Of inspiration. And a fly…

I haven’t posted for a while – since Salzburg, we have had some hectic weeks and all-consuming programmes. Millions of new notes to learn or polish. But boy, has it been worth it! Rich musical experiences that demanded and received all my energy – and yet produced even more.

Working on Shostakovich Symphony number 10 with the young Finn, Klaus Mäkelä, was memorable. We knew within the first two minutes of rehearsal that here was something quite remarkable. Aged only 23, his presence and poise is that of a conductor with decades of experience. He enabled us – which is the mark of a great conductor. There is something about Finland which continues to produce a deep vein of talent in this profession. I have loved the music of Shostakovich since my teens, particularly once I began to learn the symphonies. I know number 10 well, but I saw it with fresh eyes through Mäkelä’s interpretation. Attention to detail was exacting and yet revealing, as new layers emerged thanks to correct balancing of voices. We were making chamber music. And it showed. I can honestly say I came offstage positively ready to go right back on and play it again. We eagerly await his return.

More Shostakovich a week later – the glorious violin concerto number 1 in the expert hands of Vadim Gluzman. And Copland Symphony number 3, conducted by Andrew Litton. What little Copland I know, I like very much, but this work was new to me. (I love that about my job – that I’m always getting to learn something new.) It was instantly recognisable as his voice – I always see vast American landscapes, maybe viewed from the back of a horse. And there’s usually a wistful trumpet in there, lonely and noble. Homesteaders, quilts flapping in the prairie wind, mountain trails. And a bit of a lively knees-up in the barn. It certainly kept us on our toes, with his signature rhythm patterns and passages which defy easy fingering. It also got rather loud, as Copland becomes enthusiastic with his drums and brass. This is the symphony that includes the famous Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s a goosebump moment.

The goosebumps were back in force last week. Ed Gardner was back with us, leading us through Schönberg’s Pelleas and Melisande. Learning this took most of my remaining brain cells, not least because the publishers (the focus of much gnashing of teeth in the practise room) had made such a poor job. The print proved challenging to read even when enlarged by our ever-obliging librarian, Johan. Was that a flat or a sharp? A rest or an unidentified blob? The only solution was to listen to and become as familiar with the music as possible in the short turnaround – certain parts had to be almost memorized. Again, a new work for me, but one I grew to love (just as well because we will be recording it in June). Plenty of juicy, if demanding, cello themes – and then all those flats/maybe sharps to fit inbetween. Not content with giving us that workout, the programming powers that be had also decided to drop in Don Juan, by Richard Strauss. As the saying here in Norway goes – “It’s not only only!” Meaning generally, easier said than done. Sure, it is repertoire for us, but demands a fresh look at those tricky passages every time. And Ed wanted, naturally, full power and energies, leaning over to encourage us as if extracting our very DNA. I delivered everything I had and then some. Exhausting for the body, but exhilarating. (Did I mention I LOVE my job?)

Then, my emotions got a workout, to say nothing of the goosebumps. Norway’s own Lise Davidsen joined us for Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. She is a truly astounding young soprano, for whom everything appears effortless. Best of all, for these songs, she also possesses a glorious depth to her voice. For me, the Songs are pure genius. If I ever get any choice in the matter, they are what I hope to hear as I leave this world. They are not religious – they are greater than that. Rather, a sublime serenity, a poignant viewing over the world in deep thankfulness. Strauss sets the words, poems by Hesse and Eichendorf, with perfection, mirroring every detail in his use of instrumentation and phrasing. You can hear two larks (piccolos and flute) soaring upwards, hear summer “smiling”. The “starry night” is created in a few notes of colour change and a cooler, brittle instrumentation. The vision of the unfettered soul – his treatment of the word “seele ” – wishing to soar up freely is given wings in the heart-wrenching violin solo. And then the poignancy of the final song, At Sunset, describing the tiredness at the end of life with acceptance: “how weary we are of wandering” – Strauss emphasises this word, “wandermüde”, in a slowing of pace, the darker tones of the voice. And the final words, the questioning tone in the voice – “Is this, perhaps, death?” – looking into the sunset. It’s true, these songs mean a great deal to me. I grew up on the Jessye Norman recording, then later discovered the version by Kiri Te Kanawa and Georg Solti, which has remained my favourite. But Lise Davidsen challenges that. I sat in on rehearsals and performances (a smaller ensemble was used). The hairs stood up. I cried, in deep gratitude that such beauty exists. How lucky I am. How lucky to be able to understand and take part in a world of such sounds.

The Songs were programmed right before our final work, Don Juan. Not easy to make that transition from so much emotion and come back onstage to produce musical fireworks again, but somehow we did it. We were joined this time by the Grieghallen fly. I don’t know if it is auditioning for a small part, but its enthusiasm was impressive. Don Juan sent it wild with delight, shooting past our heads to do a circuit of the violas before returning. As it was a sizeable fly, I was afraid it might blunder into my eye. At one point, it hitched a ride on my bow hand, to the visible amusement of my neighbour. It departed in a frenzy. I’m sure it will turn up again soon at a critical moment.

So yes…..it has been intense! Meanwhile, at last I can walk to work in daylight, a huge improvement. Could Spring be around the corner? And I have been working on other writing ideas. Of which more later ……

BFO in Salzburg………….third concert

Our departure time on Saturday morning will be a truly gruesome 0730 deadline, so for the last full day in Salzburg I opt for a slow and civilised start. Breakfast in the room helps me out the door by mid-morning feeling rested and ready to stretch my legs in the now familiar streets. Getting to know this city has been a particular pleasure. Everywhere I go, I’m met with outgoing, friendly people who are interested in talking to me. My German is now less rusty and I am given the space to practise it. The temperature has fallen again so my walking tour soon sends me in search of a café. Café Fürst is brimming with old-world charm, a mind-boggling selection of cakes – and history.

Paul Fürst created the famous Mozartkugel chocolate in 1890. His great great grandson now runs this café and confectioners. The shop also has a display of unusual tiles… I spend the rest of my free time finding some local specialities to take home and taking leave of my favourite corners of Salzburg so far.

Our rehearsal today is scheduled right before the concert so I head to the hall early. It is already buzzing with activity. Various bits of Brahms issue from backstage and dressing rooms. The admin team is in full flow, ironing out problems and addressing queries. They have around 100 musicians to look after. And keep firmly on course.

Maestro Mena is concise in our short rehearsal, revisiting any problem areas and clarifying others. Often with helpful comments like “Here, I need more CARiss!” We look at each other. More….what?? “CARiss!” It turns out that he requires us to CARESS the notes as we play, producing a tender sound. Bless. He may have his own unique take on English words, but we still love him. Over the years we have grown wise to his unusual phrases. We know that when he asks us to please birth here, he wants us to breathe. He admits the speed of our earlier Brahms performance was due to the “crazy conductor,” but we are not alarmed. Adrenaline does strange things.

Or…”Caution! Danger of slipping on fast notes…..”

After a further superlative performance by Håkan Hardenberger, we get to find out how the conductor adrenaline is behaving. It is a slightly different reading from our previous one, but that is refreshing. This, the last concert of our Salzburg residency, feels special. And the audience reacts. Once again, cheers and vigorous applause. The two Grieg encores make their appearance and this time the trolls are not merely marching – they are gallopping in March of the Trolls. Mena has a glint in his eye as we end with a flourish. It has been an enriching few days of music-making together.

We are all on a high as instruments and clothes are packed for the journey back home to Norway. The massive BFO truck is already purring outside – our crew will be loading almost the second we close the cases. My cello buddy, Bodil, and I slip around the corner to the musicians’ pub for a celebratory gin and tonic. It feels good to celebrate what we have achieved this week. Charming a Salzburg audience to such a degree is no mean feat and we are proud of the whole orchestra.

By the time we emerge into the sinking temperatures, the truck is locking up and ready to go. We watch and wave as it lumbers off on the first leg of its long journey – they will first drive overnight all the way up to Hamburg. It is an emotional moment watching them leave with the precious cargo on board and the distinctive logo of our orchestra along the side.

Crossing the bridge for the last time, we come upon a trolleybus stuck midway and two men attempting to push it. It has lost contact with the overhead power lines and needs to be moved nearer to them. Bodil and I offer to help. So two blonde cellists lend a bit of muscle and enthusiasm to the general effort – and it works! The men laugh, a little surprised and we walk on, laughing. We have our uses….

I’m sure most of us are barely conscious, leaving our hotel at 0730 the next morning. It is a cruel hour after a concert, but I’m also looking forward to getting home, being reunited with my cat, Max, and catching up with sleep (and washing.) On Monday, we begin Amadeus week – with fresh inspiration in our baggage. Thanks for the tour!

We not only move a lot of notes around … but also a trolleybus. No problem.

BFO in Salzburg………….Second concert

As the weather still holds, I decide to visit Hohensalzburg fortress, Central Europe’s largest preserved fortress dating from the eleventh century. It is an incredibly steep climb and my knees won’t thank me for it. So I hop on the funicular – similar to our own in Bergen – the oldest in Austria, built in 1892. Presumably the steel cables hauling us up the acute gradient are not the original ones… I’m relieved to escape at the top and am almost literally blown away by the magnificent panorama. All of Salzburg lies below, surrounded by spectacular snowy peaks. The wind is eye-watering and clearly it is only sensible to seek shelter in the café for coffee and strudel. It’s a good job we return home on Saturday – my willpower wilts under the culinary temptation.

As the day progresses, large parties of tourists spill onto the streets and I decide some rest before concert number two is a good move. I pass dogs the size of small ponies. Maybe tiny ones would just disappear into the snow? The dogs, like their owners, are very polite but I catch one shaggy hound eyeing me assessingly. And intently. I say hello. He keeps staring. I haven’t seen a single cat so far.

Darkness has fallen by the time I walk back towards the concert hall. It is six o’clock and suddenly all the bells begin to ring out, one after the other. The bells of the Dom and surrounding churches. Walking through gloomy passageways over cobblestones, I’m passed by someone in a flowing dark cloak and hat. I feel as though I may be in a scene from Amadeus. The opening of Mozart’s Requiem is running through my head. Somehow, despite the tourism and kitsch souvenirs, Mozart the man remains very present in every part of Salzburg – the cobbled streets, the old signs swinging gently overhead, the venerable old-style coffee houses and the river Salzach itself. I feel conscious of walking in his footsteps, seeing glimpses of what he saw; hearing bells, the clop of horse hooves, the Austrian dialect; smelling the coffee, chestnuts and wine. It is comforting to know that he existed and that he left us such musical treasures to experience.

My cello is patiently waiting for me backstage and of course, the dressing room trek is back on. I realise there are also dancers and singers at work somewhere in the bowels of this building. I’m followed on my walk by a baritone efficiently using the corridors to warm up his voice. Upstairs, our musicians are using every corner they can find to similarly warm up. The countdown begins. Sverre and Erlend are running the stage with Swiss efficiency. Chairs, stands, equipment need to be whipped on and off stage between works, depending on ensemble size. And both sides of the stage need to be readied for a precision entrance at seven thirty.

Håkan Hardenberger dazzles again, this time with a concerto by Haydn and Three Mob Pieces by H. K. Gruber. He makes the most of these hugely contrasting works and the delighted audience is rewarded once again with an encore. Mahler’s first symphony requires large forces, especially in the horns and trumpets. It is a work of many layers and infinite detail. Maestro Mena is in playful mood and keeps us on our toes reading his intentions. But that is the best, most giving way to make music and tonight our Mahler is magical, nuanced and glittering. The finale is most striking for the whole row of horn players rising to play standing. A triumphant sound that makes me feel proud and raises goosebumps. Mena raises the tempo in exhilaration and the audience erupts in cheers. I’m delighted to see their wholehearted appreciation – the musically refined Austrians are discerning critics, not given lightly to such displays. But tonight, we get a standing ovation – and my knees get a workout from repeatedly rising and sitting. Mena introduces our two Grieg encores with typical humour, merely indicating the composer’s name on his score to the audience and winking. There’s a murmur of pleasure from the whole audience as they recognise the opening bars of Morning Mood. We also serve up some Grieg trolls dancing into a frenzy and giving our valiant wind players a workout as Mena drives a punishing tempo.

The euphoria makes the corridor hike seem shorter and groups of us disperse into the evening chill, in search of some celebration. A sizeable portion of the orchestra ends up in the same Italian restaurant where we keep the waiters busy and toast a second successful performance. Time is flying – one more concert remains.

BFO in Salzburg…………Concert nr. 1

Salzburg has shaken off the snow clouds for now and basked under the sun. The temperature still requires the use of two scarves and two pairs of socks, but despite the stinging red face, I’m enjoying the reveal. Shortly after nine, the orchestra has begun to navigate the inner recesses of Haus für Mozart. The route to our dressing rooms takes us through an endless rabbit warren of a basement. We could be missing for days. It pays not to forget anything one needs on the journey.

Our soloist is the Swedish wizard of the trumpet, Håkan Hardenberger. His stamina is breathtaking – but luckily not literally for him. On our first programme is the concerto by Rolf Wallin, named “Fisher King” – a fiendish ask of any trumpeter, but this one takes it in his stride. It seems he is equally impressed with us. Contemporary composers tend to ask for multi-layered effects with exacting detail – and yet expect the accompaniment to be gossamer-fine in transparency. We must never swamp the solo voice. Taxing, but possible. The trick is to avoid getting carried away. Not too much fishing….

With Maestro Juanjo Mena

Maestro Mena is in good form, insisting on attention to detail but reminding us “I still love you all!” He hands over the baton for part of the first Brahms symphony to Nils Eirik, our assistant conductor. He travels with us and does a vital job of assessing balance and detail from the body of the hall. And he’s prepared to take over as needed. He is gaining experience and adding to his knowledge through working closely with our conductors. It is good to get the feel of the hall and iron out any remaining kinks in rehearsal. We have also been made welcome here – a small chocolate is left for each of us on the music stand.

The intense cold outside drives me back to Café Mozart where a Goulasch soup hits the spot and provides internal central heating. I wander a little further but decide a rest in the hotel room is a wise move. The adrenaline covers a lot at the time, but a full concert performance undoubtedly demands and extracts a considerable amount of energy. All is quiet next door – no practising. And I sleep. Much restored, I admire a pink and gold sunset on the walk back towards the old town. I believe a coffee is in order….

At the concert hall, I run into colleagues emerging bemused from the long hike along corridors to rescue their concert clothes. It’s not a trek I want to take more than twice. All the women are squished into two incredibly small rooms, so there is much jostling as we wobble on one leg and dive head first into evening gear. Backstage, violins occupy every spare chair, brass players warm up with a series of rude noises and reeds/strings/sticks are being checked. I find Gard Garshol checking his cymbals and I’m struck by the helpful reflected pool of light as I take his picture.

Gard Garshol

The hall is almost full and we are greeted with an enthusiasm that continues throughout the evening. Maestro Mena is so refreshed that the overture to The Flying Dutchman almost breaks land speed records. Or so it seems to us as our fingers indeed fly over the strings. I’m sure my eyes are wide and staring as I try to suck in all the information racing past. The Salzburgers are charmed by our glistening foreheads and superhuman efforts. We are but the warm up act for Håkan Hardenberger who puts his magical trumpets through their paces. As I tell him afterwards, his artistry almost makes me wish I played the trumpet. Almost. Wallin’s concerto is not the most easily digested work for an audience, but the reaction is such that an encore is demanded and delivered – an exquisite version of My Funny Valentine. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. The audience is totally on board. Our Brahms symphony turns into a lively, vibrant reading. I can feel hundreds of pairs of ears actively listening. Mena is in his element, creating and projecting his vision of the work. Always a pleasure to work with, he is unfailingly courteous, the perfect gentleman and a man of generosity and humility. I well remember one visit he made to Bergen when, come rehearsal break, he produced enough Spanish tortilla for the whole orchestra. He had made it himself at his hotel. A gesture we much appreciated.

The closing chords of the symphony bring cheers. It’s always a great feeling to stand and receive warm audience appreciation and look down at individual smiling faces. You make a connection from the stage and it is addictive. We serve up two Grieg encores from Peer Gynt and it seems that the applause will go on and on. Finally, the conductor leaves the stage arm in arm with the concert master. Now for the long walk back down all those corridors to change clothes. We find the traditional haunt of all musicians appearing at the hall – a cosy bar carved into the mountain rock. We are enjoying the well-earned post-concert glass when people from a nearby table approach. They have been in tonight’s audience, recognised us and want us to know how much they enjoyed our concert. It is fantastic to get such feedback and it warms us as we return to the hotel in a truly Siberian wind. A hot bath – the perfect end to the day.

Salzburg….Day Two

More snow has fallen overnight but the efficient Austrians have tidied it away and helpfully spread grit for a safe foothold. The cold is nipping my ears and the sky looks as though it isn’t convinced it is finished with snow. I’m wandering through the frankly quaint streets of the old town. Yes, it really does look like a postcard. A carriage drawn by two horses rounds the corner and I’m struck by how easily one could be back in Mozart’s time. A carillion of bells chimes out what I recognise as Papageno’s aria from The Magic Flute. Next week, BFO will be accompanying the movie “Amadeus.” Being in Mozart’s home town takes on extra significance. No coincidence then that I find myself enjoying coffee and strudel in Café Mozart. When in Rome….

It is housed in a building from the sixteenth century, with plush red upholstery and deep-silled windows. A group of nattily-dressed Austrian gents have gathered for their regular coffee hour. Other guests read newspapers on wooden frames, old style. Tradition remains deeply ingrained here.

Mozart, I note, had a distinctive nose … judging by the profile on the wall. That such a wealth of utterly sublime music bubbled out of this man is always remarkable to me. The poor soul has been martyred on the altar of tourism for sure – and yet, with just a little imagination, one can fancy he could appear around any corner. Visiting the house in which he was born, I try to feel that atmosphere, despite some overly-loud tourists seemingly impervious to the shadows of greatness imprinted within the template of this modest building. The ceilings are low, floors wooden and creaky. I’m moved by Mozart’s correspondence with his wife and the deep bond between them. They reveal a refreshingly human, earthy and delightfully humourous spirit. Nothing saintly about him, but a real, flawed man. Through which music flowed and blossomed. Nothing mystical or divine about it – simply a true genius, anchored within a man who embraced play on words and retained a curious naivete about much of daily life outside music. It is humbling to be here. Family portraits line the walls. I’m thinking Mozart took more after his mother in looks…. But you never know how honest portrait painters were. There is a note from father Leopold, bemoaning the fact that he himself has been made to look fatter than he actually is, especially considering the necessary position of the violin making his neck look thicker. The politics of portraiture throughout history tended toward the ” bigger equals powerful” theory – size zero would definitely signify weak and ineffectual – so possibly Leopold ought to have felt gratified by the artist’s efforts.

Re-entering the streets below, I feel the need for rest and relaxation back at the hotel – by no means assured when my closest neighbours opt for a practise session. It’s a delicate balance for a touring orchestra – when and how to balance rest and practise without driving everyone else mad. The day ends with a delightful Austrian meal in the company of colleagues, every mouthful worth savouring. I opt for the Salzburger Nockerl dessert, which arrives looking not unlike a triple-humped camel. Mercifully it is airy and melts in the mouth. The waiters have a keen sense of humour and banter happily as we switch between Norwegian, English and German. After a little more wine, we find we have settled on a happy blend of all three. A bracing walk back across the river deposits us back in the hotel at an unusually respectable hour. Rehearsal awaits us at ten in the morning. Concert day!

BFO….Residency in Salzburg

Bodil Erdal, Jane Odriozola and Astrid Birkeland (tour leader)

Row 4 on the flight to Salzburg has been dubbed “the Library” – all three of us there are happily engrossed in a book. Well, in my case, it is partly a necessary distraction technique when I fly. The sky is not Jane’s comfort zone. It has been a long day – in fact starting already the previous day with an intense rehearsal. Back home to pack, and a new rehearsal only hours later. Lots of repertoire to get through. The irrepressible and ever cheerful maestro Juanjo Mena is in charge of the baton. Most conductors employ word imagery to get their desired point across, an image designed to give us that lightbulb moment “Oh…YES…you want it played in THAT way…aha…” Mena is one of the more inventive exponents of this technique – curiously it frequently involves farm animals. Once, we were encouraged to deliver our pizzicato notes with the resonance and inevitability of a cow pat being dropped. I like to think we delivered. Today there was again mention of cows – this time in a field watching a train go past. “I love you all,” pronounces the maestro. The affection is mutual.

The end of rehearsal today looked a bit like the Haydn Farewell Symphony – no sooner was one group of instruments done than they were whipped away to be packed down and loaded onto our waiting truck. Humans meanwhile were absorbed onto coaches bound for the airport. Today’s plane is a Czech charter. I hazard a guess that the seating was designed for size zero models. The crew is polite and attentive however, and we gently chill in our various ways. For the Library row, a glass of something cold to accompany the books goes down well. A tentative peek out the window reveals the lights of Austrian habitation. We are travelling into the heart of a Europe currently battling heavy loads of snow. Our instrument truck has quite a mission this time. For the rest of us, some much needed rest tonight and tomorrow, as we prepare to present three concerts to the discerning Salzburg audience.

BFO NEW YEAR CONCERTS………SOGNDAL

Photo by Bodil Erdal

A blossoming of weak sun welcomes us to Sogndal, the painted houses huddling under snow-dusted roofs. Snow is something we see surprisingly little of in Bergen. If it appears, rain soon returns to create a slushy, treacherous mess. Two busloads of musicians begin the routine all over again … stretching of spines, the hunt for room keycards, foraging for food. There’s usually a clock ticking maddeningly in my head on tour, especially on concert days. A constant assessment of time needed for this or that task, when to eat, whether to eat – and how close to concert hour. As well as trying to remember which floor my room is on today. On longer tours, this gets unintentionally entertaining. WHY is my card not working again??!….er…oh right. That was yesterday’s number stuck in my brain.

My refuelling needs are adequately met by the local Italian restaurant, enhanced by lively conversation and an exchange of Norwegian sayings to add to my collection. Today’s find is “ugler i mosen”, or “there are owls in the moss.” I’m told this can be used to convey that “something’s fishy…” Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. The company remains entertaining through coffee and we disperse to prepare ourselves for the evening ahead.

In Sogndal’s Kulturhus, the boys in our crew have been hard at work, unloading instruments as efficiently as ever and making sure the way is paved for a smooth performance. Fresh fruit is being chopped for the break as the harpist begins her tuning routine. I’m quite glad I only have four strings to deal with…. Meanwhile, I’ve come across a bizarre statue of Adam and Eve reaching up for what is obviously their pet cat, who in turn is scrambling higher up towards an apple. Who knew? Not quite sure how to interpret this new version, but I’m glad to see they are cat people. The only tempting going on here seems to be how to entice that cat back down. Fire service, anyone?

The hall is full of bright-eyed (and cheeked) locals. Enthusiasm has gone up a notch even from yesterday and true enough, the reception we get is the warmest yet. The acoustic may be as dry as Bond’s martini, but the audience is firmly on board and we respond accordingly. Our 26 year old conductor is growing daily in confidence – I’m impressed that he is already thinking outside the box. And the soloists are in top form. Dagfinn Rohde in the second violins has been with the BFO since 1977 and is on the cusp of retirement. So it’s a poignant moment when he takes over the baton for a vigorous reading of Strauss’ Radetzky March. I spot our two man coach driver team thoroughly enjoying two central seats and what they admit is a new experience amongst one of our audiences.

We squeeze off the stage, ready to pack down instruments and clothes. Navigating past the enormous travel boxes for basses, I note that our bass players have pared down their dressing routine to the, literally, bare essentials. Why go to find a dressing room when you can simply change in the open case? This is clearly a shrewd move, bearing in mind the equation of large thirsty orchestra equals lengthy bar queue. The rest of us giggle and wriggle out of evening wear within the confines of heaving dressing rooms. It’s a lively celebration back at the hotel and a welcome glass or two. Mission accomplished.

Understandably, the long coach journey home the following morning is a muted affair, punctuated by a few distinct snores. Possibly my own. The scenery, admittedly, is breathtaking enough to drag me onto the top ferry deck…… where I’m well and truly awakened by vicious gusts slapping at my face. I dutifully fill my lungs with Fresh Air. Continued driving takes us ever deeper into a glitteringly harsh Narnia. The frozen river bed looks like a location shot for the flight from the White Witch, and I’m sure I’ve spotted some magical extras lurking in the trees. Real life returns with the comforting click of knitting needles and rustling of sandwich wrappings. Nearing Bergen and the sea, snow vanishes. Home at last, and time to prepare for our fast-approaching Salzburg residency. Snow, Mahler, Mena…..and some rather good coffee! Coming soon….

BFO NEW YEAR CONCERTS….ON THE ROAD

As soon as Christmas has been packed back in its box, the BFO New Year concerts begin in earnest – first in Bergen and then a mini tour out to the districts several hours away. We head first to Førde. Rain lashes the windows of the bus but we are coccooned in warmth, still a little sleepy. Snippets of conversation….the life line of take away coffee … musicians come to life. The rain has turned to sleet. Knitting needles click rhythmically. Lively discussions about instruments, kids, food and drink … all pretty much standard fascination of musicians. Sleet turns into snow.

Martin Winter and Bodil Erdal waiting to go onstage

The countryside out here is wild. Deep, dark fjords and remote villages made accessible by ferries. Impossibly sheer rock faces loom ahead, excluding light from the valley floor. Waterfalls cascade in spectacular torrents. Today all is grey, with a softened misty edge straight out of an illustration by Theodor Kittelsen, one of my favourite Norwegian artists. The light changes, brightening as we enter areas where snow lies more thickly. Ghostly tree outlines emerge. It is all too easy to conjure up the shapes of trolls in trees and rocks. We vanish into yet another tunnel, only to be spat out into even brighter white. The bus tyres judder as they secure a grip. On one smaller lake, an icy skin has already formed, white creeping across the surface. As we cross a bridge, a tiny fjord set in a storybook majestic valley appears. Dwarfed by the peaks, a single farm and two houses huddle close to the water. I wonder each year what life can be like in such remote areas. Random dwellings, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Down yet another winding descent and the ferry awaits, like a beast in its lair on the fjord below. A whole orchestra scrambles for the toilets on board. Priorities, priorities. Emerging then into the familiar aroma common to all Norwegian ferries – hotdogs. Musicians swarm like locusts over coffee and sustenance. We are, incidentally, on one of the latest electric ferries. Very quiet and no nauseating fumes. Another hour on the road brings us to our hotel in Førde, grateful to stretch our legs. Here it is raining hard. In less than three hours, rehearsal starts and I need caffeine. More priorities.

Førdehuset welcomes us once again with an enthusiastic audience who settle back to experience our programme, guided by wine critic and konferansier, Ingvild Tennfjord. The evening is a smooth offering of crowd-pleasers, complete with young stars and our very own Martin Winter on trumpet. Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers always gets them – and I can see the smiles breaking out for the music to Harry Potter. The acoustics are challenging but performance mode soon kicks in. There’s something about this job … something satisfying about being able to bring the joy of live music out to people outside the main cities. They are deeply appreciative and this concert is a highlight of their season. That much I learn from audience conversation as we mingle in the break. Singers Caroline Wettergreen and Hermine Oen sparkle…also literally…and are rewarded with striking scarlet bouquets. Our latest young assistant conductor, Nils Erik Måseidvåg, is a newcomer to these concerts and has acquitted himself impressively well, especially in accompanying the soloists which demands a steady hand and quick reactions. Later this week he will begin prepping us for the arrival of our conductor for the Salzburg tour, Juanjo Mena. For now, we pack away instruments and head back to the hotel. To a celebratory post- concert drink, enjoying the company of colleagues. Then rest. Next stop, Sogndal.

The old and the new….

It’s that time of the year again, as I’m reminded every time I enter a store and the tinny “classics” play on a loop. Scrooge I am not – never said “bah humbug!” in my life. Yet I find I’ve taken a step back…back to the basics. To simple pleasures. I’ve returned to the earliest celebrations of Yuletide this year. The arrival of the Winter Solstice brought me back to nature and bringing it into my home. I’m weary of the glitter, the overly commercialised excess. Celebrating nature and its harvests has deeper meaning than ever in our uncertain and tortured world.

Any decoration has to be of sufficient height to be beyond the reach of Max, resident black cat, companion and Prince of Darkness. This resulted in a slightly fraught afternoon in the approach to Christmas. “Max ….leave it! MAX….no!!” I laid out my sparkly lights on the floor to check they still worked. (Their previous task had been creating atmosphere at my daughter’s wedding…). This was asking too much of Max. I could see him weighing up his options before poking experimentally with a paw. His afternoon was looking up. Unable to have a traditional tree and in line with my wish for simplicity, I instead hung some beautiful hazel branches across the ceiling. Hastily looped with tiny lights, I added birds, snowflakes made of lace, wooden and rustic ornaments….plus an irresistible mouse on skis. The combination is a magical one, comforting in the darkness. Lighting candles is a daily event here….today’s one evokes mulled wine spices. Pine cones, herbs and evergreens are so much more satisfying than tinsel. The ever inventive Max has discovered that his perch on top of the fridge allows full paw extension and a little cautious tweaking of the branches. We have had words about this. I’ve distracted him with some new toys but I’m well aware it has been filed away in his head for future experimentation.

As a child, I envisaged a linear picture of the year. The bit between December 31st and a whole new year represented a massive leap back up to the top of my mind’s calendar. Perhaps that explains my impatience with New Year’s Eve – I am just itching to get it over with and start a fresh year, a fresh page. For us here in the North, that means a whole lot of winter still to come. We can easily get snowfall even in April. But at least the days are gradually getting longer, the darkness of shorter duration. The January sales signal that I can indulge in a tempting pile of fresh notebooks. And maybe even that fountain pen I’ve had my eye on. I enjoy writing first drafts longhand – and of course, daily notebook observations and ideas. Only then do I edit further onto the computer.

Here’s Max, modelling his Christmas scarf. Bless him. I’m getting wise to this New Year’s resolution nonsense, which, like the thought of a January diet, is asking for disappointment and frustration. And I know I have a string of well-intentioned diaries which peter out by the second week in. There is no harm however in a series of modest aims, possibly whispered. Mine, for example, include reading even more widely. At least one residential course with writers I admire. Getting the daily word count up. Telling my sweet tooth No…more often at least. Making the most of my experiences and pushing myself to get out of my comfort zone.

Learning to experience any day as if it were a writer’s exercise involving all the senses throws up so much more detail. Finding a way to encapsulate that multi-sensory detail in words is tantalising and challenges the brain. Thus I’m setting no official goals yet this coming year, but I know what I expect of myself. It’s all about growing, improving, evolving – as a musician, a writer and a human being. December was rather hectic but I spent whatever time I could reading….which has eaten into writing time, as you can see. But – I learned so much! Two books that stood out for me – and here I am recommending them – were Forensics by the brilliant Val McDermid, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. What are you waiting for? Go read!

January will include New Year concerts for me and the BFO, both here in Bergen and on a mini tour where we take them out to other districts. And there will be an exciting residency for us in Salzburg. That’s for starters! Watch this space for tour blog posts. Oh and….Happy New Year from me and Max!

Max….

20170226_015316    Yes….this is usually what greets my eyes when I wake up. The unblinking stare. With the implied pressure to leave my bed. Now. This snooze button doesn’t work. I may try rolling over – just five more minutes – only to receive a stern tap on my cheek. No claws. Yet. Resistance is futile.

Introducing Max, my – er – mewse.  He is the one who validates all that talking out loud when home alone – clearly, I’m talking to him. Glossy and sleek, with probably the longest tail, Max was adopted from the rescue centre three years ago. I’ve always had cats in my life. There’s something very appealing in their ability to live life on their own terms, whilst gracefully bestowing favour on their chosen Subject (me) if they so wish.

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I find I’m something of a cat magnet. Wherever I wander, I generally encounter a cat, which immediately strikes up conversation and winds itself around my legs. This gives Max a kind of bulletin board to examine when I get home. Some cats slip into pose mode (yes, you may take my picture), like this beautiful Neapolitan cat at my holiday villa this year. In fact there were several more house cats, often to be found curled up in plant pots or basking on the terrace. My kind of place.

In the current climate of Mindfulness and Wellbeing, it should be noted how much of a contribution a cat can make in benefiting its human. Max is as good as any app aimed at lowering stress. I don’t need the dreamy voice admonishing me when my mind wanders – I get the Warning Paw Tap. Occasionally with one claw thoughtfully extended. This cat and human Zen-like state can sometimes descend into sleep. Which Max is fine with – cats can sleep an average of 18 hours per day – but could make me late for rehearsal.

Max also seems fine with my writing activity. We admittedly have the odd disagreement over who gets to keep the pen, but he generally sleeps or watches benignly from the window. He tends to passively object if I get into the groove around when he feels dinner should be served. I feel the stare from across the room. The stare arrives with its owner on the arm of my chair. With no response from me, he issues an absurdly dramatic series of heavy sighs. The end of the pen gets smacked. And Max ends up right in the middle of my page. He wins.

20180720_193819  Sometimes we share interests. Cheese, Ferrero Rocher (the papers make the best toys to chase – I get the chocolate) – and David Attenborough.  The Blue Planet has him transfixed and unblinking from the sofa. He’s also keen on news programmes. Who knows what goes on in a cat’s mind? My friends tease me over my assumptions about his thought processes, but whether from learned patterns or instinct, I get the impression that not much gets past him. He’s definitely in tune with my mood. When I’m sad or ill,  he’s there, switching to turbo purr and keeping close. He has a Silly Hour. This is when he takes delight in ambushing me around corners, stalking me whilst my attention is elsewhere or running off with yet another pen. Sometimes I join in the game until he stalks off, triumphant, and I get the giggles.

20180901_150637   I lie on the floor to do some exercises for my back. I’m trying to hold some position my body was not designed for AND remembering to breathe when I catch sight of the face peering down from the sofa. “What,” it clearly says, “are you attempting to do down there?” He rubs salt into the wound by nonchalantly throwing a leg behind his head for some serious washing. Which he does a lot. He keeps his tuxedo-and-bowtie coat in immaculate order. He would fit in nicely at an orchestra concert….

Max has a strange habit of growling – yes, growling- if either my doorbell or phone rings. He tends to be sceptical of strangers. And yet his assessment of my guests tends to be uncannily accurate. People with a special place in my life are awarded his highest accolade – he smells their feet. In detail.

We are cosy together – Max is an expert in “hygge”. After a challenging day applying my brain cells to hundreds of notes on the music stand, the warm and furry welcome from Max is therapeutic. Greetings completed, I am hustled over to the waiting food dish which, according to cat logic, is empty because a small gap has appeared between the biscuits. But after only a few mouthfuls, his curiosity gets the better of him. He has shopping bags to inspect. He’s the perfect model for any cat creeping into my stories. And there’s plenty to observe.

I don’t mind that each year I have to devise an alternative to a Christmas tree. A conventional type in my open plan flat would not survive Max’s enthusiasm. Twinkling lights hanging from the ceiling satisfy my needs. Max and I can admire them from the sofa. Whilst we settle down to some more David Attenborough.