Norway on a harp string: One harp player’s tour of Scandinavia

Photo: Jack Kollé Ålesund’s picturesque harbor.

Photo: Jack Kollé
Ålesund’s picturesque harbor.

Beth Kollé
Seattle, Wash.

Who doesn’t love Norway, any time of year? Norway is especially beautiful, though, in May and June when the weather turns mild and the sun stays up late and gets up early. In late May, 14 Americans, mostly musicians and mostly harp players, met in Oslo to start the third Harpa Tour. Harpa is a group of harp players who tour in Scandinavia and play concerts together. It’s a different group each time, but it’s always fun.

What no one can plan on is natural disasters, and the flooding in Europe had made its way up to Norway around the time we all landed in Oslo. Farms were underwater, the river Lågen looked more like Lake Mjøsa, and several bridges ahead of us were washed away. A fair amount of time was spent refiguring our route, but our driver Hogne worked hard to make sure we were always able to reach our next concert destination on time.

With the bus packed full of us and our day packs and a small trailer hanging off the back for the harps and suitcases, we embarked from Oslo ready to play. We played seven concerts, from laid-back potlucks to formal church settings, in a big loop through Telemark to Bergen, north to Balestrand and Ålesund, and east over the mountains to Lillehammer before returning to Oslo. Two weeks of music and fun!

Photo: Jack Kollé Beth tunes her harp at Storetveit Church, Bergen, where the group held a concert.

Photo: Jack Kollé
Beth tunes her harp at Storetveit Church, Bergen, where the group held a concert.

It was such joy to come together from many parts of the U.S. and share our love of the harp. Some of us were friends from past Harpa tours, or from the many harp festivals we attend around the country. Everyone had worked hard on their own to learn the music and in rehearsal we quickly melded into an impressive ensemble.

The harp is a rarely seen instrument in Norway. Many people in our audiences were completely enthralled just looking at the beautiful hand-made harps, and then transported by the sound of our 300 or more heavenly strings. One young teen at a picnic in Hokksund was so awestruck that she talked her folks into buying my harp—before the tour had even started! I made them wait until we returned to Oslo before they could pick up the harp.

I always arrange to stop at at least one stave church on our way, and it’s usually Heddal Stavkirke in Telemark. There we are welcomed with open arms, and allowed to play our harps inside the nave for as long as we like. One Harpa member, Therese Honey, is a recognized expert in medieval and renaissance harp music, and what better music to play inside a stave church? It perfectly fit the atmosphere created by hand-painted walls and the carved “Bishop’s Chair.” We also stopped at Røldal Stavkirke and enjoyed its very different character and atmosphere.

Probably the strangest encounter we had was in Ytre Arna. We visited the Oleana factory, where they create the finest sweaters of Norwegian design. There in the foyer stood a tall harp, which our guide explained belonged to a harpist arriving from Germany. “We searched far and wide to find a harpist for this evening’s event, and finally had to look in Germany,” she said. All of us stood there, surprise clearly on our faces, as I said, “We have ten harps in our bus trailer, right there in your parking lot. We could have played for you!”

The astounded guide was for a moment quite speechless. And then she said, “Next time you come through, let us know and we’ll set up a concert for you!” We left this wonderful factory dreaming of being paid for our music in beautifully knit sweaters.

Photo: Jack Kollé Bøvra River running high after floods.

Photo: Jack Kollé
Bøvra River running high after floods.

It’s difficult to describe the incredibly beautiful scenery that Norway possesses in abundance. If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. Green rolling hills, valleys bursting with greenery, the near-vertical fruit orchards of Hardanger, white-topped mountains, the perfect reflection of sheer cliffs in the fjord waters—we stopped trying to choose the perfect place to live, there were too many of them.

In Bergen we visited the folk dance group on Sotra Island, who gave us places to stay overnight and threw the best party ever at their harbor meeting house. We were treated to live Hardingfele music by talented local teens, and lots of people were able to sit at one of our harps and learn to pluck a few strings. The potluck dinner included mountains of fresh shrimp, cheeses, hot dishes, and local specialties.

An overnight stop in Balestrand gave us a chance to play in the Høyvik Room of the ornate and spacious Kviknes Hotel. The furniture, all hand-carved in acanthus style, and the full-length view of Sognefjord, made this a dream-like experience for those who had never seen a fjord in their lives. Dinner was probably the largest buffet spread any of us had ever seen, with tables laden with delicious food in a room the size of a ballroom.

In Ålesund the Ivar Aasen folk dance group treated us, after our concert, by giving us the run of their cozy timber-built lodge high up on the mountain above the harbor. Clear views of the mountains and fishing boats with, of course, the never-ending sunset of Norway’s summer, made this a most relaxing stay.

Our final stop was the historic Lillehammer Church, but to get there we had to navigate the mountains and the floodlands. That’s where we saw roads and newly planted fields underwater, with barn walls washed up to a couple meters by the swollen river. But our welcome in Lillehammer was warm and our lodgings were dry.

We shared our last concert with Klang, a men’s chorus that has been singing together for many decades. Our final number together was the song “Nidelven,” beloved by all immigrants from Norway in the States, and when the baritone soloist finished the first verse with harps accompanying, and the whole chorus joined in, we were all so moved that it was suddenly a bit difficult to see our harp-strings clearly!

Once back in Oslo, we said our goodbyes, realizing this was a special time for each of us and that we would cherish our memories of Norway for the rest of our lives. We were given a warm welcome wherever we went, and we are forever grateful to our kind and generous Norwegian hosts and hostesses and to our brave and skillful bus driver, Hogne!

Beth Kollé is a member of Leif Erikson Lodge of Sons of Norway, and Valkyrien Lodge of Daughters of Norway, Seattle Wash. She performs, records and teaches throughout the US, in Norway, Sweden, and Ireland. Harpa CD and DVD available to order: please call Beth at (206) 715-2858 or email bethkolle@comcast.net.

This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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