While several of the world’s orchestras are struggling to pay their players, never mind expand, Stavanger has just built a new £100 million concert hall, its interior a triumph of acoustic engineering and its public side with airy atriums and bars looking across attractive bays. This celebratory concert to mark the Konserthus’ opening was heavily packed and warmly received.

Stavanger Symphony Orchestra rehearsing in their new hall, © Jan Inge Haga
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra rehearsing in their new hall,
© Jan Inge Haga

Stavanger itself shows few signs of its industrial past, beyond a large museum dedicated to the history of oil, on which much of the city’s success is based. It lies on the south-western coast of Norway, sheltered from the sea by numerous islands and around 90 minutes from fjords and mountains. Its centre is pleasantly compact, allowing one to wander freely around the narrow, cobbled streets safe in the knowledge that the seafront is never far. Here the town’s trademark white wooden houses stand beside tastefully modern developments. The city cathedral, the country’s oldest, is around 900 years old. A constant, subtle smell of salty fish pervades the cool air, and it is superbly-cooked fresh fish that takes centre stage on most menus. The new Konserthus lies a short walk from the city centre, accessed either along the seafront or through the gloriously quaint and well preserved old town, a small area of seventeenth and eighteenth century cottages. The excitement around town for the new hall is plain to see, with plans for chamber recitals and even “Opera for Babies” (in a large tent) around the hall’s numerous spaces and venues. The musicians themselves cannot find high enough praise for it.

Frenchman Yan Pascal Tortelier programmed two pioneering French works either side of Mozart. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, written in 1830 (just three years post-Beethoven), redefined orchestration and paved the way for the likes of Wagner, Mahler and Strauss. Exactly a century later, Olivier Messiaen wrote Les offrandes oubliées, an early work in his unmistakable idiom with rhythmic and tonal ambiguities and religious themes abounding. The contrast between the two works could scarcely be greater: Berlioz’s is an opium-fuelled string of progressively more and more vivid hallucinations, and Messiaen’s is a reflection on faith, sin and redemption.

Messiaen’s work consists of two slow sections, “The Cross” and “The Eucharist”, with a central, quicker passage, “Sin”. The strings of Stavanger Symphony Orchestra opened the concert with taut, translucent playing against colourful woodwind chords. “Sin” was attacked with gusto in horn glissandi and shrill woodwind, suggestive of the birdsong so common in Messiaen’s music. The ensuing redemptive “Eucharist” was built from a superbly slow adagio, woodwinds shifting from chord to chord with perfectly coordinated movement in a steady decrescendo into silence.

Tortelier’s Berlioz was easily the highlight of the evening. His attention to detail was clear to see as he shaped early passages with individual gestures for almost every note. An intriguing conductor to watch, he was scoreless and batonless all evening and maintained very literal, direct instructions for his players. This made for some wonderful moments in Berlioz’s unconventional writing, notably in the first-movement principal horn solo and third-movement dialogue between cor anglais and offstage oboe. The second-movement waltz lilted along by the thrust of a gentle second beat push in the strings, and the third handled pastoralism and menace very well.

Such close direction did allow long structure and momentum to slip a few times in the early movements, though the later movements fared much better. The double bass and timpani sections were strikingly good here, attacking with fierce bite and sinewy tension, making for a particularly violent “March to the Scaffold”. The dark “Witches’ Sabbath” made full use of the grotesque in breathless flute, stopped horn, squealing clarinet and almost obscene bassoon interjections. There was a minor loss of coordination with the distant church bells, but overall the dance gathered momentum and charged to a suitably infernal close, Tortelier leaping around the closing bars and, on the last chord, throwing his head back with a broad grin.

For the most part, this was a very forward-looking concert. The exception was Hilary Hahn’s Mozart. Both Hahn and Tortelier embraced an unashamedly non-period-practice performance of the Violin concerto no. 5 with heavy vibrato and articulation. This was rarely a problem, though, except for a few passages where thick textures smothered some of the delicate corners. It seemed a very deliberate interpretation too, judging by Hahn’s exquisite attention to phrasing, and it certainly had its benefits in a warmly serene and spacious slow movement (without threatening to wallow in melancholy) and rich legato in the first. The third movement sparkled with fabulously incisive bite from Hahn and agile, if slightly overweight, accompaniment. It could have been more delicate, but vigour was certainly not lacking.

On the whole this was a superb opening for Stavanger’s impressive new hall. Judging by the substantial applause at every pause in the music through the evening, many newcomers were present alongside an enthusiastic following. With this and vast new rehearsal facilities, there is little reason for the orchestra not to become a far more prominent European force in years to come.