I went to a concert tonight, with Ensemble Ernst in Jakob kirke, Oslo, part of the Ultima festival of contemporary music.
Unfortunately I don’t go often to concerts, and something must have happened to the contemporary music scene since the last time I met with it, because the Jakob Church, which is now only used for cultural events, had about a hundred listeners, I think, pretty attentive it seemed. Some journalists in the arts field claim that the public money spent on the arts has led to nothing new, no bigger audiences, for instance, which can’t be true, if I believe what I see when I go out to listen to something. There is right now a lot going on in all possible genres in Oslo, kidstuff, “normal” mainstream projects and unusual things, both in music and theatre. Probably in other fields as well. There are more people than there used to be, too, wherever I attend a cultural event. Sometimes much more.
And the Ensemble Ernst, a chamber orchestra specialized in so-called contemporary music, really had a great evening. Thinking about it after the concert, these must have been extremely difficult notes to play. But when listening, all the music tonight sounded as easy as Mendelssohn for Hilary Hahn, or anyone else with a soloist temperament and professional routine. One big difference from listening to Mozart, besides the different sound worlds, is the lack of pre-knowledge, which follows the classical repertoire for a listener who has heard a lot of it many times. The extremely efficient and virtuoso playing of the accordion soloist and the band in the first piece by Finnish Sampo Haapamäki left the impression of something absolutely necessary, something that needs to be said. That feeling went on through the whole concert.
The witches that emerged out of some normal-looking musicians in the piece by the Japanese composer Hikari Kiyama were a real treat. The feeling of ugliness made beautiful, or the sound of a clear and colourful human voice, undefined by both concepts, also emerged from the intentionally messy and aggressive string sounds. The composer instructs us in the programme to think of this music as “noise rock”, not contemporary music, which is fair enough, but maybe an exaggeration tonight, because the sound of the acoustic, normal string quartet was never violent like an amplified, electrical performance can be, even if it was excited and angry.
In the course of action I could sometimes feel the need of getting things done in a shorter space, or maybe the orchestra lacked the last millimetres of shaping to convince me completely. I’ll try not to be as stupid as the emperor in the film “Amadeus”, who gave his reply simply as “…too many notes”, when asked what was wrong with a particular piece by Mozart. I don’t know this genre, or these genres, well enough to criticize them from a specialist’s point of view, but there were moments where I got the point a little too early, not being eager enough to want to hear the elaboration of it. In the film about Mozart it was obvious that the emperor only felt the need to give Mozart something else than flattery, in order to sound knowledgeable, and I won’t claim that there was anything lacking in the compositions. Probably rehearsal time explains it, which of course is a strain in every musical project.
The chopped-up string quartet was great fun, four players doing strange and funny things to each piece of a quartered violin. I didn’t hear many other people giggling besides myself, which I found a little strange, but again, I’m not an insider. There were definitely moments of great seriousness too in this piece, in the midst of what I conceived as humour, and wherever it happened this only added an extra layer of consideration or colour to the situation. But throughout the piece there were so many rhythmical figures that broke into each other, and if, as a concertgoer, your mind is normally full of Mozart and Brahms, like mine, you would have to laugh. I did. It might not have been the intention of the composer, if he had any, besides expressing himself. Who cares anyway. Probably not he.
Many people still find this music difficult, and there is actually no need to if the performers play like the Ensemble Ernst did tonight. There is every will to communicate, no plexi-glass feeling which one can sometimes find on the classical scene, the music flows freely from the podium to the audience and back, or so it seems. There were no technical flaws that would put anyone off, a newcomer would be maybe impressed, I think, and without, having to roll out a praying carpet which some music admirers do sometimes. There is enthusiasm and great concentration, and a great, normal feeling of music making. Any tourist with cultural inclinations should not forget to check out what’s going on in Oslo these days, when planning a trip somewhere.
The musicians also have the ability to give us all the musical points, whatever they are, in a way that can be intuitively understood. No expert knowledge of style or musical history is necessary. You may like it or not, as is usual at any concert, but if you are new to this I think you will know exactly what’s going on.
The last piece maybe matched my private clichés of modernist pain the most, and also had moments of the greatest beauty. I always feel that whenever a piano is present in an orchestral setting without being the soloist, it is a striking contrast, an inhabitant from an outside world entering familiar surroundings and changing it, or maybe the other way round, something very familiar changing a strange world into something much more known. (I am a pianist myself, so I’ll try to be careful with what I say). In any case I had the feeling that the same thing happened here – there were moments, I think, of reconciliation or freedom which I think were partly taken care of by the piano.
In a way, how nice to be seldom in the concert hall, too, because when you get there you feel almost like a kid, hearing everything for the first time.