The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater hosts an extraordinary Norwegian gala performance

Performing artists amaze at Norwegian Kennedy Center gala event

Photo: Benedicte Bjerknes, Royal Norwegian Embassy Ole Christian Haagenrud, piano, and Eli Kristin Hanssveen, soprano, performed in front of projected images, which were used throughout the evening to great effect.

Photo: Benedicte Bjerknes, Royal Norwegian Embassy
Ole Christian Haagenrud, piano, and Eli Kristin Hanssveen, soprano, performed in front of projected images, which were used throughout the evening to great effect.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

The Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center was filled to capacity on the evening of October 8 with Norwegians, Norwegian Americans, music-loving Washingtonians, and tourists. It was an evening to remember.

Andreas Sønning, Associate Professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music and Artistic Director of Sønning Music Performance (SMP) in Oslo, was invited by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to present a work that would showcase Norwegian music.

“I always try to find cultural links between our Norwegian heritage and the country where we do co-operations,” Sønning said. To this end he chose the concept “From folk art to concert halls, a musical journey from Norway to the USA.”

“The Norwegian immigrants brought their culture with them and at the same time they became influenced by what they experienced in the cultural melting pot in America,” he explained.

The program begins with folk music and classical repertoire and moves on to opera and contemporary material and includes song, instrumental music, dance, and multimedia.

Sønning put together an extraordinary cast of seven musicians, two dancers, and two composers, all highly acclaimed professionals from Norway.

The opening number was “Welcome with honor” by Geirr Tveitt, performed by pianist Ole Christian Haagenrud and soprano Eli Kristin Hanssveen, followed by Øistein Sommerfelt’s “Light Morning in the Spring,” performed solo by flutist Sønning. Lovely scenes of nature were projected on the large screen behind the musicians as they played.

Hanssveen, a renowned soloist with the Norwegian National Opera, was an almost constant presence on the stage. Her ability to switch from serious classical music to lively popular tunes was impressive. Young Haagenrud was remarkable as he played the piano with unbridled enthusiasm. Sønning captivated the audience with his charming flute.

Music by the great Edvard Grieg was, of course, part of the program. Haagenrud played Grieg’s “To Spring,” Op. 43, No. 5.

Both traditional and classical versions of “Myllarguten’s Wedding March” were presented. Andreas Ljones first played the traditional tune on his fiddle and Haagenrud followed with Grieg’s more classical version, his Opus 72, on the piano. As Haagenrud played, Silje Onstad Hålien danced, dressed in a colorful traditional bunad. She was then joined by dancer Ulf-Arne Johannessen.

The dancers elicited many oohs and aahs as acrobatic moves were intermixed with the dance steps. However, it was the Norwegian Americans who seemed particularly thrilled with this part of the program. For descendants of Norwegian immigrants, it was traditional culture that they could relate to—the music, the dances, the costumes, and most especially the familiar Hardanger fiddle.

Photo: Benedicte Bjerknes, Royal Norwegian Embassy Johannessen reached great heights in this impressive Halling Dance.

Photo: Benedicte Bjerknes, Royal Norwegian Embassy
Johannessen reached great heights in this impressive Halling Dance.

To everyone’s delight, Hålien and Johannessen performed the well-known Halling Dance twice. Hålien stood on a chair and held a long stick out horizontally. At the end of the stick was a hat. As Ljones played the spirited Fossegrimen music on his fiddle, Johannessen danced until he suddenly kicked his leg high in the air and knocked the hat off the stick. The second time the hat was raised much higher and Mistereggen’s drum accompaniment added greatly to the rising suspense. Johannesen was successful, of course, but this time he received a literal leg up from Ljones!

Violinist Per Kristian Skalstad played two quite different selections written by composer and musician Johan Halvorsen. Before he began, Skalstad informed the audience that his violin was very special. It was a 1705 Italian Guarneri, which had been given to Halvorsen in 1891 by a wealthy Russian in St. Petersburg. Halvorsen traveled around Norway with this violin, writing down traditional folk music.

Accompanied by Haagenrud on the piano, Skalstad first played “Elegi,” one of Halvorsen’s theater compositions, and then “Peasant Wedding,” based on a traditional folk tune. Both were hauntingly beautiful. The video of the breathtaking Norwegian fjords and mountains on the screen behind the musicians added to the enchantment.

Sønning commissioned two world premieres for this gala performance, both supported by the Norwegian Composers Union. Together they reflected the forward-looking Norwegian immigrants and the well-integrated Americans of Norwegian descent.

The first premiere was “It is that dream.” Kjell Habbestad created a seven-minute piece in the historic neo-romantic style. To accompany it he and Sønning chose the poem “It is that dream,” which speaks to one’s hope for the future. The poem was written by Olav H. Hauge and translated into English by William H. Halverson. Both Hauge and Halverson were in attendance and recognized by Sønning. This lovely piece was performed by soprano Hanssveen, pianist Haagenrud, flutist Sønning, violinist Per Kristian Skalstad, and cellist Ignacio Alcover.

The second premiere was “ONTAME.” Composer Kjetil Bjerkestrand took his inspiration from a pop song—the folk culture of modern times. He based the work on themes from the Norwegian pop group AHA’s “Take on me,” a mega-hit in the 1980s. The song and video can be seen on YouTube at

When Hanssveen performed André Previn’s “I want magic” from A Streetcar Named Desire, the audience saw the brilliant opera singer in her more customary role.

For the final number, Hanssveen and the entire ensemble did a mixture of Joni Mitchell’s “Both sides now” and an instrumental part by Ljones. The arrangement showed inspiration from both Norwegian and American folk traditions in music and dance.

This magical musical journey was part of the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage initiative. Free performances are offered every day of the year on its Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer. Wisely anticipating a much larger crowd than usual, this performance was moved to the beautiful Terrace Theater, which seats 513 people.

The audience was clearly delighted and impressed with the production. Marie Hansen echoed the thoughts of many when she said, “The performance was wonderful. Kudos to the Kennedy Center and all the sponsors for offering these amazingly talented artists at a free event.” A resident of Washington, she especially enjoyed talking to some of the tourists in attendance. Perhaps they decided to attend the performance because it was free, but they left with big smiles and a new appreciation for Norwegian culture.

A video recording of this musical journey is available at The Kennedy Center’s partners for this event were the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., Statoil, the Kongsberg Group, and the Jiffy International. Support was provided by the Norwegian Composers Fund.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 6, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.