At Bachtrack, we’re lucky to learn about a wide mixture of classical music festivals happening around the world. From Baroque music with fireworks and palm trees in Florida to contemporary music in Iceland, the scope of classical festivals is truly vast. Every festival, it seems, comes up with an innovative way in which to distinguish itself from others, and the result is an exceptionally diverse range which epitomises the increasingly exciting, open spirit of music programming today.

Northern Lights © Yngve Olsen Sæbbe NNR
Northern Lights
© Yngve Olsen Sæbbe NNR

It seems that the niche of this year’s Northern Lights Festival, the 26th such festival taking place in the beautiful, snowy surroundings of Tromsø, northern Norway, is in fact musical eclecticism itself. As well as a keen emphasis on the classical music in which the festival has traditionally excelled – the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet are both past visitors – this year there were also numerous other events on the bill, from cabaret shows, to pop concerts, to jazz. As someone used to a relatively segmented musical culture in London, where musical genres all have largely their own crowds, what struck me most about the festival was how seamlessly the events all connected, and also how considerably the audience seemed to overlap between even radically different things.

Even by the second day of my stay, for instance, I was thinking nothing of a transition straight from a pretty hard-edged concert of new classical music from the young Konsen Sinfonietta to a gentle pop gig featuring Anneli Drecker, a local girl who has found success in Europe. Both concerts, though musically divergent, were marvellous celebrations of creativity; although it’s a matter of taste, there are no intrinsic reasons why both events can’t be enjoyed equally. It was a delight to hear such different music simply be allowed to be itself, under the single tolerant and appreciative banner provided by the festival.

Another musical highlight was Bolero Berlin, a jazz ensemble mostly made up of musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic – possibly the biggest name in the programme during my stay (though the festival later saw such stars as Tine Thing Helseth and Christian Lindberg). They combine the pristine musicianship to be expected of such players with an obvious passion for their repertoire of mostly Latin American dance music. While this meeting of styles might at first seem incongruous, the result is entrancing; hardly groundbreaking or difficult from a jazz perspective, but presented in the most beautiful, affectionate way. Strangely, both this group and the impressive, versatile swing band Christianssand Ensemble provided versions of Duke Ellington’s classic song “Caravan”; the difference between the refined nature of the former version and the raucousness of the latter epitomises the huge musical diversity the festival embraces.

I’ve already written about this year’s headline event – the première of a north-Norwegian opera about witch-burning (you can read my review here). Heksehammeren, by composer Ragnar Rasmussen and librettist Ragnar Olsen (both local figures to Tromsø), is a work which draws on some fascinating local history to tell a tense tale of medieval fear and corruption. At a time when opera is seldom considered one of the more forward-looking artistic media, it was remarkable to see such faith put in a brand new operatic project, which seems to have considerable plans for fostering a new Norwegian tradition of operatic composition which has not hitherto existed. Future collaborations between Rasmussen and Olsen are worth looking out for – and apparently there’s one more in the pipeline already.

The setting of all this music was also quite something: Tromsø is a picturesque town, not quite as cold as you’d imagine given how far north it is but, for my visit at least, just as covered in snow. The entire town seemed to be behind the festival, with venues including the theatre, function rooms at the local bank, and even Skansen, a tiny historic house whose kitchen was home to various intimate lunchtime concerts. But the community feel was never a barrier to me as an outsider, with the festival clearly devised with some eye on international visitors, and a smile and impeccable English from everyone I met. We even glimpsed the Northern Lights themselves one evening, wandering the streets in the small hours.

Every classical music festival is shaped substantially by its location, and this was certainly the case here, with the festival’s clear emphasis on local talent. But the Northern Lights Festival wasn’t restrained by its geography: through its striking programming, it showed itself to be a festival with a distinctive musical personality of its own as well. It was an escape to a beautiful new place, and a glimpse of a new way to look at music.