Walking into the University of Oslo’s Great Hall on Saturday, there was a certain air of sadness that hung over the audience and orchestra. Only a couple weeks ago the Danish Broadcasting Corporation announced that the orchestra is being dismantled in January next year. What seemed on paper to be a standard concert featuring three of Scandinavia’s most prominent living composers turned out to be an unexpectedly emotional event.

Katrine Gislinge and Baldur Brönnimann © Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival / Henrik Beck
Katrine Gislinge and Baldur Brönnimann
© Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival / Henrik Beck

The first piece was the Swedish composer Karin Rehnquist’s Att bryta isen, or Breaking the Ice. Breaking the Ice was written after Rehnquist attended a research expedition to northern Canada with the Swedish Polar Institute. The piece is a depiction of the icebreaker she was travelling with making its way through the frozen waters, and also of the seemingly desolate, but at the same time very dramatic landscape. The music suffered perhaps a little from the rather too stereotypical “high, dissonant strings paired with a broad, lyrical melody in high woodwinds” method of depicting icy landscapes, but there was more to the music than just a depiction of an icy waste. There is definite drama, and conductor Baldur Brönnimann brought out some wonderfully aggressive sounds, especially from the low strings.

Danish composer Bent Sørensen’s Mignon – Papillons for piano and strings is part of a trilogy of pieces for piano and different ensembles. The pieces all share the same piano part, but the other instruments and music differs. In this version, the piano plays with a small string orchestra on stage, flanked by a string quartet on either side, and two violins in the back of the hall. The piece is marked throughout by a sort of fragile restlessness, not unlike the titular butterflies. The main problem with this was that most of the piece’s seven movements sounded a lot like each other. It was a lot of fluttering about in the strings’ higher registers and delicate semiquaver figurations in the piano. The dynamics were generally quite low, never really going above mezzoforte. Still, there were some truly magical moments, most notably when the string players suddenly stopped playing and instead started quietly humming. The change was subtle, but incredibly effective. The subtle shifts in sound source, depending on which string ensemble was playing, was another lovely touch, almost making the sound “fly”. Pianist Katrine Gislinge, Sørensen’s partner and for whom the piece was written, played with an innate delicacy, blending wonderfully with the strings. I did wish at times for more dynamic contrast, although that was probably more down to the music.

The final piece of the concert was the world premiere of Norwegian composer Eivind Buene’s live radio play Blue Mountain. The piece consisted of a conversation with an orchestral backdrop, sometimes accompanying, sometimes interacting. The conversation revolved around memories connected to music, with Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen acting as a sort of Proustian Madeleine, conjuring up ever more life stories. What started out as a seemingly innocent conversation about music got increasingly personal, ending with tales of abandonment and talk of death. Even though it wasn’t planned, in light of the recent news about the orchestra’s future, the conversation struck an unexpectedly emotional chord. The repeated quotations of the Mahler song didn’t exactly lessen the emotional impact.

Rather like in an opera, the orchestra both accompanied and interacted with the dialogue. Buene’s music was rather static, like sheets of sound supporting the actors in front. These sound sheets frequently dissolved into various quotations from the orchestral literature, most notably Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, acting as a sort of framework for the dialogue. Buene also wrote the dialogue, which for the most part was kept on the realistic, modern side, apart from a few moments where the prose verged dangerously close to purple. Andrea Bræin Hovig and Mattis Herman Nyquist both delivered fine, understated performances, simply communicating the text, to great effect.

Saturday’s concert with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra marks the orchestra’s first appearance in Norway. Sadly, it was also their last. Even with these sad news forming the backdrop for the concert, the orchestra still gave fine performances of some very good music. How I wish I could say I wish they’d come back soon, but it seems I will have to make do with the memories of this concert instead.