Fans of the Danish Baroque orchestra Concerto Copenhagen know to expect a lot more than Baroque music at the ensembleʼs concerts. Theyʼre just as likely to hear a modern reworking of Vivaldiʼs Four Seasons, or contemporary music played with a saxophone quartet, or follow players on a tour through a museum as they perform pieces resonant with 17th and 18th-century artwork. This stems from an egalitarian philosophy about presenting music.

Nikolaj de Fine Licht
© Henrik Sorensen

“We believe that if you do things profoundly, with your heart, in order to entertain the audience, it almost doesnʼt matter what music you do,” says Nikolaj de Fine Licht, the orchestraʼs General Manager. “It can speak to a lot of people. Our challenge is, how do we reach those people?”

The orchestra has no problem filling small halls throughout southern Scandinavia, and has done reasonably well on occasional tours of Europe, China and South America. It keeps a busy recording schedule and collaborates regularly with the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen on opera productions. But after 27 years, it has hit an artistic and commercial ceiling. It can choose to remain in its comfortable niche as a lively period ensemble with a regional following, or step up to the next level. Nikolaj and his team have chosen the latter, and just embarked on a five-year plan to get there.

“Weʼve been speaking about the 3.0 version of Concerto Copenhagen,” he says. “Our goal is to be an important part of the international Baroque orchestra scene. When people talk about groups like, say, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, they should also be talking about us.”

Nikolaj, a musician himself who plays the recorder, is one of the founders of Concerto Copenhagen. When he and two colleagues returned to Denmark from conservatory studies in Holland in 1990, they were struck by the absence of a dedicated early music ensemble, and decided to start one – with a distinctive difference. Most Baroque groups focus on playing early music as authentically as possible, and trust that a small, devoted audience will follow. For CoCo, as Nikolajʼs group came to be known, the audience always came first.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen
© Christoffer Askman

“Why should we go out and make music if it doesnʼt speak spontaneously to people, even those who donʼt have the proper historical background?” Nikolaj says. “This feeling is quite deeply rooted in all of us. Our primary focus has always been entertaining the audience.”

This is not to say that CoCo has neglected the Baroque repertoire, which comprises about 80 percent of its programming. And from the beginning, there was no compromise in quality. For the very first concert in January 1991, Nikolaj and his colleagues hired professionals rather than students or amateurs who would play just for the experience, setting a high bar that Nikolaj admits has not always been easy to maintain.

“I think we made the right choice in that we really did convince people with that first concert, which was even broadcast by Danish national radio,” he says. “On the other hand, it put a very strong demand on fundraising. It became so intense that at one point I couldnʼt take the pressure anymore, and had to leave the orchestra for a couple of years.”

Version 2.0 came in 1999, when CoCo hired Lars Ulrik Mortensen as music director. A harpsichord player, conductor with experience in both early and modern music, and teacher at schools ranging from the Hochschule für Musik in Munich to the Juilliard School in New York, Mortensen brought a demanding style and open mind to the ensemble.

Concerto Copenhagen premièring the Vivaldi-Rasmussen Four Seasons
© Christoffer Askman

“Lars Ulrik has an enormous knowledge about period music and instruments, like itʼs in his nervous system,” Nikolaj says. “And heʼs not a conductor in the standard sense that he waves his arms and you follow the beat. Heʼs always looking for the organic truth of the music. If he doesnʼt get the maximum out of every single bar, he will make the players repeat it again and again to find the soul of a particular phrase.”

It was an old dream of Mortensenʼs that came true when CoCo last year took on Elverskud (The Elf Kingʼs Daughter), an 1854 dramatic cantata by Danish composer Niels Gade. A concert performance and subsequent recording (on the Danish label Dacapo) garnered strong reviews and helped chart the future course for the ensemble, which this season will include a pairing of octets by Gade and Mendelssohn. “There arenʼt that many Danish Baroque composers,” Nikolaj notes. “But if you get into the early Romantic, there are not only Danish but Scandinavian composers not so commonly heard that we can bring to the world.”

Even familiar names offer opportunities. Griegʼs Piano concerto in A minor premiered in Copenhagen in 1869, and for a 150th anniversary performance next year, CoCo aimed high and invited star soloist Leif Ove Andsnes to join them. “To our great joy and happiness, he accepted,” Nikolaj says. “As far as I know, this will be his first appearance with a period ensemble.”

Concerto Copenhagen in Freiberg
© Rene Jungnickel

CoCo made its initial foray into contemporary music in 2003, working with Danish composer Bo Holten on his opera Gesualdo. But the real impetus for a modern burnish came in the fall of 2013, when the ensemble partnered with the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet to present both historical and contemporary treatments of Bachʼs Art of the Fugue. The concert was such a success that it prompted the orchestra to hire Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen for a two-and-a-half year residency. His work was well-received – including his recasting of Vivaldiʼs Four Seasons, normally blasphemy in early music circles – and will be part of the orchestraʼs programming in coming years.

Nikolaj is aiming to grow CoCoʼs touring schedule from 12-18 concerts abroad each year to 15-25, and is planning to maintain the ensembleʼs ambitious recording efforts. The latter runs counter to prevailing trends, as most orchestras are turning to streaming in the face of a shrinking market for CDs. CoCo records on two labels – CPO Records in Germany and Dacapo in Denmark – and both have been happy with the orchestraʼs sales. In fact, Dacapo is so confident about its appeal that it released The Elf Kingʼs Daughter on vinyl.

Of course, none of this will amount to much without a solid musical foundation. Itʼs one thing to get listeners in the seats, but quite another to lure them back for future performances. The measure of this, Nikolaj believes, will be how soon and how well CoCo cracks the major venue circuit.

“Weʼve played at places like the Musikverein in Vienna, Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Royal Albert Hall in London, but that has to be an integral part of what weʼre doing, not just something that happens every now and then,” he says. “There are major halls in places like Stockholm and Oslo and Helsinki that we should be in, if not every year, then every other year. Itʼs a matter of convincing venues, organizers and festivals that they can sell enough tickets to make booking us worthwhile.”

This is the dream of every orchestra manager in the world, and Nikolaj is realistic about his prospects. “Itʼs a very tough and very long-term challenge, but we must go through it,” he says. “Because the alternative is just to sit in your chair and continue doing what youʼve been doing. And that doesnʼt feel like an option, really.”

Article sponsored by Concerto Copenhagen