With global warming – its erratic impact on the weather – and the loss of the permafrost an ever-present threat to our lives, it’s reassuring and almost voluptuous to bask in the cold of the Arctic circle. Snow abounds, and the sky is deep and wide over the comparably few lights of the cities and towns. Unpredictable and awe-inspiring, the Northern Lights decorate the depths of the long night, offering a promise of chilly magnificence. As the region’s most exotic natural phenomenon, they lure visitors from as far away as Japan.

The sun setting in Tromsø © Jaime Robles
The sun setting in Tromsø
© Jaime Robles

One of the destinations of these seekers of the planet’s splendor is the town of Tromsø, in northern Norway. Besides superb natural beauty, Tromsø offers a number of cultural festivals, its population dedicated to the arts. This year Tromsø also hosts an international chess competition – a celebration, perhaps, of the reigning world grandmaster, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. Recently, and for the past 27 years, Tromsø has presented the Northern Lights Festival (Nordlysfestivalen) at the end of January, not long after the sun begins to rise over the horizon, ending the sun’s two-month retreat from the region.

The festival, which took place this year from 24 January to 2 February, offered among its sweetly cultivated riches a pot-pourri of jazz, classical music and dance. The Northern Lights Festival strives to present international and world-class artists while emphasising Norwegian performers. The mixture serves to gives its local youth a broader musical education and a chance to display their formidable musical chops.

This year the classical music headliners came from Russia, with concerts by both the young soprano Julia Novikova and the legendary Bolshoi Ballet. Having the Bolshoi dance in any house is a coup, and the organizers should be applauded for their assiduous cultivation of this elite dance company. The jazz line-up was headed by Simone, who sang a tribute to her mother, Nina Simone. Like Nina, Simone is a powerful performer, who uses an extraordinary range of vocal techniques, based primarily in gospel, blues and jazz.

Simone at the Northern Lights Festival © Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
Simone at the Northern Lights Festival
© Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
Though these are remarkable and astonishing performers, and their performances equally so, the surprises of the festival were in the accomplishments of local performers. And the attention of the receptive audience. There is something to be said for an audience open to a variety of performance art: their attention and the complete joy of their response to the performers shifted the festival’s atmosphere and made participation worthwhile and satisfying, both communally and personally.

Two representative events of note were the “Organ Symphony and Carmen Fanstasy” presented by the FMNN (Forsvarets Musikkorps Nord-Norge), the military band of northern Norway, in the Arctic Cathedral. And “The Games We Play”, a dance collaboration with members of Street Movement in Copenhagen and Tromsø’s InTuit Dance Company.

The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø © Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø
© Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
I’m of the opinion that music is the best way for any military organization to spend their time – all of it. If we could turn the Pentagon into a symphony orchestra the world would be a happier and better place. And certainly, the FMNN justifies this idea, their performance was engaging, complex, humorous and skilled. This woodwind and brass ensemble presented Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; A Carmen Fantasy, by American composer and double-bass player Frank Porter; and Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony, arranged by northern Norwegian composer and former FMNN member Helge Sveen.

Ravel’s composition, which was originally adapted by the composer from piano to large orchestra, was wonderfully arranged by the ensemble’s Finnish-born director Hannu Koivula. And the surprising Carmen Fantasy allowed for double-bassist Knut Erik Sundquist to indulge his humor, both on the instrument and on the podium. It was amusing to hear, among other things, Escamillo’s “Toreador Song”, played as a delicate, feminine motif on the flute. Even the double-bass seemed a witty choice for the lead instrument, mirroring the deep and sexy sounds of the mezzo role of Carmen. The Saint-Saëns highlighted accomplished keyboard passages played by Nils Mortensen and the profound chords of the organ, played by Bjørn Andor Drage. The organ, which only appears in two of the movements, is at times so low it seems like more of a vibration than a sound. Clarinets provide an energetic contrast to the organ. And triple-tonguing in the trumpets alternated a brass fanfare with the organ.

On the dance front, the concert presented by a combined Danish and Norwegian group was listed as presenting street dance. This was a bit of a misnomer. What was used by the dancers connected more to gymnastics and tumbling, using gravity and equipment as integral to the action. Choreographed by Gerd Kaisa Vorren, the company of five swung through a series of intimate and ironic encounters over chairs, tables and a rectangular array of pipes that, in the States, they call a Jungle Gym. Their action required strength, flexibility and timing. Danish dancer Thomas Amled was exciting to watch in his speed and lightness, conjuring up memories of the young Jackie Chan, who moved like water through ladders, over tables and across chairs. The audience gasped in pleasure and terror at Amled’s efforts.

The town of Tromsø © Jaime Robles
The town of Tromsø
© Jaime Robles
Interesting on the performance level was the video installation by young Russian artist Alexander Trunkovsky to Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso. Music provided by the Project Nord and Arkhangelsk State Chamber Orchestra. This combination of young Norwegian and Russian musicians has, according to the ensemble’s director, Vladimir Onufriev, been developing for a long time. The Schnittke, an ensemble piece with two solo violinists, anxious and electric in tone, suited Trunkovsky’s video assemblage with its politically moving portrait of humanity in its rawer, less humane moments. The images were interspersed with live performance in which two dancers struggled to reach a single bare light bulb suspended from the auditorium ceiling. Though broad in its metaphors, the piece had power, born of sincerity and a driving blend of sound and image.

The ensemble performed at Verdensteatret Kino, a charming auditorium in a mixture of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and Louis XVI decoration, designed by Peter Arnet Amundsen and opened in 1916. Murals, painted in 1921 by the Tromsø artist Sverre Mack, decorate the sidewalls with motifs from Norwegian folk songs and fairytales. It was one of many lovely venues used during this lively and intelligent festival.

© Jaime Robles
© Jaime Robles
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