Happy Birthday, Bergen!
A sister city celebrates in Seattle
LORI ANN REINHALL
Editor-in-chief, The Norwegian American
President, Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association
Vice President, Northwest Edvard Grieg Society
It’s not every year that a city celebrates its 950th birthday, and it’s also not every year that a pandemic sweeps the globe. But 2020 was the year that these two historic events collided in Bergen. Nonetheless, this misfortune hasn’t stopped the city’s residents or their friends across the ocean in their sister city in Seattle from celebrating, albeit in a new, unexpected way.
Already in March when the pandemic broke out on both sides of the Atlantic, we all wondered how our plans would change. For quite some time, the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association (SBSCA) had been working on plans for an exchange of artists, and travel plans were being booked for the big 17th of May celebrations across the Atlantic.
But soon a travel ban was put in place, and visiting Norway was no longer possible for Americans. The big parade in Norway was canceled, and the future looked uncertain for travel in either direction during the summer. The pandemic wore on and worsened. The prognosis for 2020 was not good from the American perspective, and all plans for exchange had to be canceled.
In Seattle, all large gatherings were also being canceled throughout the summer. All of a sudden, the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society’s (NWEGS) plans for a large-scale production of Peer Gynt at the National Nordic Museum had to be postponed. “It was very disappointing,” said Laura Loge, founder and president of the organization.
But neither NWEGS nor SBSCA was to be stopped, and they decided to team up for a celebration with a virtual concert, conceived as a gift to the people of Bergen for their 950th jubilee. Loge secured the seed money with a grant from the City of Seattle, and the sister city group went into full fundraising mode. The result was a production together with the Seattle Channel, a local television station that broadcasts civic events on television and throughout the region and online throughout the world.
A match made in heaven
The two groups had tremendous resources to draw from: Loge is a celebrated soprano in the Pacific Northwest and a Grieg specialist; Steven Luksan, secretary of NWEGS, is an accomplished pianist and composer; and the SBSCA already had a string quartet of talented young professionals, who had toured Norway in 2017 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the sister city relationship. Allion Salvador (violin), Rachel Nesvig (violin and Hardanger fiddle), Aleida Gehrels (viola), and Lauren McShane (cello) were soon on board. It was a divine configuration.
I was happy and honored to take on the role of producer for the event, and things rapidly took off. Going for broke, I decided to reach for the stars—literally—when I invited internationally acclaimed pianist Charlie Albright to join the lineup. Albright was already a name in Bergen, having stepped in for Lang Lang at the last minute at the Bergen International Festival in 2017, returning to the festival in 2019 to take the city by storm. And while the superstar is normally on the road performing concerts all over the world, he was home in Auburn just outside of Seattle because of COVID-19, and we were thrilled when he said yes.
From Grieg to Gershwin
The main mission of NWEGS it “to promote the music of Edvard Grieg through performance, educational outreach, and research in the Northwest of the United States.” This not only includes performances of Grieg’s music but other composers who have taken influence from him—and there have been many on both sides of the Atlantic. Grieg brought something new to Norwegian classical music, as it came into its own with the incorporation of folk music and motifs. His influence is profound, even to this day.
Grieg also mentored young musicians from other countries, encouraging them to explore the folk music tied to their own origins. One of them was the Australian-born composer Percy Grainger, who brought folk tunes of the British Isles to life in his works. Grainger worked closely with Grieg up until the Norwegian composer’s death. He later traveled to the United States to make a career, carrying what he had learned across the Atlantic.
Once in America, it was Grainger who introduced the music of Grieg to American composer George Gershwin. Voila! We had a concept. Knowing how fond the Norwegians are of Gershwin, this seemed like the perfect program for our gala concert, “From Grieg to Gershwin.”
Music in the time of COVID-19
There were other important considerations in play as we put the program together. During the pandemic, musicians are hungry to reach out to audiences, and many are struggling financially. We could use what resources we had to support many who had supported us in the past with their talents. While celebrating with Bergen, we could also provide top-quality entertainment to be shared within our own community. We could also come together with social-distancing guidelines in place and support one another, both professionally and personally.
The program was structured in three distinct segments. Part I, “Music of Solitude and Isolation,” featuring soprano Loge and pianist Luksan, offers a very quiet, contemplative mood, with the music of Grieg, Norwegian composers influenced by him, and original compositions by Luksan. It brings a feeling of inner peace, so needed during this time.
Part II, “Beyond Borders: The Folk Identity,” features the string quartet performing Grieg, Grainger, Gershwin, and Jessie Montgomery. One can hear the folk motifs of Norway, the British Isles, and the United States in progression. In Gershwin’s case, there were strong jazz influences going back to African-American folk music. This felt particularly important during a time of racial unrest in our country. Montgomery is a contemporary Black composer from New York, a further extension of the musical journey. She is a strong proponent of social justice, and it was deeply meaningful for us to include her music on the program.
A birthday bash extravaganza
As the atmosphere heightened, Charlie Albright took the stage in Part III, “Tradition and Contemporary Visions.” Starting with his improvisations on Grieg’s “Arietta,” he moved on to perform Gershwin’s “Preludes” with the string players. The program would not be complete, however, without Grieg improvisations on the Hardanger fiddle by Rachel Nesvig, followed by Albright on the piano.
Albright is considered one of the most gifted improvisers of his day, and his variations on the hymn “Amazing Grace” left no doubt of this. He gave it his all and moved many of us in the hall to tears.
There was much to be thankful for as the credits were announced, before Albright broke into Bergen’s anthem “Nystemten,” and a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday!” Spirits were high. It should be mentioned that Albright had never played the Bergen song before, but after listening to me hum and playing Sissel’s recording on YouTube, his amazing musical memory and talent took off to create pure joy.
Gratitude, friendship, and love
There are many components that go into producing a professional virtual concert: the staging, lighting, scripting, camerawork, sound engineering, editing, financing, and overall logistics for social distancing—and so many stepped up to the plate to make it all happen. There were even custom Edvard Grieg masks created by Norse Mask designer Madison Leiren, who also created one of the most divine dresses I have ever worn.
One of the biggest adventures was getting a 9-foot Steinway grand piano into the National Nordic Museum and its spacious and, on the day of the production, mostly empty Osberg Hall to fill it with glorious sound.
But most of all, the musicians deserve thanks for all that they brought to this concert, a meaningful and joyous expression of friendship and love.
To view the “Grieg to Gershwin” concert filmed at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle, visit www.seattlechannel.org/FrontRow?videoid=x116088.
Links to the individual episodes with complete program notes are available on the NWEGS website:
- Part I: Songs of Solitude and Isolation
- Part II; Beyond Borders: The Folk Identity
- Part III: Tradition and Contemporary Visions
See also “Flirting with perfection” by Lori Ann Reinhall, The Norwegian American, Oct. 23, 2020.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.