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

Reviewed: 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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide