As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m an Autumn child. Earlier in life, I might have preferred Spring. Yet here in the North Spring is an uncertain, undefined being, never wholly within ones grasp. It can be bestowed and retracted at the whim of the Norse gods. We learn never to entirely banish the winter clothes to the back of the cupboard. This year we had a flurry of snow on June 1st. Some years, Spring seems to be on holiday abroad.
Autumn, or Fall, brings glories of colour, a less intense heat and the return of Scandinavian “hygge”. Plus yet another birthday. For us in the orchestra, it generally heralds a new beginning – our new season. This year, the world is a very different one. Incredibly enough, the Bergen Philharmonic has adapted, often at the eleventh hour, and maintained a flow of livestream digital performances since April. With conductors, soloists and programmes subject to overnight quarantine or travel changes, flexibility has been stretched to the utmost. But everyone – musicians and administration- has dedicated themselves towards ensuring that the music continues. Maintaining a digital presence from early on was vital for morale and for clinging to one constant in a scarily changing world.
Fellow musicians around the world have dug deep and found new reserves of creativity in order to present themselves online. There is a very real sense of community and solidarity in the Arts world. All of us, desperate to keep going. We will not be silenced. Despite the uncertainty, tragedy, fear and anxiety unleashed by Covid 19, we have often become more resourceful and resilient. Dancing a fine line from one day to the next, sanitiser is our new fragrance, distance our new norm. We become used to leaving our phone numbers everywhere we go, to having a supply of face masks. To thinking twice about many things we used to take for granted. Here in Norway, we have been relatively lucky. It is no real hardship to have to contain ourselves within this long country, rich as it is in breathtaking scenery and wild places to explore.
I of course miss my short flights to Scotland, and especially the postponed return to another week of writing at Moniack Mhor, near Loch Ness. I miss making new friends each time I go – the support and opportunity to learn more. I was nervous the very first time I stood up to read my work aloud in front of the circle of fellow writers in the crackling firelight of the Hobbit House. I had pushed myself into the unknown. It paid off. The appreciation and encouragement I received there was something I very much needed, and has since kept me going, validating my inner urge to write. I await eagerly the re-starting of residential courses there next year.
My daughter can attest to the fact that I have an uneasy relationship with computers. She will often get a message from me along the lines of “Help! Where did my work disappear to??” I grew up with pen and paper, and I still do much of my writing longhand before a first edit as I enter it onto the laptop. But the fact remains that the Internet has been a lifeline in lockdown and beyond. We have had remote orchestra meetings, kept in touch and taken part in online festivals. It has been moving as well as entertaining to watch everyone learning to adapt. I watched, for example, ballet dancers attending their regular morning class from their kitchens or even balconies. Edinburgh Book Festival went online, as did Bloody Scotland – the festival of crime writers in Stirling. I have loved “meeting” authors and getting that buzz of inspiration as they discuss their methods. I have indulged my fascination with forensics and absorbed new knowledge on a variety of subjects. We have been channelled into a new kind of participation, a new community many of us have not yet fully explored. I feel a greed for words, facts, impulses which find outlets in various mediums of creativity. Perhaps because, in an otherwise uncertain world, these things are available to me – ingredients for me to use as I wish. Wigtown Book Festival on the West Coast of Scotland was also represented. Shaun Bythell of The Bookshop has kept a daily book quizz going all through lockdown, aided in the background by Captain the cat, the real whiskers behind the business.
The Irish Chamber Orchestra and my friend Oonagh Keogh sent out a delightful video featuring some very attractive front doors opening to reveal the various orchestra members who lived behind them. A bit like a musical advent calendar. We in the BFO did a performance of Grieg’s piano concerto together with a soloist who was actually playing in Iceland! The magic of technology. BBC Sports presenter, Andrew Cotter, had me in stitches with his deadpan commentaries featuring his two labradors, Mabel and Olive. Quite a few of us waited eagerly for his latest ones to pop up.
Away from the laptop, I have been devouring books. The latest is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, winner of the Womens’ Fiction Prize this year – alive with so much detail and with a truly gorgeous front cover. Simon Sebag Montefiore is a much respected historian and has delivered a weighty tome on The Romanovs, a subject which has always fascinated me. That will take me a while to digest thoroughly. Also on my current pile is a book in Norwegian, Hardanger, by Marit Eikemo. I’m delving into those short stories in coffee breaks. Added to all the reading, plus my writing, along came another burst of art. I don’t paint or draw regularly, but I do experience times of inspiration when I see a subject and already it pops fully formed into my head, the medium I will use and how I will achieve it. Like a piece of writing, it often sits up there for a while until the day that it bursts out onto the paper, completed quite quickly. The itch has to grow and mature first! I get a lot of pleasure out of the process of drawing or painting, and out of the knowledge that it is a continual learning process. Just like writing or music. There is still much to be discovered. I feel as though my thirst for learning grows more with age. Hopefully it will keep those grey cells healthy.
In the BFO, we came back to work at close to full size in August, opening appropriately enough with Dvorak’s “New World” symphony. It was a heady, unreal but oh-so-welcome experience to set foot on our stage again in front of our first live audience for a long time. The thrill never dies. Every time that I go on stage and make music, I feel how right it is. Whatever life throws at me, that at least is where everything comes together and I am at home. It is in my blood. Thanks to my parents’ efforts, I became a musician and have found my natural element, making music together with others. And live music needs audiences. We feed off each other. There is a chemistry present which brings a performance to life, a life which evolves and changes shape from one evening to the next.
We know how lucky we are. Especially now. Culture can be seen as non-essential in times of crisis by some politicians. I beg to differ. The Arts are present in our every day, in some form or other. Remove all trace of them and their absence would be deafening. Amongst the shifting sands of the Now, we humans crave that constant – we crave beauty and solace. In this new sharp-edged world where touch is so limited, and for some, wholly absent, we need that which touches our hearts, lifts the spirits, comforts and enriches our senses.
For many of our fellow musicians, especially freelancers, this is a time of dire struggle and uncertainty. As it is for the whole industry of professionals who work largely in the background in lighting, sound, filming and producing large events. Their livelihoods are being choked by the restrictions on large gatherings.
I hope we can look forward to a gradual lifting of restrictions and closer to a return of a more normal life. The seasons keep turning meanwhile, golden piles of leaves dancing in the wind gusts. An unexpected bonus of warmth arrived here this weekend, scarves were briefly loosened. Ingredients for homemade soup await my attention tomorrow. For now, time to curl up with a book and a cat. And some music.