The Northern Lights Festival takes place in Tromsø, Northern Norway, at the end of January each year. It is predominantly a classical music event, although that forms the core of what is always a very diverse offering, with plenty of jazz and popular music in the mix too. The city is small but has a surprising number of performing spaces, and a visit to the festival typically involves trips to two or three different venues each day.

Northern Lights over Tromsø © Gunnar Hildonen
Northern Lights over Tromsø
© Gunnar Hildonen

This concert took place in the Sparebankens festsal, a lavish banqueting hall which forms part of a historic bank building dating back to the early 19th century. The first half showcased the talents of young students at the Tromsø Kulturskolen, the city’s music school. Most were in their teens, and each gave a short but well prepared performance. The concert got off to a dramatic start, with a group of three drummers playing in the dark but with illuminated neon sticks. The rest was more traditional recital fare, including two flautists, a saxophone, a singer and a pianist. I was a little apprehensive when a large ensemble of very young-looking guitarists filed on to the stage, but their renditions of classical arrangements of Spanish folksongs were all elegant and precise, and were played with real feeling. (It was interesting to hear some of these young guitarists speaking in Russian to each other arfterwards; there is large Russian minority here in Tromsø.)

But the main draw this evening was flautist Tanja Helen Kvitnes, who played in the second half. The festival has a tradition of hosting laureates of the UMM competition, the main young musicians’ competition in Norway, and Kvitnes was one of the winners in 2014. Although still young (26 is the maximum age for the competition), Kvitnes already has a mature voice on her instrument. Her tone is more focused than it is warm, although she has plenty of variety and is capable of an impressively dark timbre when required. That dark quality was much in evidence in her performance of “Louange à l'Éternité de Jésusfrom the Quartet for the End of Time, sensitively arranged from the cello original. Schubert’s Variations on “Trockne Blumen” offered the chance for brighter colours and some impressive virtuosity in the passagework and ornaments. Kvitnes achieves her tonal elegance without any recourse to vibrato, which makes Schubert sound all the more classical, and Messiaen all the more modern. It also brought an endearing sense of directness to her excerpts from Marais’ Les Folies d’Espagne, although a little more poise in the phrasing would have helped shape these better. No such concerns for the grand finale, though, Chaminade Concertino, a virtuoso showpiece carried off with grace and effortless virtuosity. All round, a well-chosen programme demonstrating the many talents of this promising young flautist.