“Stand up and hug the person next you”, exhorted Bergen International Festival’s charismatic director Anders Beyer as he introduced the 2019 event’s closing concert. He wanted audience members to thank each other for their fellowship during 14 days of concerts, plays, dance and theatre that made up the festival – and everyone sprang to their feet and did just as they were asked. If only that happened more often – and not just in the concert hall. Overnight, Norway could teach the world to be a better place.

The world certainly isn’t a better place right now, and as if to underline this, suddenly down the aisle bounded a Donald Trump lookalike, all bouffant hair and orange face. He jumped onto the stage and launched straight into an adapted aria from György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. What on earth was going on?

Sara Hershkowitz
© Thor Brødreskift

Behind all that make-up was coloratura soprano Sara Hershkowitz, raging at the audience about “Fake News” and “No Collusion” while stripping down, first to a baby suit and then to a Stars and Stripes Miss America swimsuit. It was a tour-de-force from the young American, who only the night before had fought her way through artist-in-residence Unsuk Chin’s fiendishly difficult Acrostic Wordplay.

There had been no hint in the programme that this was going to open the concert but it set the playful, festive mood for the first half of the evening and proved a clever introduction to Chin’s Piano Concerto. Chin studied with Ligeti and her concerto is heavily influenced by his style.

Sunwook Kim
© Thor Brødreskift

Soloist Sunwook Kim took the frenetic first movement – a musical depiction of our hectic modern lives – with an almost eerie calm, his cool expression at odds with his frantic fingers. He brought beautiful colour to the lingering tone poem of the second movement, jewel-like chords from the piano underpinned by some particularly delicate playing by the strings of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. The final movement rushes headlong towards a doom-laden climax, before the piano recovers, rising from the lowest depths of its register, gradually gathering the energy to race with the orchestra across a glittering aural landscape towards an abrupt close. Kim was in total command throughout, with conductor Edward Gardner attaining that trickiest of feats, a perfect balance between soloist and players.

Things became altogether more serious in the second half, which was occupied entirely by Mahler’s last great “song symphony”, Das Lied von der Erde. At first it seemed an odd choice to close a gala concert. Normally a festival goes out in a blaze of trumpets and drums, but this is Norway, where they think deeply about life, and so the cycle’s closing lines “Die liebe Erde allüberall Blüht auf im Lenz und Grünt aufs neu! (“The dear earth, everywhere blooms in spring and grows green afresh!”) seemed an especially poignant reflection as the planet struggles with an unprecedented climate crisis.

Ekaterina Gubanova
© Thor Brødreskift

Bringing us those ethereal lines in her gorgeous, chocolatey mezzo was Ekaterina Gubanova, who invested each of her songs with an aching, solemn tenderness. The texts, chosen by Mahler from an anthology of Tang dynasty poems, are shot through with autumnal regret; even the drinking songs allotted to the tenor soloist are ironic and sinister in their mock joyfulness, their ruinous despair captured perfectly by Toby Spence, on sparkling form here.

But this was the players' finest hour, too. In the extended interlude in the last song Der Abschied (The Farewell) the funereal contrabassoon sounded its mournful warning, the double basses achieved a miraculous triple pianissimo, and the trombones and horns glowed with honeyed warmth. Under Gardner this fine orchestra also “blooms and grows afresh”. Lucky Bergen, lucky Festival.

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