Christian L. Stahr lights up the NYC cultural scene
A musical star shines bright in Brooklyn
Christian Lamøy Stahr is not only a famous musician, pianist, and orchestrator, but he also has the responsibility of promoting Norwegian art and culture to New Yorkers. It is definitely not an easy task, so he is always a very busy man.
Among other things, Christian serves as the director of culture at the New York Seamen’s Church on the east side of Manhattan. I was lucky to meet up with him there earlier this year, and he found time to answer my numerous questions.
So now the floor is yours, Christian.
Marit Fosse: You are a composer, pianist, and orchestrator. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Christian L. Stahr: I grew up in Sarpsborg, [Norway], and started playing the piano at the age of 5 and the trumpet in the marching band the year after. From early on, I was very interested in music, listening [to it] and playing my toy guitar to “Børud gjengen,” and watching all the marching bands in the May 17th parade pass my grandfather’s house. He gave me a wooden fruit box he turned upside down so I could use it as a drum and play along with the music.
I also became really interested in theater when I was younger when I saw the musical Les Miserables in London during a family trip in 1997. My sister and I didn’t want to see the show, but my parents insisted that we go, since they spent lots of money on those tickets; they told us we could leave in the intermission. But when the intermission came, I was just waiting for the second act to start. The combination of that amazing music and story, seeing the conductor, and watching those incredible actors left a huge impression on me.
So, years later when I was studying musicology at the University of Oslo, I really wanted to learn more about writing music for the theater. I couldn’t find any schools in the Scandinavian countries, but one school popped up during my web search, Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. They had a two-year MFA program called Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, which was exactly what I was looking for.
I was terrified of moving to a country where I couldn’t speak Norwegian, but I sent in an application anyway, and a few months later I was invited to audition. In March of 2010, my family and I went to New York City for the first time, where I auditioned during the weekend and was accepted and began my studies fall of 2010.
While in the program, I was able to explore my voice as a composer and learn to collaborate with lyricists and book writers on how to write a show, from idea to finishing the final rewrite. These two years were really intense, with lots of deadlines and presentations. The full-length musical we wrote for our final thesis was performed as a staged reading with Broadway actors.
I also served my military duty in His Majesty the King’s Guard in 2004. This is a special performance unit within the King’s Guard, where I served as a bugle player. Among the highlights during my time there was our participation in the main ceremony of the 60th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, where we performed in front of all the current heads of state who were involved in World War II. I also played background piano during official dinners with the king and other dignitaries and arranged and orchestrated music for the band. The spring of 2004, the comedians Trond Kirkvaag, Knut Lystad, and Lars Mjøen, called KLM, were shooting the final chapter of their comedic series “Brødrene Dal.” And for the final scene, they needed a bugle player, and I was chosen to be the bugle player. This was so much fun to be part of, and I never forget the kindness of these legendary comedians, which I grew up watching. You can see me during the last scenes of the final episode of “Brødrene Dal og mysteriet om Karl XII’s gamasjer.”
MF: You composed the musical Olav den Heldige, which has been performed every summer since 2013 in your hometown Sarpsborg. How did you get the idea for this historical musical?
CLS: The family musical Olav den Heldige og Lykkesverdet was performed for the first time during the Olavsdagene (Viking festival in honor of St. Olaf, the founder of my hometown) in Sarpsborg in 2011. At that time, it was a children’s show with Andreas Humlekjær playing Olav, and Patrik Stenseth playing all the other characters. They also created the show. Andreas, who I had worked with on several projects before, called me a week before opening asking if I could join and add music and sound to the show. And of course I said yes, which turned out to be lots of fun performing in a tiny circus tent in Kullåsparken in Sarpsborg in the summer of 2011.
The year after, in 2012, we were asked to be part of the program at the Olsokdagene på Stiklestad (Viking festival in the middle of Norway, where St. Olaf died in battle). We performed an updated version of the show in a long replica of a Viking era longhouse, which was an amazing experience.
During the festival, we met actor and director Gard B. Eidsvold, who was there with his own theater company, Statsteateret. He came and saw our show and was very enthusiastic about what he saw. At the same time, the Olavsdagene festival in Sarpsborg was looking for a new family-friendly show, and the representatives came and saw our show and were really interested in having us be the main show during the festival.
And so it turned out, we transformed the show to a full-length family musical with Gard Eidsvold as the director and actor, five more actors and me as the composer and music director. We opened with huge success the summer of 2013, and until 2016 we had expanded to a four-piece band, six main actors plus several extras. In fall of 2015, we took a new updated version of the small show on a school tour for a month, as part of “Den kulturelle skolesekken” (Cultural program for elementary schools). The summer of 2016 became my last year involved with the show, but variations of the show continue to this day, every summer during the Olavsdagene festival in Sarpsborg.
MF: You have also composed another musical 4Real that has been touring Norway since 2015. Could you tell us about it?
CLS: This musical came together with Silje L. Waters as the lyricist and co-bookwriter, Martine B. Lundberg as the co-bookwriter and director, and me as the composer. It started with an idea Silje had about how much social media affects our lives. We had our opening at Teaterkjellern in Oslo the fall of 2015 and on tour with “Den kulturelle skolesekken” in 2016 and the show became part of Norway’s first musical theater festival, “Musikaliteten,” in 2017.
MF: You are now living in Brooklyn, a place where many Norwegian immigrants used to live. Why did you choose to live there? Was it on purpose or simply by coincidence?
CLS: The summer before I started my studies at Tisch School of the Arts, I had to find a place to stay, and I kind of randomly ended up in Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. During the years I really fell in love with Brooklyn, and when my girlfriend, now wife, was moving from North Carolina to New York, we were looking for a place together in Brooklyn. We ended up moving into an apartment in Park Slope, and to this day we really love our neighborhood. It’s lovely to come home to Brooklyn after working in Manhattan all day.
MF: Today you are also in charge of the cultural activities in the Norwegian Seamen’s church in New York, and in particular the Trygve Lie Gallery. Could you tell us a little about what this involves?
CLS: We have a lovely gallery in the basement of the church called Trygve Lie Gallery, named after the Norwegian Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations. The gallery is open to Norwegian-American artists who wants to promote their work to a New York audience. We are fully booked for the next year, with Norwegian artists living in Norway and in the United States showing their amazing work.
Right now, we have an exhibit by artist Jome Feoca, called “Tayo. Oss.” It’s open during our regular opening hours (Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
MF: How do you manage to reconcile your creative work with your work at the church?
CLS: I use any opportunity I get to work on my own work, either write a musical piece or orchestrate for others. But for six years, I had an amazing collaboration with actress and writer Hilde Skappel. We started practicing together in the Trygve Lie Gallery (there’s a great grand piano there) and then moved on writing songs for the employees of the church who were moving back to Norway.
During our writing sessions, we also realized we had lots of common ideas for musicals, and we started working on several stories. In February 2019, Hilde organized a charity concert at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church for the organization Dråpen i havet (A Drop in the Ocean), where lots of her artist friends participated. We wrote the theme song for the concert, “A Drop in the ocean.”
Sadly, in summer of 2019 Hilde passed away. During the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, I wanted to do a recording of the song, so I got in touch with lots of our musician friends, who all wanted to participate in a virtual recording. You can find the song on my website and YouTube.
After Hilde’s passing, it was hard to do much creative work. I still have several projects we started which are halfway written, which I would love to finish one day.
MF: Do you have any projects in the United States? If people would like to listen to your music or to attend an event, what can they do?
CLS: On my website, www.stahrmusic.com, you can get updates on my work and find links to my music on Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube, as well as purchasing sheet music if you are interested in playing some of my piano compositions.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.