Young Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth is putting her country on the musical map

Reviewed: Tine@Munch.

Tine@Munch
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

Horn of plenty: the trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism