With a festival that boasts the pick of today’s musicians, this bustling coastal city is a destination that should be on every chamber music-lover’s list.

You’d expect one of the busiest festival cities in Europe to be somewhere like Stockholm or Berlin, Paris or London. Not the tiny city of Stavanger hidden away on the south-west Norwegian coast. Small it might be, but Stavanger is a city of startling variety, from its beautiful 19th-century Old Town of white wooden cottages, and vibrant, colourful waterside with its bars and glamorous shops, to a stateof- the-art concert hall, fine arts museum and breathtaking 12th-century cathedral – the oldest in Norway. All of which makes it the perfect festival hub: the city is certainly not wanting for venues… And that’s why Stavanger is home to more than ten annual celebrations of jazz, comedy, folk music, rock and more, mostly held during the summer months. At the heart of its season is an enticing chamber festival that has become a major destination for serious music lovers.

The Stavanger International Chamber Music Festival (ICMF) is well established – founded in 1991 by cellist Truls Mørk and a few local volunteers, it’s become an important port of call for many of today’s better-known musicians who clearly love the festival’s sense of camaraderie, its loyal audiences and Stavanger’s pride at having planted itself firmly on the classical music map. When I attend in 2010, the programme boasts, among others, cellist Pieter Wispelwey, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianists Shai Wosner and Kathryn Stott. A chat with Stott after her concert at Utstein Abbey, one of two staged outside Stavanger itself, suggests she revels in playing with old and new friends – just as important for her as the music-making itself. ‘What I love about this festival is that I get the chance to meet new people that you know about, but that suddenly you have to play with. And people that I haven’t seen in ages – like cellist Torleif Thedéen. I met him 12 years ago here in Stavanger but, although we stayed in touch, we haven’t played together again since. Until now, of course.

Charged with ensuring that this artistic ‘chemistry’ works well are two enthusiastic young musician directors – both new to the ICMF – who lend the festival a sense of intimacy and surprise. Christian Ihle Hadland (see box, left), is a fine pianist who plays in more than ten of the 22 concerts on offer including several late-night performances in the cathedral. And Oslobased clarinettist Martin Fröst brings his own sense of fun to the party. ‘We wanted to create this atmosphere of people knowing that something incredibly exciting was happening – something that they just have to go to’, says Hadland. ‘And we wanted to experiment with new venues too. Festivals can too easily slip into the comfort zone.’

No danger of that in Stavanger, if Fröst has anything to do with it. When I visited his festival in Mora, Sweden a few years ago, I found myself at a clarinet recital in a car garage, of all places. And so, on a sunny Saturday morning in Stavanger, I’m standing waiting for the lift to take me to the top of a concrete tower. Not just any old concrete tower, but the Jåttåvågen or Leaning Tower, built by oil contractors to prove their mastery of building offshore platforms. And, it turns out, of building a rather nice recital venue too, the perfect space for a concert of Bach solo cello music, accompanied by some spectacular views of the Norwegian coastline.

Waiting for the lift to the top means the audience gets to know each other, creating a sense of community. As does ‘Christian’s Corner’, another Mora import, in which the festival’s musicians don their party gear for an evening of cabaret and general silliness. A superb idea, although I’m not sure I’ll ever view violist (and countertenor, it seems) Maxim Rysanov in the same way again… This year’s ICMF runs from 8-14 August.

Five musical highlights

Vilde Frang
The 2011 ICMF’s opening concert on 8 Aug features the talented violinist (right) performing Mozart with Christian Ihle Hadland; plus oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk in Poulenc and cellist Jean- Guihen Queyras playing Shostakovich.

Anthony Marwood
The British violinist is joined by Martin Fröst, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Christian Ihle Hadland for a performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time in the beautiful 19th-century St Petri church.

Fröst, Ihle and friends
Festival artists and audience unite for an unprogrammed evening of comedy sketches, solo pieces and fine food, hosted by the ICMF’s artistic directors at the city’s student venue, the Folken. (www.icmf.no)

Steve Reich
The American minimalist joins the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra on 11 September as part of the city’s Numusic Festival. The programme, which includes music by Reich, is yet to be announced. (www.numusic.no)

Stavanger’s oldest festival attracts such luminaries as Vince Mendoza and Herbie Hancock. This year’s line-up, which is taking place at the moment, includes singers Madeleine Peyroux and Silje Nergaard plus drummer and songwriter Manu Katché. (www.maijazz.no).


The article 'Musical Destinations: Stavanger, Norway' was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.