The Singing Neighborhood
Interview with Øystein Fevang, musician, singer, conductor and man of cultureBy Marit Fosse Geneva, Switzerland Norwegian American Weekly
Lately, the Norwegian TV audience has been thrilled by a new documentary series: “The Singing Neighbourhood.” The plot is simple: turn a group of amateurs into a high-level choir in less than 10 weeks, and make them capable of singing “Carmina Burana” alongside the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in the Oslo Concert Hall.
The area of Stovner in the eastern suburbs of Oslo was where it took place. Although the physical distance between this area of Oslo and the Oslo Concert Hall is not great, the socio-cultural barriers were very high. Stovner is not known for being a white-collar area.
The popularity of the series is due to its human touch. The singers, aged from 17 to 82, share one thing –– the joy of singing. The series sends out the positive message that nothing is impossible if you really want it, and that each human being has a gift for something.
The person behind this initiative is the conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Choir, a two-time Grammy nominee, Øystein Fevang. Despite his international recognition, Øystein remains very down to earth. He has just accepted another challenge: to set up an international cultural centre in Horten, a small city 80 kilometres south of Oslo, where accommodation, music and arts will be the priority.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
It’s really a matter of coincidences. In fact, I started with piano lessons late –– at the age of 15. I played and sang in a band, and then I decided that rather than having piano lessons I should try for singing lessons –– so I did. Later, I wanted to study at the conservatoire and signed up for classical piano, but on the day of the auditions I did not dare to go. My singing teacher told me: “I have never heard you play the piano, but I’m sure of one thing, if you apply for a singing course at the Conservatoire, I’m sure you will get it! We will start working towards this goal.” One year later, I was admitted and I studied singing for five years. While at the Conservatoire, we were given a course in choral conducting; something I really did not know anything about. My professor told me: “Find yourself an amateur choir to work with.” So I did! One thing leads to another and I thought this was great fun. I decided to continue my studies at the Norwegian Academy for Music where I did a masters degree in choral directing. It was at the age of 30 that I completed my studies.
Q: It seems as if you enjoy your work?
I love to work with people, and I’m very happy that I did not just become a singer, or just a musician. Every year I work with thousands of people, mainly teaching them how to sing.
Q: You have been nominated for the Grammy award twice. Could you tell us a little more about that?
The year after my graduation, in 1996, Oslo Philharmonic Chamber Choir, one of the best choirs in Norway ceased to exist due to economic reasons, but the members wanted to continue, so “Ensemble96” was created. I was asked to take over and I conducted/managed them for 10 years. I made them participate in international competitions where we won many prizes, and we also recorded some CDs. The record, Immortal Nystedt, with music by contemporary composer Knut Nystedt, was nominated for a Grammy in the categories “Best choral performance,” and also the “Best surround sound album.”
It was quite incredible! I really could not believe my ears when a journalist called to tell me about the nomination. However, I must admit that I was and still am very pleased because I’m very fond of this record. I think it’s great! We worked so hard to get the financing–– there was no official subvention or support –– and then we receive this nomination.
I conducted this choir for ten years, and I had in fact already been offered the job as Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Choir when these Grammy nominations arrived, so it was a tremendous farewell present. Due to my new position, I was unable to continue to conduct the Ensemble96, but they are still around and they are doing very well.
Q: Could you tell us something about the Singing Neighbourhood?
It was the Norwegian National TV channel NRK that asked me if I would be interested in this challenge. The programme was based on a TV series shown on Channel 5 in the United Kingdom, called the Singing Estate. NRK bought the rights and we adapted it. I added my ideas on how to develop it: go on a trip to Paris; visit the Paris Opera; a concert at the Oslo Stadium; the local concert. You can say that it became as much my project as anybody else’s, and the TV crew just followed my ideas and edited it.
The main goal was to go on a musical journey, while the final goal is to end up with classical music. Stovner was chosen for its diversity. It’s an area with more than 30,000 inhabitants coming from all over the world, and it has suffered from a bad reputation. We wanted to show people that it is long journey from Stovner to the Concert Hall –– not geographically, but socio-culturally.
We were quite fortunate to have some very nice and touching characters in the choir. I’m sure you noticed Cato the postman, Aso the Kurd, Olav the young disabled person, etc. It was a tremendous challenge, but at the same time extremely rewarding.
Q: Did the choir continue after the program?
They wanted to continue with me as conductor, but unfortunately I do not have enough time to do so. However, a lot of them have kept in touch and, not long ago, Olav the guy with cerebral palsy turned 40, and lot of the singers including myself participated in his birthday party. This summer we gathered for a barbecue party at my summer house––so we do keep in touch. It created a lot of friendship, and I have just heard that they meet once a month, at a pub called Rudolf.
I was very impressed over the progress of the choir, and the final concert with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra was something really outstanding –– and very emotional.
Leaving Øystein with his different endeavours, we only hope that some of our readers would also be inspired by the positive message –– nothing is really impossible if you really want it …
This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on Dec. 26, 2008.