Musical destination: Tromso, Norway
Although deep in the Arctic Circle, Tromso is home to beautiful landscapes, including the Alpine Botanic Gardens. (BBC)
As I’m shown around Tromsø University, I spot that quintessential symbol of studenthood: a bicycle. Or, rather, the handlebars of a bicycle, poking forlornly out of the snow. Presumably, it was parked here before a lecture in late autumn. The owner will be able to ride it again when the snow melts some time in May.
When you live this far within the Arctic Circle – to find Tromsø on a map of Norway, simply go to the very top – making do without your bike for a few months each year is one of those things you learn to live with. Saying ‘goodbye’ to the sun from mid-November to mid-January is another. And, in the bite of an Arctic wind, it really is cold, cold, cold. There are consolations, however. When proper daylight does deign to return, the surrounding mountainscape is spectacular (and, I’m told, excellent for skiing down). And let’s not forget the phenomenon of the famous Northern Lights.
The latter is very much on my agenda during my early-February visit to the, yes, Northern Lights Music Festival. That’s the theory, at least – while the organisers can guarantee music, the appearance of Aurora Borealis will be at the mercy of the atmospheric conditions. On the musical front, my stay takes in evenings in the company of the Racher Saxophone Quartet, jazz’s Henning Gravrok and guitarist John Etheridge, all held in the comfortable if workaday Kulturhuset hall; plus, in the city’s picturesque 19th-century wooden Cathedral (the more photographed ‘Arctic Cathedral’ is in fact a church), there’s an engaging concert from the Nordic Voices choral ensemble with the Norwegian Army Band. Very enjoyable, though I do find myself casting an envious glance at the previous weekend’s programme, when the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra played in front of its home audience.
‘The orchestra covers all of the north of Norway,’ says Christian Lindberg, principal conductor of the Arctic Phil which, founded only in June 2009, proudly boasts the title of the world’s most northernmost professional symphony orchestra. ‘A third of our players are from Tromsø, a third from Bodø and the rest from Harstad and abroad. The players up here are very good and the whole project as such is extremely interesting. It’s about the Arctic at a time when we’re very concerned about the area’s environment as the icebergs start to melt. In that respect it’s fantastic to start a big cultural institution here.’
The subject of the environment is also very much at the heart of the Northern Lights Festival itself. Though details have yet to be finalised, director Ulf Jensen tells me that the 2012 event will include a new work for orchestra and bearded seals – inspired by the latter’s distinctive mating song – that will be performed by the Arctic Sinfonietta and friends at the Polaria Aquarium.
Seal-free, meanwhile, but hugely anticipated is the highlight of 2012: two performances of Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims, courtesy of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. A result of links forged with the Mariinsky, the production is the first ever to have been brought to northern Norway by a foreign company, and a real sign of the area’s cultural intent.
Hopefully in 2012 the Northern Lights themselves might show up too. Despite my hosts’ warning that the extensive cloud cover makes my chances of witnessing Aurora Borealis somewhere close to ‘none at all’, I remain undeterred. In my quest for just a glimpse of that magical green light, I stake myself out for the long haul in a pub, surrounded by fine Norwegian company and equally fine Norwegian beer. Only when the clock ticks past 4am, and all manner of other blurry lights start to crowd into my field of vision, do I admit defeat and stumble back to my hotel. How’s that for dedication?
Five musical highlights
Northern Lights Festival
The 2012 festival runs from 27 Jan to 4 Feb. As well as the Mariinsky’s Rossini Il Viaggio a Reims, performances by fellow Russians, the Smolny Chamber Choir and the Archangel State Chamber Orchestra are also planned.