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

Show Hide image

With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad