Scandinavia comes to Oxford this autumn as the Oxford Chamber Music Festival returns with a typically adventurous, eclectic and exciting programme that evokes the fjords and forests of this intriguing corner of the world.
Artistic Director Priya Mitchell has always delighted in springing surprises on her audiences, and there will be plenty of those during the five-day festival.
“It’s music that should be heard and isn’t heard often enough,” says Priya, who founded the festival in 2000. “Apart from Grieg and Sibelius, you don’t really associate chamber music with Scandinavia, but there are all sorts of gems which we’re going to be performing. There’s lots of discoveries to be made.”
The Scandinavian theme certainly offers plenty of scope, and Priya has put together a mouth-watering blend of jazz, folk and classical music, from little-known pieces to classical favourites, interspersed with pre-concert talks, late-night jamming sessions and a composers podium with this year’s composers-in-residence, Daniel Bjarnason and Henning Kraggerud.
The festival opens with a film, Daniel Kutschinski’s 4, in which the French ensemble Quatuor Ebène gives an insight into what it’s like to play in a string quartet.
“It’s a really enlightening, wonderful film,” Priya says. “Quatuor Ebène is probably the greatest quartet alive today. In places the film is hilarious, so it’s very entertaining as well as illuminating.
“Daniel Kutschinski’s going to be there, and there’s going to be a Q&A session afterwards and discussion with various festival musicians, some of whom are in very successful quartets.”
One of the festival highlights is Scandinavian Smorgasbord, a gala concert that celebrates both the familiar and the unfamiliar from Scandinavia’s rich musical outpourings. Alongside Grieg’s popular Holberg Suiteare pieces that may be little known outside Scandinavia.
“One of the highlights of the concert for me is an absolute masterpiece, Attererg’s Suite No.3 for violin, viola and string orchestra,” says Priya. “It is really one of the most beautiful Scandinavian pieces. It is very romantic but with a unique musical language. Nobody really knows him, but he’s a wonderful Swedish composer.
“The Holberg Suite everybody does know, but we’re going to do it in a chamber music interpretation, probably as a nonet.”
Another highlight is a children’s concert at the Sheldonian, which is free to attend and will feature fairy tales, folk songs and Norse readings.
There are further delights for children at Christ Church Cathedral in Magical Forest and the Mountain King, an educational project involving six local schools going on a ‘treasure hunt’ around the cathedral and discovering hidden musicians. The children will get to hear music from Grieg classic Peer Gyntas well as pieces by Telemann, Nielsen and others.
Priya hopes that young people will also be interested in coming to the festival finale, Yggdrasil: The Tree of Life, which takes inspiration from the Norse legend of Yggdrasil to celebrate our connection with the ecosystem. The concert is in support of Swedish eco warrior Greta Thunberg and XR.
Music will include folk improvisations around ancient Swedish ballads, Finnish tango and Danish folk tunes, as well as – incongruously – Schubert’s Octet in F major.
“Every year I have one joker piece, nothing to do with the festival theme,” Priya explains. “This year it’s the Schubert Octet. But the second half is a folk celebration, with some Norse readings for the adults!”
There are several ‘firsts’ at the festival this year – including a jazz evening at the SJE with Norway’s Tord Gustavsen Trio, the festival’s debut at Convocation House in the Bodleian Library and some UK premieres.
Of Tord Gustavsen Priya says: “These guys are one of the world’s leading jazz piano trios. They transport you to a certain place, a very reflective place. You enter that world and you stay there, and it’s a very beautiful place to be. So I really recommend that to jazz lovers.
“My hope is that people will come to that, feel the spirit of the festival and want to come to hear some classical music as well if they’ve never listened to classical music before.”
Convocation House, with its extraordinary fan-vaulted ceiling, was Charles II’s parliamentary headquarters during the Civil War. It now becomes the backdrop for OCMF’s Arctic Circles, which makes connections between the circles of time. Music includes Halvorsen’sPassacaglia in G minorfor violin and viola on a theme by Handel, Dowland’s The King of Denmark’s Galliard, Svendsen’s String Octet in A major, Brustad’s Three capricciand more.
In 1886: A Scandinavian Love Story, Norwegian violinist and composer-in-residence Henning Kraggerud tells a true love story with words interwoven with the music of Grieg, Brahms and Franck – and there is a surprise with the UK premiere of Svendsen’s one-minute musical love letter.
There are more UK premieres in Equinox, in which Kraggerud and Sophie’s World author Jostein Gaarder collaborate in an exploration of musical keys and their links to time and space.
Other unmissable concerts include Malinconia: Dark Lands, with pieces by Grieg and Sibelius; Voces Intimae, a folk-themed evening that pairs Schubert’s Piano Trio No.2 in E flat majorwith Berg’s folk-song setting Se Solen sjunker’, on which Schubert based the second movement of his trio; and Midnight Sun, a late-night concert featuring Sibelius, Brahms and Shostakovich.