Classical music in a serene setting

For five years, this one-of-a-kind festival has brought the sounds of the cello to the Arctic Circle

Photo illustrated by Bjarne Agdestein The festival’s poster captures the windswept adventurousness of Lofoten.

Photo illustrated by Bjarne Agdestein
The festival’s poster captures the windswept adventurousness of Lofoten.

Robert L. Libkind
Philadelphia, Penn

Fine music played by accomplished artists always rewards the listener. The experience becomes sublime when set in a village church on a small island surrounded by the deep green sea and jagged mountain peaks.

That’s the secret of the Lofoten Cello Festival, which completed its fifth season this August in the southern reaches of the Lofoten archipelago north of the Arctic Circle.

Founder Lisa Isabel Holstad said the idea for the festival came to her during a visit back home to Sorvågen, a nearly four-hour drive from Sortland, where she teaches cello to young people, directs the city’s student string orchestra, and plays in a piano trio.

Whenever she returned home, people were curious and often asked when and where she would be playing.

A cello festival, Holstad reasoned, would provide “a chance to play with my best friends and bring the music to the community.”

There was little money to pay for the first festival, so the musicians came by train, on a nearly 20-hour journey from Oslo plus a four-hour ferry ride. They set up shop in the former schoolhouse at Vindstad, a tiny community with few year-round residents and accessible only by boat from Reine.

“It had been raining the whole week of rehearsals, but the day of our first concert the sun came out,” recalled Holstad. “It was magical. People filled the small classroom sitting only a meter away from the musicians with the view of the mountains behind us.”

Photo: Robert L. Libkind Audun Sandvik (right) and pianist Sveinung Bjelland take their bows after playing at Reine church.

Photo: Robert L. Libkind
Audun Sandvik (right) and pianist Sveinung Bjelland take their bows after playing at Reine church.

The musicians finished the first festival with three concerts at Sorvågen and Flakstad while they stayed and practiced at Vindstad, necessitating complicated logistics in transporting musicians and instruments to each venue. The challenges prevented a subsequent return to Vindstad, although Holstad hopes that can change in the future.

Classical music provides the base for the festival, but many styles of music can be heard. Holstad was amazed and delighted when two of Norway’s most popular singers—Marit Larsen of M2M and Sondre Lerche—agreed to perform in 2013. She considers the participation of the pop stars “a gift” because of the publicity it generated.

She tried something different the next year, adding children’s programs. Among those youngsters was Tiril Holand; now 16, she played at this year’s festival.

For 2015 Holstad invited Martin Menkin of the Berlin Philharmonic and also a member of its famed “12 cellos” ensemble.

“Martin’s performances were most inspiring to me,” said Holstad. “Playing with great musicians like him encourages you to play much better.” It also didn’t hurt in attracting to the audience some of the many Germans who visit the Lofoten islands each summer.

This past summer featured Audun Sandvik, principal cellist with the NRK Symphony.

Sandvik, who counts Holstad among his former students at the Norwegian Academy of Music, couldn’t resist the invitation.

“I don’t know of any other festival dedicated to cello,” said Sandvik. “I heard wonderful things about the festival. It’s a really nerdy thing if you’re a cello player; something you have to do. Festivals aren’t where you make the most money as a musician; you do it to enjoy the people, good friends and colleagues, high-level players. It’s not just fun for the audience, it’s fun for us, too.”

Plus, said Sandvik, “the surroundings are amazing. The place is so beautiful, like no other on the planet, you wouldn’t think that it’s real.”

Sandvik praises Holstad’s work in creating and running the Lofoten Cello Festival. “It means so much for that area and the whole musical community up there and for the tourists who come not expecting to find music,” he said. “I hope it continues for many, many years.”

Photo: Robert L. Libkind Maren Anna restaurant in Sorvågen, site of Cellopub concert.

Photo: Robert L. Libkind
Maren Anna restaurant in Sorvågen, site of Cellopub concert.

Sandvik and many of the other performers joined forces for “cello pub,” a raucous, lively festival finale held at Maren Anna, a Sorvågen restaurant just a short walk from Holstad’s childhood home. This year up to nine cellists at a time played a program of popular and light classical music, augmented by a mezzo-soprano. Pieces ranged from sambas and rock anthems to Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen. Sandvik brought out laughter and awe when he played “Love Me Tender” on a musical saw.

The restaurant’s acoustics and layout are far from ideal, Holstad admits, but it offers a unique atmosphere conducive to a fun evening, as well as good food and drink.

Holstad plans a one-year hiatus for the festival but intends to bring it back for 2018. Although the festival will technically be taking a year off, 2017 won’t be without good music in the area. “We have plans for individual events, including a project with a choir in June, and I’m thinking about having one or two other concerts.”

Holstad’s first goal was to make it through five seasons. “We’ve reached that goal,” she said. “We have a lot of ideas, but we need time to do it since we all have other jobs.” Although the festival has become successful enough to pay the musicians, funds (and time) for organizing it are limited. “I’m lucky I have a very good job, but it takes a lot to teach, play, and study, so doing the festival on top of that is challenging.”

Holstad emphasized that the Lofoten Cello Festival “wants and needs to be different, to remain small and not lose sight of the original idea: playing classical music for people who don’t often have a chance to hear it performed live, in a beautiful setting that will always be home to me.”

You can watch and listen to excerpts from the first concert on You Tube at bit.ly/2cmztKk.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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