Pianist Oda Voltersvik returns with “Nordic Unrest”
A new musical program on the horizon
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
The pandemic years have been a time of great upheaval throughout the world. With lockdowns and major global conflicts, it has led to shifts in cultural paradigms, our notion of self, and our relationships with others in our everyday lives. This has also been musical life, with programming that reflects changes and unrest in our social landscape.
For musicians, the beginning of the pandemic was a time of both challenge and opportunity. With traditional performing venues shut down, they had to turn to virtual media to reach their audiences or simply immerse themselves into other aspects of their work. For many, it was a time of intense creativity, as new, innovative projects emerged.
This was the case for Oda Voltersvik, a concert pianist based in Bergen, Norway. After being taken off the international performing circuit, delaying recording plans in the United Kingdom, she took the time to perform many livestreamed concerts, to explore new music, and to set new projects in motion. This included arranging a concert series in an intimate setting in Bergen for the fall of 2021 (“Volt Classics”) and planning new themed concerts whenever possible. Some lifting of the COVID restrictions still allowed her to do a few concerts in Norway, including her debut in the Norwegian Opera House in October 2020 (but only for an audience of 50). For her North American concert tour in 2023, she calls her program “Nordic Unrest,” and it is a reflection of the time, circumstances, and mindset of the pandemic years.
In a transatlantic Zoom interview, Voltersvik explained how the project evolved:
“The title ‘Nordic Unrest’ came after the Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota had asked me to play some Icelandic music. In fact, I was also on a short trip in Iceland for the first time that summer, experiencing its monumental, raw nature. Then I did some good research on composers there. There really aren’t so many of them because they were isolated for many years, and they didn’t even bring instruments like pianos and organs to the country before the 19th century. I found this composer, Atli Heimir Sveinsson, who was actually one of the very important composers for the development of the contemporary music environment in Iceland. He was the first Icelandic composer to win the Nordic Council’s award for composition in 1976, and he was one of the first to try to capture the spirit of Iceland.
“In an interview, he said that while he was studying in Cologne, Germany, it felt strange to come from a country with no musical culture, that he had to find his own way and not imitate the music that was happening on the continent. So many composers before him went to Europe to study, and they were maybe more influenced by the styles in Europe. Some of them just stayed in Europe, never returned.
“Anyway, the title. So, I found this work by Sveinsson, ‘The Song of the Stone,’ which is actually a set of 30 pieces. I will make a selection from them. And I found them to be similar to the short pieces of Grieg in their atmosphere. And there is a lyrical character to them. I found it very interesting to connect these two composers.”
Voltersvik interprets “The Song of the Stone” as an “expression of the spirit of nature”—turbulent nature—which served to shape the concept “Nordic Unrest” for the concert series. In her program, she not only includes music by Sveinsson and Grieg but also weaves in works by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and Norway’s Geirr Tveitt. On some level, all the selections can be seen as an expression of an inner unrest within the composers themselves, with music that is deeply rooted in the tones of the Nordic musical landscape.
Voltersvik explains: “In the chosen pieces, the composers aimed to capture either elements within the Nordic nature or reflect tales or characters originating from mythology and folklore. In addition, the program includes pieces reflective of an inner unrest from the characters described or the composers themselves.”
Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907)
The “Nordic Unrest” program opens with lyrical pieces and folk tunes by Grieg, a composer whose impact on other Nordic composers of his day was inescapable, with a legacy that continues through this day. As a proponent of National Romanticism, Grieg brought the sounds of Norwegian folk music into the classical canon, and its tones left their trace throughout his entire oeuvre.
A climax of the Grieg segment of the program is Voltersvik’s interpretation of Grieg’s “Ballade in G minor, Op.24,” a composition that emerged after a tumultuous period in the composer’s life. The composer had just suffered the loss of his parents, not long after the untimely death of his only child, Alexandra, when she was just over 1 year old. His marriage to Nina underwent serious strain during this time, stresses that come to expression in his music, which, on some level, may have served as a catharsis.
In the tour’s Seattle performance, Voltersvik will also be joined by Seattle-based cellist Christine Lee, as they perform the “Cello sonata in A minor, Op. 36.” This work, which borrows heavily from Grieg’s own “Trauermarsch zum Andenken an Rikard Nordraak” (Funeral March in memory of Rikard Nordraak) is another composition filled with passion, anguish, and intense drama.
Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)
Sibelius, Finland’s national composer, has been described as a Romanticist and Modernist at the same time. The pianist has chosen one of his pieces, “Kyllikki: tre lyriske stykker, Op.41” which is one of his 12 pieces that were inspired by the poem cycle Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. For Sibelius, the Kalevala was a lifelong source of inspiration, from his earliest largescale work, “Kullervo,” to his last, the symphonic poem “Tapiola,” and understanding the context of his work enhances its subsequent interpretation.
In “Kyllikki,” one of the main characters who appears like a handsome but reckless Nordic god, captures a woman in the story. This abduction is musically expressed in the first movement of the piece, which is very unrestful. The second movement is then tiresome and melancholic. A dark, melancholic feeling prevails throughout the music.
Geirr Tveitt (1908 – 1981)
Tveitt is a Norwegian composer whose music follows in the tradition of Grieg, but he also drew inspiration across borders, showing influences from Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. Nonetheless, there is always a strong Norwegian element present in Tveitt’s oeuvre. Like his predecessor Grieg, he collected the folk tunes of the Hardanger region, where he lived for many years. His collection “From Fifty Folk-Tunes from Hardanger for piano, Op. 150” is considered by many as his greatest musical achievement. Many of these pieces sound out in hauntingly minor tones, and three selections from them figure in the “Nordic Unrest” program.
Tragically, in 1970, a large part of Tveitt’s musical manuscripts were destroyed by a fire in his home, and the composer spent years trying to recover his music, by visiting libraries and archives, writing to friends, and reconstructing composition by listening to recordings. With so much of his work lost, Tveitt suffered from anxiety and found it very difficult to compose for the rest of his life.
Atli Heimir Sveinsson (1938 – 2019)
Finally, Voltersvik concludes the program with Sveinsson’s “The Song of the Stone,” a point of departure for the project. These pieces can be described as lyrical music, full of poetic elements. Based on 30 poems with the same name by Kristján frá Djúpalæk from 1977, the musical poetry can be interpreted as an expression of the incomprehensible greatness of nature and its impact on human beings, conveying the sense that they are only a small part of a vast entirety.
Elements of fantasy are present in the 30 poems, which depict old tales about dwarves who live in the stones with their magical powers. But with this connection to folklore, Voltersvik recognizes a strong lyrical quality in the music, as she explores the relationship to Grieg in her renditions.
The musical journey
Preparation for this type of musical journey can be long and arduous but also a fulfilling process. First, there is the selection of the repertory, followed by a period of intense research and practice. Voltersvik explained that she tries get at as many sources as possible to understand the various moments in the composer’s lives. The musical score, which is the final expression of their experience, must be studied closely.
And these days, classical musicians face other challenges as they return to the concert hall. With a general downturn in the economy, it can be more difficult to secure funds. Voltersvik spends hour upon hour filling out grant applications and making the practical arrangements for her various tours.
I asked her how it feels to be returning to North America after having been home in Norway for much of the pandemic.
“After the restrictions, it seems like your audiences in America are more eager to come back to hear you. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve experienced that it’s been very slow here [in Norway],” she said. “I find audiences and people in America engaging and enthusiastic, both during and after the concerts. I also appreciate that many universities prioritize the building of proper concert halls for acoustic chamber music next to their campuses, as is the case in Minnesota and North Dakota.”
And as one of the concert organizers in Seattle with the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society and the Seattle-Bergen Sister Association, I can confirm that we are very eager to have the Bergen pianist return.
Voltersvik’s new tour will, to a large extent, follow in the footsteps of her previous concert circuits here, with stops in New York, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and then the Pacific Northwest.
In a time when many would maintain that “soft diplomacy” has failed, for Voltersvik, cultural exchange is an important part of her mission as an artist. She feels it is more important than ever for people to come together in small venues and experience music they may not have the opportunity to hear otherwise.
Even in turbulent times of unrest, music transcends boundaries, break down stereotypes, and bring people together. Over time, musical collaborations are built up and friendships are forged, both artist-to-artist and artist-to-audience. It’s about sharing, about mutual enrichment. I, for one, cannot wait to be part of this experience.
To learn more about Oda Voltersvik and her “Nordic Unrest” tour and to mark your calendars, visit odavoltersvik.com/solotours.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.