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.
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.
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
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.’
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.
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.
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
Formed only last
year, the company’s
highlight for 2012 is a production of Puccini’s La bohème in April and May,
conducted by Christian Lindberg and featuring the players of the Arctic Phil in
Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra
Given the tricky logistics of getting its far-flung players together, the
performances at Tromsø’s Kulturhuset are relatively few and far between but, on
the evidence so far, well worth hearing.
Tromsø Chamber Orchestra
Formerly the Tromsø Symphony Orchestra, this ensemble recently downsized to become
northern Norway’s only professional chamber orchestra and performs regularly
both in the city and across the region.
Top of the World
This bi-annual international piano competition for players under 35 was founded in 2009 and
in 2011 offered a not-to-besniffed- at $30,000 first prize, won by Alberto Nosé
(above) of Italy. The next competition takes place from 24 to 29 June 2013.
The article 'Musical destination: Tromso, Norway' was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.