Munch Museum, Oslo
For a city synonymous with The Scream, Edvard Munch’s outpouring of modernist angst, Oslo is a terribly civilised place, home to the Nobel Peace Prize and landscaped in an appealingly contradictory mixture of broad 19th-century boulevards and parks and sharpedged contemporary architecture.
The contradictions continue in the city’s latest venture, a festival celebrating the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth with a series of intimate chamber concerts. The architect of this project is the young Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, an Oslo native who is putting her country on the musical map.
One evening in June, three major international musicians played Beethoven in a small hall in the Munch Museum, watched over by the monumental figure of the mother in the artist’s painting Alma Mater. Munch’s love of music and his relationship with musicians is a major preoccupation that emerges in his letters and writings – and one that forms the basis for Helseth’s festival.
Helseth makes a double Proms debut this summer but her move into commissioning and curating shows her ambitions lie beyond a life as a trumpet soloist. “I wanted to show my home town of Oslo some of the amazing musicians I work with around the world and at the same time to show off Norway’s musical talent to my colleagues,” Helseth says. The initial result brought together the British violinists Nicola Benedetti and Charlie Siem with the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the cellist Truls Mørk, both from Norway, to form a company of musicians, each appearing in many different chamber permutations throughout the three-day festival.
It’s a miniature version of the model that has made the Verbier Festival in Switzerland a success, encouraging musicians to risk new repertoire, play with new people and experiment in a workshop environment. There was a liberating sense of work-in-progress, an off-duty freedom showing a different side to the performers. How often in the UK do you get to hear Benedetti in such an intimate venue, sitting close enough to see every gesture, every detail of fingering?
While each concert was themed around Munch, exploring his musical friends (Delius, Strauss) and the repertoire he would have heard (Franck, Sinding), the most compelling was an evening examining art itself, meditating on iconoclasm, stylistic revolution and the relationship between art and its age.
Paul Hindemith’s inscrutable 1939 Sonata for Trumpet and Piano is a true document of its time and, performed by Helseth and Andsnes, a revealing opener to the evening. The first movement, “Mit Kraft”, finds harmonic resolution consistently just out of reach, the music pacing uneasily up and down in the piano’s nervous rhythms and the trumpet’s melodies. Helseth coaxed a range of colours from her instrument that made her closer to an oboist or clarinettist. Her skill was showcased in the restrained simplicity of the third movement, with its mourning melodies growing to a howl of raw anger. She was matched by the impeccable Andsnes, whose quasi-folk theme in the second movement did valiant battle against her trumpet’s interruptions.
Then came Three Pictures by Gisle Kverndokk, a work commissioned by the festival and the weekend’s most direct engagement with Munch. Taking three of his works as inspiration, Kverndokk has produced a threemovement trio for trumpet, violin and piano, capturing the artist’s range of colours and techniques in self-contained tone poems. The pointillist energy of Rue Lafayette emerged in trumpet sallies and plucked violin fragments, all silhouetted against a backdrop of piano, while the vices of the casino in Ved ruletten i Monte Carlo found musical life in an almost tarantella-like frenzy of repetition, driven by Helseth’s trumpet.
Helseth has curated a festival that succeeds in putting classics alongside new commissions and curiosities (Busoni and Korngold), while sustaining a dialogue with another art form and promoting local talent. That she has done so while performing herself is all the more impressive. Oslo’s establishment seems to agree – the festival is expected to become a regular fixture of the city’s cultural calendar.
Tine Thing Helseth performs at the BBC Proms in London at Cadogan Hall on 5 August and the Royal Albert Hall on 18 August