåkåccåråckå, a nine-movement percussion concerto, was an exciting tour de force. Soloist Eirik Raude and the Sjøforsvarets percussionists worked masterfully on the battery of marimbas, xylophones and vibraphones. Buoyant carnival calypsos gave way to the band blowing air through their instruments like a giant bellows as an accompaniment to Raude’s enchanting vibraphone, in a beguiling reversal of usual roles.

Skomsvoll, like Mæland, is fascinated with exploring sonic possibilities and the creation of new textures. This was particularly evident when wooden mallet percussion played together: three-tone ostinatos were the basis for the most soothing soundscape, filling the hall with a haze of blurred notes that washed over the audience. Another memorable point was when the band broke into song, while lyrical flute and saxophone solos floated over the top, for an effect that was so touching and festive that it gave me goosebumps. Dsjåkåccåråckå arouses all kinds of sensations, but as a whole it is so unashamedly fun that it is utterly glorious.

The stage was cleared during the interval, with only percussion at the back, a piano and a double bass in front, and a few brass mutes. This heightened the anticipation for what was to come: a collaboration between Det Norske Blåseensemble and jazz pianist Michael Wollny, namely a total free improvisation entitled Prélude à l’après-midi des Trolls. The band stood on stage in a horseshoe, musical director Geir Lysne hidden behind the piano and swaying to keep tempo or occasionally indicate entries. This was not a static performance: out stepped the lead flautist with a raucous reworking of the hauntingly beautiful melody beginning Debussy’s composition that was the inspiration for this piece. I could just picture a troll who, having stolen the faun’s pipes, decides to try them out for herself.

Christian Weber © Ultima Festival 2016 | Andreas Turau
Christian Weber
© Ultima Festival 2016 | Andreas Turau

I can report that trolls get up to a lot more than fauns of an afternoon! Perhaps the rugged Norwegian mountains are not as appropriate for a sun-kissed siesta as Mediterranean olive groves, but whatever the reason, these trolls were up and about, throwing rocks and having fights. This really was the “anarchic blow-out” promised by the programme, but also a visual thrill: principals communicating across the stage; sections moving to form smaller groups; and the most active percussionist I have ever seen – the job had been entrusted to one player, who was running to get around his substantial artillery.

There were two focuses providing the fabric into which the band’s improvisations were artfully woven: on the one hand, themes from Debussy’s piece played beautifully by the whole band; and on the other, virtuosic duets from Wollny and bassist Christian Weber (sadly uncredited in the programme) that provided the starkest contrast to Debussy’s writing. Anything you can possibly think of doing to a double bass for the sake of music – short of actually damaging it – is standard technique compared to what Weber did to his. I could have written this whole review simply on how he used the bow. Suffice it to say, though, that Weber’s playing was the complete personification of a troll, grunting, screeching, burping and even singing sweetly.

Clocking in at well over an hour, this was a meaty finale, but I savoured every moment as much as the musicians, who pushed themselves and their instruments to the very edge of their capabilities. It was technically stunning, visually wonderful, and it sounded fantastic. At a time when other Norwegian military bands are facing controversial cuts and closures, this concert was the perfect rebuttal to such shortsighted proposals, and proved that these ensembles are relevant, contemporary and packed full of talent. They deserve indisputably to remain a tangible part of the Norwegian national consciousness.