Oda Voltersvik performs Grieg with panache
A triumphant coda to a coast-to-coast U.S. tour
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
There’s an old Norwegian proverb, “Den som venter på noe godt, venter ikke forgjeves”—good things come to those who wait—and for the Northport Symphony Orchestra and its audience at Northport High School on New York’s Long Island the evening of April 29, this old saying rang true, when pianist Oda Voltersvik from Bergen, Norway, performed Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.
The anticipation leading up the performance had been great. Like so many things during the pandemic, the concert had been put on hold for two years. Regrouping as a volunteer community orchestra after such a long period of time brought its trials and tribulations, but as we in the audience learned, the musicians were ready to deliver.
The appearance with the Northport Symphony Orchestra was the last in Voltersvik’s U.S. tour, which kicked off in Seattle at the National Nordic Museum and continued on to Aberdeen, S.D., Moorhead and Faribault in Minnesota, and New York City. With a grant from the Norwegian government, the tour was in part funded with support from local Grieg societies and other community organizations. Grieg appeared on all of the programs, along with classical and neo-classical Russian composers. Voltersvik will soon be releasing her new CD “NEO,” which will include pieces from the repertory performed on the tour.
After one success after the other, Voltersvik returned home to Bergen for a respite but also to prepare for the highlight of her North American adventure: the performance of Grieg’s piano concerto in Northport a few weeks later. For any Grieg aficionado, the concerto is the “pièce de résistance,” and in Northport, Voltersvik proved that she was up to the task.
Before the performance in Northport, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the music director and conductor of the Northport Symphony Orchestra, Richard Hyman, about the meaning and importance of the performance for the group and asked why he chose Grieg for the spring concert.
“I love the concerto,” Hyman said, “and it is a beautiful piece within the abilities of the orchestra.” Hyman also hears the season of spring in Grieg’s “young piece,” a composition the Norwegian composer wrote in 1868 when he was only 24 years old.
Hyman cofounded the Northport group about 15 years ago, after a long career as a music educator. He has been involved in a production of Mozart’s Requiem with the Northport Chorale and saw there was a need for an orchestra in the area. An experienced conductor with several degrees in music, including one from New York’s famed Juilliard School, he was well qualified and ready to take on the challenge.
Hyman’s orchestra is comprised of amateur musicians from all walks of life, including teachers, physicians, attorneys, business owners, retirees, and some students. They all have one thing in common: a love for classical music. Outside of Hyman, there are no other professionals in the group, and the players are not paid. The orchestra relies on fundraising and grants. Each year, it hosts a garden party gala with chamber music and dinner to raise money. The COVID-19 hiatus presented obstacles in terms of bringing in money, so a modest admission fee of $10 was put in place for the Grieg spring concert. The goal of the orchestra is to share their love of music with as many people as possible.
I asked Hyman how he had found Voltersvik to be his soloist for the Grieg piano concerto, and he explained that is was the other way around. When putting together her U.S. tour, she had sent out inquiries with CDs of her work, and it seemed like a perfect match. Hyman had long dreamed of doing the concerto, and there she was, a Norwegian pianist with a command of the Grieg repertoire. The wheels were set in motion.
But it is a long distance from Northport to Bergen, so the orchestra had to practice with recordings to prepare for the performance. The two-year break in rehearsals because of the pandemic had also presented a challenge, and for this particular concert, it was decided to assemble a smaller group of strings. But there was also the energy of playing together again to infuse the concert with excitement.
And exciting it was when the orchestra played its first note, as the concert opened with the piece “Song of the Waters” in tribute to its New Jersey-born composer James Cohn, who died in 2021. With sounds of Copeland and American folk music in its score, it set the mood for the Grieg piano concerto, in which the tones of Norwegian folk music reverberate.
And from the moment we heard Voltersvik hit the opening keys of the cascading chords of the first movement of the concerto, the audience was awestruck. While Hyman explained that he relies solely on the score to interpret the music, I felt I could hear and somehow visualize Norway in Voltersvik’s interpretation. With each note, it was all there for me: waterfalls rushing down the mountains in the first movement, peaceful green meadows of the slower second movement, the running of trolls and supernatural forces in the third movement.
It was the pianist’s technical command and unique artistic gift that could bring all of this to life, while Hyman led the musicians in harmony with her skilled and sensitive interpretation. There were many spellbinding moments to bring the audience to a standing ovation when Hyman brought down his baton.
Not a small achievement for a volunteer community orchestra with limited rehearsal time with its guest soloist.
“I usually try not to put too much of my interpretation into it ahead of time, because I know it is going to change when the soloist comes along.” Hyman explained.
Oda had brought her own ideas to the piece, and a lot of communication took place between performer and conductor. This exchange was also of great benefit of the orchestra, who learned from the ongoing dialogue. It was a chance to deepen their understanding of the Grieg score and the cultural nuances it carries. It was also an opportunity to improve their playing, which led to a successful performance that magical evening in Northport—cultural exchange at its very best.
The concert concluded with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral Symphony,” somehow a natural progression in the programming. With the Pastoral, Beethoven also celebrates the beauty and joy of springtime in another high point of the Romantic repertory—a perfect ending to a spring evening concert in Northport.
This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.