Tonight, all eyes are on Malmö – Sweden’s third city and one Danes like to think of as a suburb of Copenhagen.

Forget about Sweden…Malmö’s great because of the sizeable add-on it brings to the Danish capital’s culture life. You can watch an opera in Malmö and be home in bed in Copenhagen – in another country – well before midnight. Copenhagen has all the musical trappings of a major European capital (two opera houses, three symphony orchestras, two conservatories, early music ensembles, radio choirs etc). Malmö adds to that a symphony orchestra, conservatory and opera house with its own full-time chorus and orchestra. It has a beautiful new concert hall in Malmö Live and its Mid-Century opera house from 1946, designed by Sigurd Lewerentz, is a functionalist masterpiece.

These seven fine performances from both buildings spring to mind.

  1. Malmö Opera: Pelléas et Mélisande (2016)
Marc Maullon and Jenny Daviet in Malmö Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande

One of the first main-stage shows I saw at Malmö Opera. Benjamin Lazar’s production was well sung, very well conducted (by Maxime Pascal, chief conductor at the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra from this summer) and beautifully designed and costumed in a sort of 1970s paradigm…tout un monde lointain. It was taped for DVD.

  • 2. Malmö Opera: De Vliegende Hollander (2019)
Cornelia Beskow as Senta in Malmö Opera’s De Vliegende Hollander

In Lotte de Beer’s 2019 staging of Wagner’s opera in Malmö, the character of Senta was portrayed not as the Norwegian village’s misfit loner but as a visionary artist, prone to creating daemonic, progressive canvases in black oils (an Ibsen-like figure in more ways than one). When the Dutchman arrived, all Senta needed do to prove their symbiosis was paint with him. Senta was powerfully sung by Cornelia Beskow, one of the ‘golden cohort’ to emerge from the Royal Danish Opera Academy in the early 2010s (alongside Lise Davidsen and Sofie Elkjær Jensen).

  • 3. Malmö Symphony Orchestra: Trevino’s Opening Concert (2019)
Robert Trevino opening his tenure at the Malmö Symphony Orchestra

On 12 September 2019, Robert Trevino presided over his first concert as chief conductor of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. He chose an exact replica of Simon Rattle’s opening concert at the Berliner Philharmoniker: Asyla by Thomas Adès and Mahler’s Symphony No 5. Sometimes, it’s better to hear an orchestra straining and almost bursting to play a difficult Mahler symphony than it is to hear an orchestra that knows the score like the back of its hand. It was hard not to get swept up in the ambition and intent of Trevino’s opening concert…and in how seriously the good folk of Malmö took it.

  • 4. Malmö Opera: La Traviata (2018)
Patricia Petibon sings her first Violetta in Olivier Py’s La Traviata for Malmö Opera

Malmö Opera scored a bit of a coup in 2018, luring the French coloratura soprano Patricia Petibon to the house to sing her first Violetta. I wrote at the time for Opera News: ‘the soprano’s superlative vocal acting and unique way with special effects enabled her to find richer, deeper colors [sic] while at the same time plotting the progress of the fatal illness taking hold of her body.’ The day-of-the-dead symbolism in Olivier Py’s production was entertaining but laid on with a trowel.

  • 5. Malmö Symphony Orchestra: Dvořák 7
Alondra del a Parra (Felix Broede)

Malmö Symphony Orchestra opened its 2021-22 season with a performance of Dvořák’s superlative Symphony No 7 under Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra, a musician I’m always intrigued to hear. Yes, it’s a cliché to talk about Central and South American conductors having a heightened sense of rhythm, but Alondra kicked and swung this symphony (in which rhythm is all-important) into action with real panache. I was on the edge of my seat for almost all of it.

  • 6. Malmö Opera: Turandot (2024)
Sofia Jupither’s production of Turandot for Malmö Opera (Jonas Persson)

I loved this – a deeply progressive production in traditional clothing, and one that proved devastatingly moving (you can read my review for Opera Now here). But it was notable for its musical achievement under Daniel Carter: probably the subtlest, most nuanced and most idiosyncratic performance I have heard from this company, and of a very tricky score (the chorus, in particular, was outstanding). The entire run, in Sweden’s biggest theatre, was sold out.

  • 7. Malmö Opera/Skånes Dansteater: Mozart Requiem (2019)

This was extraordinarily moving. I can rarely find the words to critique the most effective contemporary dance productions, and why I find them so. The choreography was by Örjan Andersson; the chorus of Malmö Opera merged with the dancers of Skånes Dansteater. I found almost every movement so umbilically connected to the Mozart and so very redolent of something in my own life I couldn’t express (and clearly can’t here).

Andrew Mellor


Elgar on the Øresund

The past is a foreign country. Literally, for some of us. When you move abroad, you learn as much about the territory you leave as the one you adopt. In the nine years I’ve lived in Denmark, the two composers whose profiles have shifted most radically in my comprehension of music history are Bach and Elgar. The latter’s music meant something different to me during my 34 years in England. Now I’m hearing it with more perspective while getting, I feel, closer to its essence.

More and more, Elgar, to me, is Britain – not in its tattered imperial glory but in its wild contradictions, compelling energy and indiscriminate diversity. Elgar’s music seems to strive perpetually to grasp the essence of the nation’s soul – a task in which it has to almost-fail in order to speak the truth so poignantly and movingly. Elgar’s symphonies astonish me. Their relevance is writ large – able to acutely sound-track twenty-first century urban life in a European capital while still communicating that sense of a Britain constantly upending and contorting itself in search of sense and sensibility.

The Second is hands down the greatest symphonic work my country of birth has produced. I hear it now as an absolutely European symphony by a British citizen interested in Englishness – integral and lucid (if unusual) in its form but whose astonishing, writhing and churning vertical complexities and descriptive hysteria are more connected to the Second Viennese School than anything pastoral, imperial or even particularly noble. There’s more whiplash than whimsy in the piece and barely any room for reflection that isn’t ultimately gazumped by emotional outpouring. It sounds, to my ears, a million miles from Vaughan Williams in the ferocity and industry of its argumentation.

For a handful of reasons, it was odd and intriguing to see Marie Jacquot conduct the work with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra on 21 March. This is ground not well-trodden by French conductors nor Nordic orchestras, though the DNSO gave a remarkable performance of Elgar’s First under Vasily Petrenko in 2018 – the last time they played an Elgar symphony, and the first time for many in the orchestra.

More unusually, Jacquot is designated Principal Conductor elsewhere in Copenhagen – at the Royal Theatre and Royal Danish Orchestra, where she starts her tenure in August. She paired Elgar’s Second with music you’d presume was conceived not to work her arms too hard before the interval (but which, from where I was sitting, actually did): Mozart’s Gran Partita, traversed with unerring alertness to shape and line by a posse of DNSO principals.

Danes still see Elgar as representative of imperial England. That’s as much about the here-and-now as anything historical, as a socially flat Nordic society looks west, nonplussed, to a country still skewed by class and status and perennially confused as to its place in the world. Even in England, some hear Elgar as a poster-boy for everything unfashionable – dead values that were only ever valuable to a few. I hear his symphonies as radically progressive and ever-contemporary: torn, outspoken, embracing, terrifying, tender and loving, And more connected to the identity-confusion of the British than ever. They are surely as emotionally open as Tchaikovsky’s, if consciously and poignantly stilted by that very English inability to be direct (surely the point, in the First at least). Elgar over-shares as much as he conceals. He is as disarmingly emotionally damaged as the rest of them.

Jacquot’s performance of the Second took the music’s vertical complexity seriously but within what was a determinedly horizontal, linear reading – an onward-pressing journey she likened, in an interview on the live radio broadcast of the concert, to a train ride. One of the radio announcers talked of Elgar’s bicycle Mr Phoebus. A few weeks later I talked to that announcer, Esben Tange, about the symphony’s straining opening unison as if it were the moment a bike teeters at the top of a hill before whooshing down it (on the broadcast, Esben made a remark about the British not being willing to cycle in the rain – naturally).

Marie Jacquot conducts Elgar with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Most in Copenhagen have only ever ‘seen’ Jacquot conduct in the pits of the city’s two opera houses – largely invisibly. She was born in Paris, raised in Chartres and trained in Austria and Germany, serving two Kapellmeisterships before assisting Kirill Petrenko at the Bavarian State Opera and suddenly springing to attention. She is Principal Guest Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and is soon to take the top job at the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, which she will combine with her new post in Copenhagen. In the concert hall, her gestural language was strikingly impressive – as refined and judicious as the young Vladimir Jurowski’s (who once described Elgar to me as ‘an unconscious plagiarist of Brahms’ and vowed he would never conduct any; he went on to record the Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti).

Jacquot took each episode as it came but let musical logic feed surely into a sense of cumulative power, while springing those moments of orchestral panache off the page (the final bars of the first and third movements, notably). The radio broadcast gives you a more forensic view of how she dealt with inner complexities and harboured contrasting energies in service of intimacy and spontaneity.

It was, to summarise, a fluent and literate first performance of the symphony from the conductor, full of musicality and with a degree of flair that to my mind is absolutely necessary in this music. Even listening again online, I find it a far more successful account than that from another über-central European conductor: Daniel Barenboim, with the Staatskapelle Berlin (though Barenboim’s First is brilliant, and essays I think, everything I am trying to say here).

The bigger picture is that of the work’s colossal emotional residue. A colleague in London listened to the broadcast of Jacquot’s performance and found it too noblimente and long-breathed, with a ‘strenuous simulation of Edwardian moustache and steak-and-kidney.’ He was probably talking about the Larghetto, which I found the most affecting of all in Jacquot’s capturing of the catch in Elgar’s emotional composure – the wave-form of his social nausea.

As an expatriated Englishman in Lutheran Europe, I hear those things differently now – as a marriage of what Elgar referred to as the ‘passionate pilgrimage of the soul’ to the emotional comedown of withdrawal from all that you know and all that made you. Britain’s idea of itself hasn’t been getting any less fragile since the social upheavals of the first decade of the 1900s when Elgar wrote the piece. We know parts of the score were inspired by Venice. I hear the composer looking to Europe in more ways besides. Perhaps, in so doing, he was underlining his ambivalent attitude to the England he found so hard to love by putting that England in a frame – in parentheses. That might be one reason I have found the piece so devastating on every hearing since 2015 (make that 2016).

Five weeks later on 25 April, at the opposite end of the Øresund Bridge separating Denmark from Sweden, the Malmö Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of Elgar’s Symphony No 1. It was to have been conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, but a little over a week in advance we were informed that Davis was unwell, and that Martyn Brabbins would take his place. Five days before the concert, Davis died at home in Chicago.

Martyn Brabbins conducts Elgar with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra (Emma Larsson)

Like many, I had my first live taste of this symphony under Davis’s baton – in my case, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in 2006. It felt doubly strange – an echo of all my Elgar-related disorientation about displacement, outsider-status and so on – that the first concert Davis should have conducted since his death was taking place on my doorstep.

This was a muted performance but for the symphony’s final bars, which felt charged with an unusual sense of eruption. That’s in the score: a symphony nominally in A flat major that’s really in D, in which the final (re)blossoming A flat major opens up an astonishing new sonic vista. It also includes what is surely the most irregular musical gesture of Elgar’s oeuvre, when the processional theme returns, and the strings throw themselves at it with erratic fury – expressing a sort of volcanic, almost desparate optimism that puts me in mind of suffragettes throwing themselves under horses; the ultimate sacrifice to hasten the better future we know is coming.

It felt like even more of an eruption in Malmö given the rest of the performance had been so smooth – far less animated than either Petrenko’s or Jacquot’s Elgar at the other end of the bridge. I came to Malmö almost-fresh from the Malko Competition in Copenhagen and was reminded yet again that an orchestra’s sound is rooted in what it sees: in Brabbins’s case, a stern but understated physical presence, feet often rooted in position, in contrast to the prudent agility of the former competitive tennis player Jacquot and with a more limited and conventional gestural range. The pay off was structural nous and a deep sense of care, delicacy even, with the way the motto was carried through to the end – more fragile than noble, which seemed right for our times. The end of the Adagio was whispered in the sort of true pianissimo you can wait months to hear. I have never heard the Malmö strings better – nor the entire orchestra, in fact.

This is a symphony about the ‘wide experience of human life’, in Elgar’s words, and perhaps Brabbins’s performance served as a reminder to us narcissist millennials that it might not be our life we’re hearing about. I admired Brabbins’s effort to unify Elgar’s symphony under a simmering legato even if I would have preferred something else. For what it’s worth, he did mine impressively contrasting and vivid colours in Ingvar Lidholm’s Ligeti-influenced Kontaktion from 1979, which was played with a combination of slab-smoothness and vivid colours that’s hard to bring off. Delius’s The Walk to the Paradise Garden was more like his precious-object-carrying Elgar.  

Concertmaster Marika Fältskog and conductor Martyn Brabbins (Emma Larsson)

Ultimately, Brabbins’s Elgar felt a little too English to my now-European ears – veiled by the sort of standoffish politeness that so often misfires in the northern quarters of the continental mainland, especially around the Baltic Sea, even if the British conductor was careful not to over-egg that noblimente that others heard in Jacquot’s Second.

Then again, Sir Adrian Boult’s Elgar (live performances, at least) were always imbued with that radical edge and savage loneliness – with something near Jacquot’s sense of what Elgar himself called ‘the mighty engine’ of the orchestra, which meant the symphonic Elgar could never be considered imperial or even particularly ‘establishment’ whatever the orientation of the man who wrote it. Elgar may still have much to tell us about England – not least about an England perennially unable to cope with the new way of things and certainly unable to cope with art. Perhaps that’s why we’d do well not to consider his music all that English anymore, even if Elgar himself most certainly was – through and through. AM

Listen to the DNSO’s Elgar 2 under Marie Jacquot

Listen to the Malmö Symphony Orchestra’s Elgar 1 under Martyn Brabbins (link coming soon)


Seeing Johnson in Ourselves

For plenty of former public schoolboys like me, it was impossible to witness Boris Johnson’s antics as Prime Minister and not see glimpses of ourselves

[I wrote this for a national in 2020, but the pandemic struck and it never got published. I didn’t know what to do with it – partly as it’s a little too revealing and personal; partly as Johnson is history. But I stumbled upon it recently, and it reads okay and speaks the truth.]

Single-sex boarding schools bestow plenty of unwanted gifts upon their inmates, even if there are some I wouldn’t give up for anything – among them a bond with my immediate contemporaries that’s the strongest I know outside family. Last weekend, two decades after we walked out of a private school in the south west of England for the last time, I had a visit from one of the five men I grew up with there, cheek-by-jowl, for six years.

Oliver now lives in Los Angeles. I live in Copenhagen. Over dinner in a restaurant the conversation turned – as it always does – to school. Same old same old; looking to absolve ourselves of guilt with eye rolling and head shaking, while benefitting from the release of just talking about it. About the overt homophobia and racism, the ritual bullying, the willing assassination of characters already so fragile in their half-formed state.

After our A Levels in 1999, I ignored an offer from a prestigious university I knew would be rife with people just like me, and went instead to study in Liverpool – a naïve bid to see something of the real world and its inhabitants (I can hardly believe I had the foresight). For many of us, university was a cleansing experience after the pressure-cooker of a single-sex boarding school – a clean break in a domain free from the daily grind of Project Survival and the tangle of hierarchies. After that, as wounds began to heal and strong bonds proved too valuable to cast adrift, we started to seek each other out again.

We talk often about the types of men our school created, but events of the past few years have rammed home lessons we hadn’t seen coming. Oliver and I are in happy relationships, probably for the first time in our lives. After too many years in the wilderness, we are settled and fortunate. That has helped us see the wood for the trees, but so has the rise of Boris Johnson – a man whose demeanor represents so much of what I have come to detest about the person I was at school, and in the years that followed.

By the late 2000s, Oliver and I were in London – single, free from serious responsibility, enjoying the low-rent party scene in Finsbury Park and the cheap corners of Soho. Hopelessly inexperienced despite a decade out of quarantine from women, we got by in much the same way Johnson does now: with baseless, flailing charm, a total misunderstanding of other people’s priorities and an extraordinary ability to inadvertently insult those we secretly wanted to resemble (or sleep with). Liverpool had made some difference, but not enough.

It was a vulnerable, shy arrogance that carried us through – a belief not so much in ourselves as in our prestigious and unorthodox background. We weren’t bankers or lawyers; we worked in art and culture. That was part of our shtick. We deployed our artistic credentials and fringe tastes in much the way Johnson does his Kipling poems and Grecian busts. It was proof that we were different, broad-minded, thinking. Proof that we wielded some hereditary moral power, however amoral our behavior. The only problem was a gaping chasm between the indiscriminate wisdom of the arts we liked to discuss and the cliquey, brainless and borderline misogynistic way in which we went about our lives.

What saddens me most about Johnson, and truly speaks of the isolation of the public schoolboy in the real world, is the hum of defensive politeness he emits whenever he finds himself around normal people. In Johnson, it is inbred and perhaps even involuntary – the white noise of one terrified he’s not going to please or impress. It was the same for Oliver and me. There we were, in the kitchen of a house party in Holloway Road, all faux-polite and deferential while firing off jealous barbs under the veneer of baseless charm. More often than not, the anesthetizing effects of alcohol saved us when things got sticky.

In our new countries, we have learned the truth about that cloying politeness – Oliver in a California where it is accepted as entirely necessary fakery; me in a Denmark where it simply doesn’t exist and never could. For products of the English private school system blessed neither with social brilliance nor an overriding arrogance, that politeness was always a millstone. It is a joy to be rid of it – or getting there, at least.

In the early 2010s, Oliver and I had sensed that the world was changing – that people didn’t judge you on various definitions of strength or wit, as they had at school, and that we might not have to keep up the act anymore. One Saturday night, Oliver’s Finnish housemate who sometimes joined us on a night out abruptly announced she’d rather hang out with the nerdy German guy who lived in the attic, the butt of many of our jokes. ‘He’s got his shit together’, she said. ‘You guys…well, you’re a bit pathetic, aren’t you?’ It took minutes, not hours, for the penny to drop.

And then, apparently in the blink of an eye, the public schoolboys were back in charge. At the 2015 election, one of our cohort from school was elected to parliament as a Conservative. That apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree, but he was always a man with the confidence to control the room and with a charm that felt more genuine, however dubious the motives and strong-arming the techniques. Now a Minister with a tough brief [still, in 2024], he endears himself to me far more on the Today programme than he did at school.

Johnson is different. Looking so out of his depth and childish as PM, he reminded me so uncannily of my graduate self: foundering in an industry dominated by women and in a world that expected more than a crass joke or obscure literary reference for discourse. With the benefit of Johnson’s prominence – and a little geographical perspective – perhaps Oliver and I have learned what it was in us that the downsides of the English public school system created, and how to grow into our natural selves. The parallel universe of politics has afforded Johnson no such opportunity.


An Orchestra at 575

Attempting to fathom the sonic depths of an orchestra established in 1448 is a huge challenge, a stimulating joy and certainly a work-in-progress

Not all orchestras sound the same. Last night in Copenhagen, the Royal Danish Orchestra celebrated 575 years – the oldest orchestral institution in the world by some distance. At this point I want to write “truly, it is the Vienna Philharmonic of the North”. Well, to some degree it is. But the wonder of the Royal Danish Orchestra is that, really, it sounds like no other orchestra on earth.

I’ve expended plenteous thought calories trying to describe the orchestra’s very particular sound since I first heard it play live in 2005, never really doing it justice. I suppose that’s the Sisyphean challenge (and privilege) of music criticism.

In this, its jubilee year, three different institutions asked me to write about the orchestra and its sound culture in detail. One was a record label, another a magazine, and the third the Royal Danish Theatre itself – a humbling assignment.

There and elsewhere, you can read about the orchestra’s history – its instruments collected down the years, the litany of significant former members (Dowland, Schütz, Nielsen) and guest conductors (Kleiber, Walter, Knappertsbusch, Monteux, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ormandy, Kubelik, Barbirolli, Solti, Bernstein, Barenboim, Boulez, Jansons…). There are a few pages in The Northern Silence on Sir Simon Rattle’s remarkable concert with the orchestra in 2013.

When last night’s concert is broadcast on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s P2 channel tonight, you can hear me talk briefly to presenter Rie Koch in the interval about some of the tangible elements that contribute to the orchestra’s distinctive sound – its feline brass, forward winds and soft-attacking strings (the latter two characteristics long associated with the Vienna Philharmonic).

We recorded the interview just before the concert began. As the music got going, I couldn’t resist but scribble down some more thoughts on what we were hearing. The opera house was pretty much full and there was that crackle of atmosphere you always hope will materialise at such events. A family in the row behind me had travelled en masse all the way from Mumbai to hear the orchestra.

Gábor Takács-Nagy and the Royal Danish Orchestra accept applause after the ensemble’s 575th anniversary concert at the Copenhagen Opera House, 28.9.23

But there wasn’t much sense of the Royal Danish Theatre expending a great deal to celebrate its crown jewel beyond a valedictory glitter canon. Nor did the programme scream ‘jubilee’: no new commission, no Danish music and a conductor making his debut.

Still…this was, I think, one of the more exceptional performances I have heard from this wondrous ensemble – one in which it seemed entirely happy in itself (it doesn’t always).

The programme allowed it to fly. Conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy is steeped in the central European sound culture that the Royal Danish Orchestra has always erred towards. He brought with him a calorific menu whose first two works referenced the orchestra’s history. Leopold Stokowski conducted his own arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue BWV565 with the orchestra in Copenhagen in 1939. Schoenberg, whose arrangement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet Op 25 was played next, conducted the orchestra later in the century.

Both pieces have their tongue in their cheek: Stokowski’s inflated Bach asks an orchestra to do ridiculous things in disguising a devotional organ piece as an entertainment; Brahms’s quartet was bonkers even before Schoenberg got to it, adding a symphony orchestra with a squadron of steampunk percussion.

Takács-Nagy, who clearly had the orchestra in his thrall, wanted expressionistic playing and got it – right from the wall-of-sound string tone at the opening of the Bach/Stokowski.

Why the piece worked here, was surely the meeting of the Royal Danish Orchestra’s extraordinary swell – those strings, radiating before they throttle up – with Stokowski’s concept of a piece that can create its own acoustic in defiance of the one it’s being played in. I can’t think of another orchestra in the Nordic region that could generate that colossal weave of sound…could the Dresden Staatskapelle, even?

Again, in defiance of the opera house’s relatively dry acoustic, we heard a performance of the Brahms/Schoenberg so red-blooded that it threatened to be cartoonish.

Then the detail: the Andante’s soaring legato string melody mustering warmth by increments until we heard those forward winds weaving around underneath and inside it; the brittle, headstrong march that Schoenberg punctuates with trumpet and percussion, erupting Ives-like from the rear; double-basses powering much of the discourse from below but with articulation as well as weight. If you needed a reminder that this is a storytelling opera orchestra, it was there in the rapidly changing masks of the Rondo alla zingarese

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra allowed for a dual celebration of the orchestra’s sections and of its Hungarian conductor for the evening. The early duet between concertmaster Tobias Sneh Durholm and principal cello Joel Laakso showed us an X-Ray image of that distinctive grain in the orchestra’s strings. It proved an amuse-bouche for the passage in the Intermezzo when Bartók’s violas pick out out a nationalist tune lifted from The Merry Widow, joined quickly by their brethren in the higher strings. It filled the room here, the sound noble and humanitarian but with exceptional strength of will – an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Most remarkable in the Bartók were the brass. Their sophisticated sense of blend, which can be creamy or febrile, might have its origins in principal trombone for nearly 40 years from 1905 Anton Hansen, who cultivated a wider section sound so admired by Jean Sibelius. It proved its modern sensibilities here, retaining the slightest sense of central European fizz where needed (notably from horns) but lined with brilliance and underpinned by agility.

Virtuosity and slickness are not this orchestra’s watchwords, even though it has the technique. Instead, it seems to approach music from the other side – as a horizontal art, not a vertical one. There were no clouds of dust whipped up in the final pages of the Bartók (for one thing, the opera house acoustic doesn’t allow it). The pictures were deeper and more musical – sometimes with a little roughness, some sand in the oyster. Whatever it is, this is an orchestra of the theatre.



I finally made it to Savonlinna. Five young women from England wanted to know what I was wearing. Thankfully nobody at the opera festival cared.

A decade ago, relatively inexperienced and hungry for work, I was asked to interview the outgoing Artistic Director of Finland’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. It was an external commission from a client I wanted to please. I made noises over email to obscure the fact I hadn’t actually been to Savonlinna (though I didn’t lie). After many hours of preparatory research, it felt like I had.

Now, I actually have. Last week, on 6 July, I was dumped abruptly near Savonlinna by a non-liveried Saab 340, one of only five passengers on board. Having topped up that research of a decade ago and re-read the interview transcript, the place was pretty much as I’d been picturing it. Perhaps there was a touch more of both the idyllic (the castle and coast) and the drab (the city) about it. Beyond that, it simply felt magnificent to be back in in Finland – as it always does. That’s a feeling I have never quite managed to rationalise.

Medieval Castle opera in Finland is a far cry from Country House opera in England. Nobody cares what you’re wearing. The auditorium is huge – the capacity approaches that of the Royal Festival Hall – and attention is rapt. In an interview two hours after I arrived, current Artistic Director Ville Matvejeff asserted that Savonlinna sees itself as the most prestigious opera stage in the country. It has the advantage (over the Finnish National Opera) of a short one-month summer run to be able to book stars – one usually tops the bill each year, Lisette Oropesa for 2023 – and employ a colossal chorus of 72. My interview with Matvejeff, with words from others and an analysis of where Savonlinna sits 111 years on from the first operatic performance inside the castle, will run in a future issue of Opera Now.

On my second day in Savonlinna, I was swallowed-up by a group of five British wellness and travel journalists. They were on a Visit Finland-sponsored press trip staying at Pihlas Resort – a high-end ‘eco-luxury’ spa and hotel in the Lakeland area of Saimaa, about an hour’s drive from Savonlinna.

With the festival’s Head of Communications, Sonja, I met these five women off a minibus. Sonja then proceeded to give us a backstage tour of the castle that hosts the opera, Olavinlinna (‘backstage’ = the bits of the castle sufficiently free of the general public to be crammed with the apparatus required for large-scale opera). Next we climbed aboard an elegant double-decked steamboat, which padded around Finland’s biggest lake as we were served savoury tapas and Aperol. Three hours later the boat dropped us at a concealed jetty at the back of the castle-island, from which we could sneak into the auditorium/courtyard via the orchestra pit, and take our seats.

It was a breath of fresh air, on the boat, to listen to these journalists from my homeland (and Sonja) – marooned as I am in northern European climes where social conventions and conversational rhythms are so different.

Then, a short way into the boat trip, it started – a familiar trope. ‘We’ve decided: we’re all moving to Finland,’ one of the women proffered, to general good-humoured agreement. ‘I feel my whole body has kind of gone down a few gears…like I can breath again,’ said another, who had made the journey from Fulham (she actually said this happened the moment she was embraced by the cool white-grey of a Finnair cabin on the tarmac at Heathrow).

This took me back to my first extended visit to Finland in 2007, when I tramped heavy-hearted back to London from Kuhmo, absolutely convinced that the only reasonable course of action to reclaim what looked like a grim future was to lay foundations for a permanent move to Finland.

Part of that is the buzz of a press trip, when you’re working without working (not something that’s possible these days – not for me, at least). Part of it was the obvious effect of Finland’s flat lakes and forests, its ever-present horizon. Much of it, I suspect, was the realisation, among these five young women, that the Finns they were encountering lived their lives in a way that contrasted hugely with daily grind in London, Birmingham and elsewhere.

Is the ‘lets’s move to Finland’ line a figure of speech, an impossible dream, or a rational and realisable objective? After Brexit and the pandemic, it’s demonstrably harder than before. But it was a tough enough proposition for a single British man, and even more a single British woman, back in 2007 – or even in 2015, when I made the move to Copenhagen. ‘Have you found it difficult to integrate in Denmark?’ Sonja asked me on my first night in Savonlinna. I took a while to answer before conceding that yes, on balance I have, but that the circumstances mean those difficulties haven’t affected me all that markedly. Settling in Finland, with a language that bit harder to master, a climate that bit more brutal and a capital city that bit further off the beaten track, would be a very different proposition. Still, I know brave people – including two from London – who have done it.

I often wonder why more people don’t move to countries with which they feel attuned, to which they feel more politically aligned, and whose creative optimism or pervasiveness they find more inspiring. One of the Savonlinna women had, indeed, moved to Paris from England and made a career there. Who hasn’t dreamed of living in Paris? She’d actually done it.

Another of the women was wise enough to notice that the experience they were being shown at Pihlas was far from everyday reality, even for the Finns who work there. And yet, I know from talking to them – a diverse group, but an educated and worldly one – that they saw the gulf that exists between the way life works in Finland and the way it works in England (and France). I reassured them that yes, this is really the case, even in an increasingly globalised Helsinki (and even in Copenhagen).

Then, opera. The women had been told I was an opera specialist, and their journalistic inquisition led them to prod me gently for insights. I found this no less awkward than when, around the boat’s dining table, we were each encouraged to present our chosen outfit for the day garment-by-garment from shoes up, explaining which brands we were wearing (they let me off lightly).

The reason for my discomfort on the opera front wasn’t self-deprecating or shy – I don’t mind talking about things I’m familiar with and have opinions on. More, I didn’t want to skew their own natural responses and was fascinated by their reaction to large-scale opera, as a bunch of curious people with almost no experience of it (only one had been to an opera before). What a privilege, in these times when opera is facing such a crisis of cultural and social identity, to watch one with four perceptive people who had never done so before.

Amy Lane’s production of Roméo et Juliette at Savonlinna (Jussi Silvennoinen)

I might get around to writing about that for Opera Now too. If I do, the despatch will include the young journalist from Sutton Coldfield who, on my immediate right for the performance, groaned and wept her way through Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and just wanted to hug someone, anyone, when it was over – suggesting that, yes, opera still holds some power even for a generation used to quicker fixes (but who, like all of us, know the ending to this particular opera before it’s started). In the meantime, I’ll be filing my visit to Savonlinna away with plenty of other little trips to Finland that have proved, somehow, far more provocative and life-affirming than the sum of their parts.


Luisi v. Opera

Fabio Luisi is not happy about the state of the opera industry, as he told me recently when we sat down in Copenhagen to talk about…Carl Nielsen

For the new (May) edition of Gramophone, I interviewed Fabio Luisi – Chief Conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra since 2016. When we met here in Copenhagen two months ago, we talked mostly of Carl Nielsen. That was the hook for Gramophone’s article. Luisi is back in town right now, conducting six all-Nielsen concerts across nine days starting on 20 April, coinciding with Deutsche Grammophon’s release of the composer’s complete symphonies recorded with the same orchestra.

But we also talked opera – specifically, the Italian conductor’s apparent partial withdrawl from the opera world since he resigned the general music directorship of Zurich Opera in 2021. And Luisi isn’t happy about the state of the industry…

I refer briefly to Luisi’s comments in the Gramophone article, but there wasn’t room to quote him in full. So here’s what he said, from the tape. The conversation grew from talking about the conductor’s concert Ring Cycle with his Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the first enterprise of its kind presented by a major American orchestra (Luisi conducted the Met’s last Ring, in the production by Robert Lepage). Fingers crossed it will end up on the DSO’s enterprising own label.

AM: Talk of your Ring Cycle in Dallas reminds me that you don’t have an opera house at the moment.

FL: No, I stopped Zurich two seasons ago. And I didn’t want…I wanted to reduce my opera commitment.


I was a little bit tired of the opera business. I still am, because it has changed a lot in the last 20-25 years. I started in opera in the 80s, and I was involved a lot with European opera houses and then the Met, and…the business has changed and has not changed in a good direction in my opinion. The focus is going into the visual aspect of presenting opera, which is important. But neglecting the musical aspect is not a good development in my opinion, and most opera houses are neglecting the musical aspect.

In terms of singers?

Singers, conductors.

Is that connected to the current notion that the ‘fach’ no longer exists – that singers should be more versatile?

It’s wrong. Not every voice is fit for everything.

Is this one of the reasons for your dissatisfaction?

Of course. It is very hard to find, these days, real Verdi voices, for example. Most opera houses…it’s a question of competence. If you are focused on the visual aspect, the voice becomes secondary. So you hire excellent-looking singers but if their voice doesn’t fit Don Carlo or Othello, or Lohengrin, it doesn’t have such importance anymore and I don’t want to be part of this.

Are the voices available? There are probably a dozen productions of Lohengrin happening in Europe at the moment. That suggests we have to have twelve singers doing the role just in Europe, or the opera can’t be staged.

It depends on which level. I tend to think on the highest level. Maybe we have one or two real voices for Lohengrin right now. Maybe we have a couple of voice for Ortrud, but not so many, and so in reality Ortrud is being sung by singers who are too little for this role. Elsa is fine, we have voices for Elsa. It’s a different thing for Verdi. A real Verdi voice, soprano, I can think of two or three. A real Verdi tenor? This gets very difficult. Bass? This gets enormously difficult.


A real baritone for Verdi, I mean if I hear Leonard Warren or [inaudible] or [Piero] Cappuccilli, okay. But now? We had [Željko] Lučić, who was very good, but he doesn’t sing anymore at that level.


Tezier is excellent, very good. But I wouldn’t do Iago with Tezier, he is not Iago.

In Zurich did you have full control over casting?

I had most control over casting of my productions and I was responsible for the conductors of the other productions. Somehow but not necessarily for the singers of the other productions.

So you must be casting your Dallas Ring with care?

Yes and it is not easy.


Luisi was adamant – even shaken beyond his usual demure demeanour – when talking of the quality of Copenhagen’s music life, describing it as ‘underrated’ and his orchestra here as ‘a treasure’. He talked also of Marie Jacquot, designated to the music directorship of the Royal Danish Opera from August 2024. ‘I know Marie because I taught at the academy in Vienna for a semester, and she was one of my students. So I have known her for several years, and she has developed beautifully. She was already at that time a very interesting student. I am very happy about her position here at the opera.’

The best bits, of course, were saved for Gramophone. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Fabio Luisi is gentility personified. He has a fondness for fine tailoring and bow ties. He speaks softly and sensitively, like a surgeon imparting difficult news. His musical DNA is unmistakeably operatic. So how has this bespectacled theatre musician from Italy come to cut what one Gramophone critic has already touted as the superlative cycle of symphonies by Carl Nielsen – music that has mud on its boots, that sticks out tongues, hollers in the vernacular and trades in brusque northern European confrontation?”


Fischer in Copenhagen

After wowing the world with their Beethoven symphonies, Ádám Fischer and his Danish orchestra of 25 years will return to the Hungarian conductor’s first love this winter: Haydn. It won’t be any less dramatic.

[This article originally appeared, in Danish, in the December 2020 edition of Klassisk]

It’s official: if you want to buy someone a new Beethoven recording this Christmas, it should be the composer’s complete symphonies from the Danish Chamber Orchestra and its conductor Ádám Fischer. The juries of the Opus Klassik and International Classical Music Awards think so, anyway. ‘I find these performances utterly fascinating,’ concluded Gramophone magazine in the UK. ‘These renditions showcase Beethoven’s revolutionary side in a way few other sets even get close to,’ wrote America’s Fanfare.

When I hear Fischer rehearsing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the basement of the DR Concert Hall in Copenhagen on a Tuesday afternoon in September, there is not so much revolution in the air as fascination. Fischer and the musicians seem more interested in how the music works than in its political message. The quietness attracts them as much the loudness. It’s all about the detail: how one phrase tapers down and another one begins.

The rehearsal finishes early. Moments later I look up from my chair in the corner to see Fischer stood at my feet – a 72-year-old with the proportions and agility of a pre-pubescent boy. He wants to do the interview right away, so he can listen to some of the orchestra’s musicians playing chamber music before they go home. We head from this distinctive space with its stencilled wall murals of great musicians – Van Morrison and yes, Adám Fischer among them – to his dressing room. We start with Beethoven.

Good Orchestras / Bad Orchestras

It was the former boss of this orchestra’s previous incarnation the DR Sinfonietta, Tatjana Kandel, whom we have to thank for the Beethoven – and for bringing Fischer to Denmark in the first place. ‘It was very much her idea and she was insistent,’ says Fischer of the executive who now decides what the DR Symphony Orchestra plays. ‘So I conducted Beethoven, it went well, and they wanted to record it all. I asked why: there are so many recordings already. But we did, and just before we got to the Ninth, catastrophe.’

He refers to the disbanding of the chamber orchestra by DR, after which the ensemble reformed with private funding, retaining Fischer as its conductor and assuming the Anglicised moniker Danish Chamber Orchestra. Is it true that in the early years after the split from DR in 2014, he offered to conduct for free? ‘Oh yes. I mean, I can’t always afford to because I have a big family, but I wanted to. I wanted to save the orchestra.’ Were there times when he felt like walking away? ‘No, because I was angry. I was angry at the people who didn’t understand anything about it and I wanted to prove them wrong.’

He may not have proved them wrong, exactly. The orchestra’s current success has arguably proved it didn’t need DR’s parenting. Still, its rebirth is compared by Fischer to a fairytale: ‘We got a second life. Nobody would have thought it, but we did.’ Over the next few years, the privately funded orchestra re-recorded all of the Beethoven symphonies, this time including the Ninth. It was a blessing in disguise, says Fisher: the new recordings were much better than the originals.

The sound of the DCO in classical and early romantic repertoire is unique because it has been formed over more than two decades, Fischer explains. ‘I can do things with this orchestra that I can’t to anywhere else, partly because nobody works with them on this repertoire except for me and because we have been working on it for years – we pick up where we left off. I did Beethoven’s Eroica with the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic last year. They were great concerts but it would have been very, very dangerous to try the things we do here, with the rubato and so on.’ A few hours later, a DCO musician describes to me the atmosphere Fischer creates as ‘very liberating indeed.’

Fischer talks about ingrained traditions in playing Beethoven, explaining that limited rehearsal time means conductors ‘keep always with the tempo’ whereas a pianist or cellist playing Beethoven will tend to move more freely, as the DCO does. ‘I always know, if there is a guest joining us who is used to playing in another orchestra: they will enter early during one of our long pauses.’

There is no more experienced conductor than Fischer currently working in Denmark. He has conducted Wagner at Bayreuth, is an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera and regularly works with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Dresden Staatskapelle. Does he believe in the hierarchies that put those orchestras above all others? ‘Of course the sound of the Staatskapelle is something else. Same with Vienna, which has a long tradition that I admire. But there is no “best” orchestra even if the Americans want to list them No 1, No 2 and so on. That’s not what interpretation is about. I am paid to give an orchestra an interesting challenge: to open its fantasies and allow it to play differently. Like a stage director, you have to find out the personality of the actor and use it. That’s why there’s no way I’d ask the Vienna Philharmonic to use the same bowings we use here.’ On a video interview published by the Berliner Philharmoniker, Fischer’s work in Denmark is a major discussion point: ‘we have developed something unique,’ the conductor tells the Berlin oboe player Christoph Hartmann.

Back to Haydn

When the young Ádám was 4, his father took him to hear a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No 94, the ‘Surprise’, and informed him that the ‘surprise’ in question would be a sudden, loud timpani thwack. But the moment had none of the impact the young boy was expecting, and he knew who was to blame. When his father took him backstage to meet the conductor, Fischer asked why the timpani stroke had not been louder. ‘When you grow up,’ the conductor apparently said to the 4-year-old, ‘you can become a conductor and can have that timpani stroke as loud as you like.’

Fischer would become the first conductor to record all 106 symphonies by Haydn, recordings he has since grown frustrated with and claims he would do differently. ‘Haydn has been with me all my life,’ he says; ‘Beethoven’s symphonies would not be what they are without the passion and drama of the symphonies of Haydn. People say he’s nice and harmless, but that’s the worst thing you can say about Haydn. If you play it like that, it just sounds boring.’

On 1 January, Fischer will extend the tradition he established in 2018 of performing Haydn’s the oratorio The Creation to start the New Year in Budapest. This time, however, the orchestra will be the DCO, following a performance in Copenhagen on 6 December. The oratorio, first heard in Vienna in 1798, is described by Fischer as the composer’s ‘crowning achievement’; it is seen as a pinnacle of enlightenment thinking, placing the Biblical creation story in inverted commas while celebrating the spirit of mankind, human love and the beauty of the earth. ‘It has everything in it,’ says Fischer; ‘it represents a fresh start – far better music for the New Year than Viennese waltzes or even Beethoven.’

The plans were laid long before the pandemic hit, but there are few better pieces with which to reboot after a global crisis than this: ‘it is about a new world arising,’ Fischer says. Haydn himself had some pertinent words about his own piece. In 1802, he responded to a fan-letter with a description of how he wrote The Creation: ‘When I was struggling with all kinds of obstacles, a secret voice would whisper to me: “there are so few happy and contented people in this world, sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labour will become a source…from which they will derive peace and refreshment.”’

Fischer admits that the work has taken on new poignancy given the state of the planet. Otherwise, he approaches the piece like a child in a candy store. He relishes its depiction of insects and lions – demonstrating different styles of roaring and buzzing for me. ‘I see it as very naïve and honest, just like the paintings of Giotto. And the naïve way to look at it is also the wisest, rather like how children open their eyes and see how beautiful the world is. The end is just perfect, with Adam and Eve: nature is beautiful, but not without love.’

New World Order

Fischer’s appreciation of nature has taken on new resonance since the lockdown closed Europe in March. He spent the first three months in his brother-in-law’s house on a nature reserve outside Hamburg. ‘That was a completely new experience in my life,’ he says; ‘unfortunately I liked it very much! I didn’t do anything. There were a lot of animals and sea birds and very few humans. It was an interesting experience. I had philosophical thoughts but soon I started to think about the challenges facing the profession. For a while it looked like the conductor’s profession was in danger: all sorts of musicians could play together but we are the only ones who need 30 or 40 other people to join in.’

For the next three months, live music started to creep back – including in Düsseldorf, where Fischer is Principal Conductor of the city’s symphony orchestra. ‘In Düsseldorf, having not played for three months, we started to play again but people didn’t dare to come. Even those who logged on to our livestreams and were very enthusiastic about it didn’t come to the concerts. Of course there was as special intensity from the musicians but some of them were afraid of the virus too. It will take a lot of time before it’s back to how it was.’

A silver lining, for Fischer, is the shift in repertoire that naturally followed. ‘The last 100 years have been very bad for chamber music,’ he says, ‘maybe because people feel that for their money there must be a lot of people on stage who play very loud. A collateral benefit of the whole Covid-19 story is that chamber music is more important. I also see that the big orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic are now being forced to discover Haydn and Mozart again because they can’t play their Bruckner and Mahler. That is a development.’

The man who showed such solidarity with his stricken DCO also argues fiercely for the protection of freelance and period-instrument orchestras who didn’t have salaries to fall back on when the lockdown started. ‘The best musicians are freelance,’ he says; ‘I am dead against the injustice in the system: that if you play a modern instrument you can have a salary and if you play on a period instrument then you can’t. It means the specialists in Bach and so on suffer much more as do musicians like these [DCO]. That’s why we wanted to do the Beethoven, to have a project for these musicians.’

He has been just as outspoken on more sensitive issues, such as the collapse in democracy in his native Hungary, where the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has curtailed the press and rigged the judiciary. ‘I left Hungary in 1969, before your father was born,’ he laughs. ‘I’m very unhappy about what happens there but my own father knew it: he said after the iron curtain fell, that Hungary would become a fascist country. I am very sorry to say that he was right.’

Despite not living in Hungary for half a century, Fischer still works there regularly and oversees two annual events in Budapest, including the annual Wagner festival in June. Has he ever felt pressure to behave in a certain way? ‘Yes. If I speak about Hungarian politics to a Vienna newspaper then they get angry. And I was told, if I continue like this I will lose the money for my festivals.’ So why does he continue to speak out? ‘If I am not worth a concert, they should not book me. If I am worth a concert then they should book me and pay me regardless of what I am saying.’

The message of The Creation is an optimistic one – rebirth and all its opportunity. Fischer’s conversation is scattered with laughter; his big grin and short neck give him the appearance of a benevolent monkey. Surely, after everything that happened with his Danish orchestra, he is optimistic about the future? ‘I hope that the EU will survive, that we still start listening to smart people, and that democracy will fight against fake news and social media. I want to be optimistic. But we are on the brink of…’ And with that, there’s a knock at the dressing room door, and Fischer is whisked away.

Ádám Fischer

Born 1949

Sang with his brother Iván (conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra) as one of the Three Boys in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Hungarian National Opera; as an adult he would become the company’s Music Director before resigning in protest

Studied with Hans Swarowsky in Vienna and Franco Ferrara in Sienna

Debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1973; a long collaboration followed, and he was made an Honorary Member of the company in 2017

Founded the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra in 1987, uniting musicians from either side of the iron curtain

Appointed chief conductor of the DR Sinfonietta in 1998


Public Service Broadcasting

The BBC is determined to make its orchestras look like any others, which will put them in serious peril

When you emigrate, you learn as much about the country you leave as the one you join. Sometimes that’s helped by straightforward comparators. One obvious example is the BBC – founded 100 years ago this year, and for most of the time since, a model for other public service broadcasters from Stockholm to Sydney.

In The Northern Silence, I write about the crisis that faced public service broadcasting in Denmark pre-Covid-19, and what happened next – how the public broadcaster used its in-house chamber choir to lead national TV sing-alongs during the pandemic, thereby justifying its very existence. It offers a stark contrast to the course currently being taken by the BBC, even though the contextual challenges are the same.

Denmark opted to abolish the license fee in 2018. Now, Danes pay a media tax on the principle that public service broadcasting should, like healthcare, be paid for by everyone – even those who claim not to need or use it. The change immediately diffused the debate surrounding what was, undeniably, an antiquated way of funding a service provided by the state for the greater good.

The Danish license fee was also expensive – more than twice the cost, per household, of the UK’s equivalent. We now pay less for public service broadcasting in Denmark, which has forced the main recipient of those funds, the broadcaster DR, to make tough decisions regarding content and platforms.

When the cuts hit, DR opted to focus on precisely the things the ‘new’ broadcasters would never go near: culture, language, children’s programming, news, national identity, live music, live events and so on. Lamentably, it took the decision to close its television culture channel, DRK (the equivalent of BBC Four). Not so lamentably, many of that channel’s most interesting cultural programmes are now shown on DR2 (BBC Two), where they are seen by far more people.

That includes concerts from the DR Symphony Orchestra, The Classical Music Quiz (which also features the DR Symphony Orchestra), The Opera Trip and so on. I have written elsewhere about how DR has used its musical ensembles to create imaginative television content, the sort the upper echelons of the BBC seem to hold a pathological aversion to.

There is some sense, at DR, that the musical ensembles are the crown jewels (they include a symphony orchestra, two professional broadcasting choirs, a group of supporting youth choirs and a big band). The Director General is a regular face at concerts in DR’s own on-site concert hall, a vineyard auditorium designed by Jean Nouvel. Last week, DR unveiled its spring ‘music offering’ (no genre divides were stated) in which the ensembles were front and centre. We were promised 50 hours of television and radio content focusing on the composer Carl Nielsen alone. That’s just in April.

How does this contextualize what’s happening at the BBC? That’s easy. The wider BBC has never prized its ensembles, and seems increasingly frustrated that they even exist. By my reckoning, it’s many years since any of them made content bespoke for television. During the pandemic, the London Philharmonic broadcast far more on-screen than the BBC Philharmonic. Videos made by the corporation’s ensembles were confined to social media channels. Outside the Proms, they remain more-or-less invisible.

That’s symptomatic of a wider problem: Britain’s paralysis when it comes to talking about classical music in the mainstream media. The gatekeepers are utterly mystified or terrified by it, while those at the BBC who actually work on it are in far too deep. It’s unthinkable that the BBC would make a programme like Denmark’s The Opera Trip – an irreverent, expletive-ridden yet celebratory look at opera that mocks the art form as much as it confesses a deep, serious love for it. It has proved hugely popular, notably among people who have otherwise found opera difficult to approach.

But the BBC’s whole handling of classical music speaks volumes about its wider strategy, which by its own admission sees no room for the direct funding of orchestras and choirs in the long term. The BBC appears determined to try to take the argument to the likes of Netflix, rather than excel in the domains Netflix can’t hope to reach. If there’s any argument at all for the public funding of TV and radio stations, it surely pivots on those TV and radio stations providing content the market can’t or won’t. DR had its budgets cut as savagely as the BBC’s. Its reaction was to cleave to public service ideals. Politically, it appears to have worked.

It helps BBC bosses that the corporation’s ensembles have such little meaningful presence on TV, and that their distinctiveness on Radio 3’s airwaves can easily be glossed over. Tim Davie’s response to the various letters concerning the closure of the BBC Singers talks endlessly about community, education and reach mostly through physical presence. There’s next-to-nothing on what should be the ensemble’s trump card when it comes to actual reach: broadcasting. That is literally the BBC’s middle name.

This is surely no accident. Diluting the ‘broadcasting’ bit from the BBC Singers and Orchestras (as per Davie’s letter) means the corporation can claim these are ensembles like any other. That will make them far easier to gradually move out of the BBC’s purview, into a barren funding environment where they cannot realistically survive (already in action, with regard to the BBC Singers). That, it seems to me, is the BBC’s real strategy when it comes to classical music.



Someone asked me recently, at a bookshop event for The Northern Silence in Copenhagen, what Danish composer I had been most effected or enlightened by. Easy: Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen.

I adore Pelle’s music. There’s plenty of it discussed in The Northern Silence (Plateaux pour Deux, Moving Still, Run) and there’s a whole lot more that isn’t (Moments Musicaux, Og, Three Songs with Texts from Politiken, Eksempler, Konstateringer, Symphony and Antiphony, the string quartets…the full list is a long one).

In 2014, before I lived in Denmark, The Guardian newspaper sent me to Copenhagen to interview Pelle. We met in a café overlooking Blågårds Plads. What ensued was one of the most thrilling and enjoyable interviews I have experienced, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we talked about none of the subjects I had written down in my little notebook. It remains the only such meeting I’ve never been able to bring myself to delete from my dictaphone – perhaps because Pelle died two years later, the year after I moved here, and I never got to see him again (though we did correspond by letter, and on email through a third party). I remain sincerely grateful to Cecilie Rosenmeier for setting it up and introducing me to Pelle.

Bits of the interview made their way into The Northern Silence and a few more into The Guardian article. Here is a transcript of (almost) the whole conversation, slightly tidied up. There is barely a sentence from Pelle that isn’t full of wisdom.

AM: I was at a performance of Plateaux pour Deux [1970] in London recently, your piece for cello and car horns. There were some people behind me and they couldn’t contain their laughter. Actually they were guffawing, as we would say in English.

PGH: …they are welcome to!

The thing is, it created a sort of tension with the people in the concert hall who were thinking, “this is serious music, you shouldn’t be laughing at this”…

It is one of those pieces that’s in the grey zone. If you go to the concert hall, you are supposed not to laugh unless it is Spike Jones or something. The concert hall is a ritual, where you agree to behave. You’ve got to have some manners. You are not coming in naked for instance. When I was at the Royal [Danish] Academy of Music, after a day at the Academy we would go for a beer and entertain ourselves by finding impossible interpretations. Sonata for organ and bicycle pump was one idea. But I soon thought, why is it only for fun we do this? Why couldn’t it be taken as a concept of composing? There is actually nothing wrong with the car horn. It’s OK. It’s a fine instrument. It has a very refined sound.

But it takes a while for the ear to come round to that partnership as a legitimate one.

Yes, and I knew then, of course, that people would laugh. And they have been laughing since, and they have scolded me because they think it’s a stupid idea, which it is as a matter of fact. But this is the temptation: to seek those areas that are called stupid. It has its own kind of innocence, like a child being naughty. As a child you say all those ugly words just to see how the parents react; to the child it’s a nice thing to do. It’s a primitive attitude in a way. But composers are childish under all circumstances, because to compose is very naïve. There’s so much music already made, so if you decide to be a composer you are childish. If you were very clever you wouldn’t do it, because you would see the problems and the impossibility of being together with Mozart and Bach.

Has that troubled you?

I have been in crises like that in my life, crises where I have decided to give up, because I thought, “you can’t expect people to listen to this”. So when I wrote this piece for cello and car horn, I didn’t expect people to be happy about it. I said to myself, “I’m kind of a child, so I’ll do it”. And people are still astonished and still offended. But I think it is a fine piece of music, since it develops very severely. The horn has its system and it gets out of the picture by degrees. The cello is left, and has a solo during the last minutes. So the piece has a story: the cello being born in the beginning and really not heard, but by degrees becoming more present. And when it then has a chance to be present in the last minutes, very reduced and almost silent, it’s as if the cello says, “well, it’s my turn now but I’ve got nothing to say”. That’s its narrative, in a way.

It’s there in other pieces you’ve written: you present an ostensibly illegitimate, unproven relationship, and you set out to prove, or to try to prove…

…that they can be together, yes. Out here [Blågårds Plads], in reality, the most impossible creatures are together all the time. So I wanted to bring this part of our life into music, to show that we have all these different kinds of behaviours and traditions and colours. It’s best to call them “objects” and “beings” and “creatures”. You have very tough materials, stone and metal, and you have the weak things also, the little bird, perhaps not weighing more than 5 grams. A little bird is 5 grams of creature, and you have an elephant in the zoo just 10 metres away. And then you have the children and the parents. When I was in the zoo as a child, I was mostly interested in the little sparrows. My parents would show me the lion, but I was running after the little sparrows. I found them interesting, those little birds.

Related to that, let’s talk about your very specific idea of sound – and perhaps this is as specific as a particular bird’s song. Do musicians ever find it difficult to deal with those specifics – to read your scores as naturally, as it were, as you’d imagined them?

Not any more. For most of my life, I have had troubles with conductors and musicians and audiences. But by degrees I think people are getting accustomed to new music and to my music, so they are now treating it as if it’s music to play in a fine and beautiful way. Good musicians get the solutions: the London Sinfonietta, Theatre of Voices, Kronos Quartet – they find it interesting and find the process of making decisions enjoyable.

Was the London Sinfonietta wrong-footed at all by your work?

I thought so. I didn’t ask them but I thought so.


I think in the beginning they didn’t know what to think – perhaps they were afraid of being in bad company. That’s my destiny, to be bad company.

But you’re surely in the company of people like John Cage – the ideas, in a sense, are bigger than music. To me they’re more about sound – the capabilities of an instrument, the social interaction of performance – even if music is a byproduct. The principle of ignoring display, that’s all over your work…

Yes it is. There are some new possibilities now, it’s coming back to the 1920s and Dadaism of course; then [Gérard] Deschamps taking things, completely innocent things, not connected with art at all, and putting them into a museum. So it began there in the beginning of the 1900s, and since then we have become accustomed to the possibility of using every kind of sound. But the difficulty then is to choose your sound: you can’t put every sound in one piece. So in connection with each piece you have to decide which sounds should meet each other, should circulate. These figures, these sounds, are often running in circles – not developing, not going anywhere but just being there.

Cage is long gone and Busoni even more so. These ideas about sound and music, nobody has taken them forward quite like you. Do you feel you’re on your own?

Well, each nation has its own tradition. If you’re in Germany of course you have Schoenberg and Stockhausen, who have made a strong impression on generations. Still, the German approach can be heard in the German composers and also in Boulez – even though he still has this big character, clarity and beauty in the sound, which I think is French. Not that I prefer Boulez to Stockhausen, I’m very fond of those two guys in fact. In the 60s we were completely overwhelmed by their music, but I’m still faithful to their expression. You can’t hear it my own music because I’ve found another way of doing it.

Sometimes I can hear it in your bigger works, maybe in your orchestral works.

Maybe, I don’t know. I think Ives and Varèse and Stravinsky are more there. Charles Ives was a fantastic, wild and strange composer, putting those things together. He was mad and fresh; his madness was fresh. But when I listen to Stravinsky I have this feeling that I only have when I listen to Stravinsky; it’s as if a hot electrical current has been put directly onto the nerves. This nervous rhythm, constantly moving without going anywhere. But at the same time he’s Russian and he also has this Asian quietness, calmness. Perhaps that Asian quality enables him to be nervous and calm at the same time.

Photo: Lars Skaaning / Edition Wilhelm Hansen

The piece we just heard being rehearsed, Og, I know it’s not structured as a passacaglia, but it feels like one in the sense that…

…things keep coming back…

Yes. And talking of national characteristics, do you feel there is a sense of organization in Danish music post-Nielsen, no wasted notes…

No, no, there should not be any wasted notes. I try to get rid of unnecessary notes.

Perhaps that comes from Stravinsky.

Yes it does. It’s not an improvisatory thing; a jazz musician has a lot of notes to enjoy. But I prefer to take away what is not necessary, even if there are a lot of notes. I like the feeling of chaos, of not being able to find your orientation, feeling a little lost, and then, by degrees, finding your way, if not the material. Many of my pieces are about this situation, being shocked by the multiphonics, and then by degrees, beginning to see what it is about.

As in, you have your parameters, and they’re very tight, and you can go crazy within those parameters?

I don’t like the chaos without any order, so it’s inside the chaos there is complete order.

In Danish society, there seems to be a constant sense of controlled rebellion that results in absolute order. There is never any possibility that things will descend into chaos because the chaos is nurtured and contained in one domain – the democratic public expression of dissatisfaction.

I’m not a fan of Denmark. I think we have so many bad qualities, notably being a little too relaxed when it comes to treating other people, the people coming into this country. I also think we lack a little respect for the tougher materials which make sophisticated art. Generally, I think we in Denmark are a little vulgar compared to Sweden for example. We are happy about being vulgar, as a matter of fact; we make a virtue out of it.

Haven’t Danish artists always done that – Carl Nielsen?

Yes, and Nielsen is one of my favourite composers. And I know why, because he has a freshness which is very rare, and is also odd. Much of his music is not accepted in France and Italy, because they do not understand this square and rude and fresh style…

…can you say ‘vulgar’ as well?

No, I don’t think he is vulgar. He is common – he’s not afraid of being common. But in being common he is still original. He’s an original guy I think. Sometimes I prefer him to Brahms, which I know is a ridiculous thing to say as Brahms is a fantastic composer. But everything is in the right place with Brahms. And you have this colour, sort of like this table here. It’s like a very deep brown, mahogany desk in the Ministry of Justice. Brahms is on the right side of the desk – so convincing, so right, so beautiful in his heaviness. Carl Nielsen is on the wrong side: a little out of tune, the naughty boy, not the cleverest in the class but definitely the most inventive. You couldn’t confuse him with anyone else. He has this innocence and he survives with his fantastic invention. They are very original these ideas [in Nielsen]. If you hear Nielsen you couldn’t think it was any other composer. Max Bruch you can easily think is another composer.

It’s about refinement I guess…

Refining your strangeness.

Is that a process at work in your own music?

I hope so. The older I get the more I try to refine it. Earlier in my life I wrote some pieces that I regret a little, which I think are too rude, too rough – lacking a little. Generally speaking, the pieces I’m rather happy about – you say that because you’re never completely happy – are the pieces in which the concept and the way of doing it has been clear to a high degree: knowing what to do, and doing it. The pieces I’m not so happy about have too many things in them, which means I’ve not been completely aware of what I was doing. What you want, ideally, is to know where your feet are, which ground you’re standing on, have some sort of feeling of what the piece is about. Then you do it as soberly as possible without jumping here and jumping there and without forgetting that original idea.

Often the idea has a wonderful simplicity, obviousness even – as in Three Songs With Texts from Politiken [1967]. It’s a delightfully simple concept.

At that time in my life, I’d been through several periods with different intentions. But I was very much thinking against what was generally done in musical circles, so writing songs was nearly impossible for me. Writing songs was about following words, giving them a kind of colour, a new meaning, or surroundings which would emphasize the deeper content of the text. But at that time I hated this kind of approach to a text, because I found a very fine poem had an extremely clear meaning already, together with the sound of it. So beginning to sing such a poem seemed to me, at that time, to be a bad idea. I couldn’t make sense of it.

So instead, with the Politiken songs, in which the texts are those mundane business reports, there is this ringing absurdity.

Yes because I couldn’t do anything else. The human race has a voice, and I couldn’t see the meaning of not using this voice. Why should we shut up? Samuel Beckett talks about stopping talking, because it’s impossible to talk but it’s also impossible not to talk, so he keeps going on.

“I have nothing to say and I’m going to say it”.

Yes, John Cage, that’s it. Those two guys have something in common there.

Going back to that performance of Plateaux pour Deux in London, the funny thing was that the atmosphere became very serious, because of the people who were laughing, and the people who didn’t want them to laugh, and the people who didn’t know whether or not they wanted them to laugh. Perhaps the only individuals entirely relaxed with the situation were the two musicians.

It’s a nice situation I think, it sounds wonderful, it sounds good – everyone not knowing what to do. That’s fine.

But suddenly there was something to think about.

That’s it. And that’s a good situation, and mostly good music has a little of this in it. Even if you listen to Bach, what the hell is going on? It’s so overwhelming that you find yourself astonished by this information, so this astonishment is part of the joke. It’s not just a reaction – it sounds beautiful – it’s that you can’t understand why it sounds so beautiful. It’s impossible to understand. But if you do not understand one thing, it’s a rather fruitful situation to be in. I think all composers know about not knowing exactly what they’re doing, and they feel the temptation of not knowing. If you knew completely what to do you would be bored. So the anxiety, the nervousness, is rather inspiring. I think all artists know this nervousness in relation to their material; whether they are on the right track or not, when every day a new question has to be solved and you do not know what’s going on the next day. I’m 81 now and I’m still completely unknowing of what situation I will be in tomorrow. Not completely unknowing, because I know a lot of things. But the defining things, the little defining things that make you say to yourself, well, that’s how it should be – you don’t know if they will occur.

Do you develop habits in that sense?

Yes, everyone does. I don’t want not to do anything, so I’m going to try to do something, to be aware of what’s going on.

Are habits bad for you?

No. I will have set habits; everyone has that. It’s a very great part of our lives. I think even the most eccentric person has his habits, and you get accustomed to those habits of course, you accept that they will occur and how they will look to a certain degree. But I think every sensible artist will have a close look at his habits. I have anyway; I am discussing every day if this is the best thing to do, and often I choose the unsatisfying and rude and impolite. I have a tendency to go in that direction because there’s a temptation to explore those things. It’s more inspiring to be on your own, to go into the jungle and find a way to survive; that’s more tempting than to travel first class and have a bath. To be a composer is dangerous as a matter of fact. You talk about the London Sinfonietta…with them perhaps, in that sense, it’s not easy to see what I’m looking for. People think, what is this about?

You can get into it, though, your music. It comes. It suddenly ‘clicks’ – and almost your whole oeuvre falls into place. It did for me.

There are some musicians and conductors who do not have that difficulty any more; they are willing to go further. They are accustomed to the surprises, to the bad manners of my music. The bad manners in my music will not be easy for the London Sinfonietta and I have a suspicion that they will find it too naïve, too clumsy. And who can we compare it with? A little like Carl Nielsen perhaps.

I think people have the same problem with Carl Nielsen. They expect his music to somehow remind them of Jean Sibelius’s.

There’s an enormous difference between Carl Nielsen and Sibelius, but I’m very glad personally, in my experience of those two composers, to be a complete admirer of both. In my younger days my music was inspired by Sibelius’s, but later on, you couldn’t say so.

Perhaps what makes Denmark different is its sense of humour, which is quite close to the British sense of humour – more so than the other Nordic countries.

I know. I’m very fond of British humour and American humour, the black humour of Monty Python for example. And I’m a big fan of Chaplin and Keaton. And of course Chaplin was from London, from a very poor background, but his humour is gorgeous. I don’t think that kind of humour is very German for instance, and not very French either. It’s northern, British and American, and Danish. We have had some fine humorists here and comic figures on the scene, and also in Anglo Saxon literature.

Photo: Jeppe Gudmundsen-Holmgreen

Yesterday I listened to Company [2010]. Something I’ve heard in your other pieces, Moving Still is one of them, is this idea of pulse and repetition – that if you repeat something enough times, its meaning will transform. It will twist.

Yes, that’s it, very much twisting; the same chords, the same rhythm, the same material, but most of the time changing. Company develops from a more complex situation to a peaceful consolation as the sounds become accustomed to each other. Changing it to major with very little dissonance, you get an odd kind of beauty. I’m not afraid of this old kind of beauty. In my piano concerto I take a Mozart piano concerto – as you know – and it ends with Mozart, in a clear A major. The voice of the piano is nearly 100% Mozart. The orchestra is completely nuts, but nevertheless comfortable with it.

There are those Mozart references in the piece we just heard Athelas Sinfonietta play, Og. Obviously the piece is tied up with Søren Kierkegaard. I just read Diary of a Seducer and was struck that even in this ostensibly lighter, narrative work, there is a deep lingering depression. A man obsessed with sexuality but without any love.

Yes that’s it. He’s a desperate man, but Kierkegaard is very sarcastic and wicked to his surroundings; he demands so much. I don’t think it’s fair to demand that much. I laugh when I read Kierkegaard. I read it before bed and my wife asks “why are you laughing? Kierkegaard is a philosopher and you can’t laugh at a philosopher.” But I think it’s fine that a philosopher can call for a laugh. Because he has those two figures A and B [in the book Enten-Eller, (‘Either/Or’)], A’s letters and B’s letters, the older one advising the younger one, and those discussions are so beautiful. He succeeds in putting forward his ideas by letting those two people see different things. So Kierkegaard’s mind is A and B, and by combining the two he puts his finger on a lot of human weaknesses. He’s squeezing it in a sarcastic way that I think calls for a laugh. It’s rather astonishing.

What’s the connection to Og?

I hadn’t read much Kierkegaard but I began because I got that commission, a commission for the Kierkegaard anniversary in 2013. One of the things we are discussing here is his dividing his thoughts in different voices, A and B, and that’s very much my own way of making music, having different paths or voices, different opinions, things to say, and in saying those different things, there might come a third thing that’s worth discussing. So in Og [the Danish word for ‘and’] the brass are only playing the D minor chords of the overture to Don Giovanni, and since Kierkegaard was very fond of Don Giovanni and Mozart, I thought it was an idea to come into the mind of this man, to have Mozart there as beauty, and then these other voices concerned with completely different things. The bassoon is a little creature having not so many notes, but talking all the time, trying to get through and being expressive, while the strings are making sounds from the Politiken songs, they comes from there, and the bassoon is making the same kind of music as in Frères Jacques [1964]. If you don’t know that work, it’s one of my favourite early pieces. The bassoon there is very much like the bassoon you heard here in Og. So I think these different utterances find a way out during the piece. Frères Jacques is the first piece of which I think I’m a little proud.

It’s a little like Company in that respect – the feeling that instruments are hatching out like small creatures from an egg. A stilted vocal flowering into a full voice.

Yes, yes, that’s it. In the beginning of Company the sounds are just spoiling each other, there are too many of them. But they get confidence in themselves and they begin to relax because they accept themselves and it seems to be OK. And the less there are the more beautiful it gets – the end of the piece is far more beautiful than the beginning. There’s not much left so it’s possible to deal with it as music – it’s not objective; it’s not completely reality. You have to make music out of those little things.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen dances to his own music (the score Triptycon, 1985)

On Gardermoen

An early draft of Chapter 5 of The Northern Silence opened not with an analysis of Sigurd Lewerentz’s Malmö Opera, but of Gardermoen Airport outside Oslo. I realised shortly after writing it that Malmö Opera was a far better fit (for a demonstration of ‘functionalism’) and that there were far too many airports in the book already (Haugesund, Sandane, Tromsø, Helsinki…).

Still, I’ve always had more than a soft spot for Gardermoen. In the old days, before the various extensions post-2010, I’d have put it up there with Norwich Cathedral and the Copenhagen Opera House as an example of total perfection of form – or near enough. So here’s that original opening to Chapter 5, which argues how such a conclusion might be arrived at.

PS: In 2018, I finally got to the ‘old’ Oslo Airport at Fornebu – or what remains of it – when the violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing played a private recital in a residence not far from what was the runway (the area that housed the airport is now residential, but it was clear enough where the runway lay).

Landside at Gudmund Stokke’s Oslo Gardermoen Airport

One night in October 1998, five hundred truckloads of aviation equipment snaked their way over 60 kilometres of undulating Norwegian terrain in convoy. They were travelling from the Oslo suburb of Fornebu to the satellite town of Gardermoen. By the morning, Norway’s principal passenger aviation hub for the last 49 years had been decommissioned, instantaneously replaced by a brand new structure ready for its first passengers.

Fresh starts like these present rare opportunities. The new airport at Gardermoen was the product of a single, unified vision: an architectural set piece as uncompromising, integral and aspirational as the palace at Versailles. Eight years after the opening of Stansted Airport outside London, Gardermoen proffered a distinctly Nordic take on the new, light-filled, organic aesthetic of large-scale airport architecture that was emerging towards the turn of the century.

Stansted was low-rise: rooted by the pointillist, borderline humdrum rhythm of 36 white steel trees supporting a flat roof. Gudmund Stokke’s altitudinous roof at Gardermoen curved up and then down like an aerofoil, its skeleton a series of imposing wooden struts elevated by totemic concrete pillars. It was an adventure story to Norman Foster’s annual report. When it opened, Gardermoen was the largest laminated wooden structure in the world.

A decade later, I found myself marooned for four hours at Gardermoen courtesy of a cancelled connection. It was the most luxurious of introductions to the building, coming with few time pressures on the day and, more long term, in the chronological sweet-spot between an architectural masterpiece’s birth and the inevitable, steady encroachment of defacing compromises wrought by life, law and enterprise. Arriving from Trondheim and heading for London, I had the privilege of being able to walk what was, then, the building’s full wing-span: from the empty quiet of its domestic west pier, across central atrium to the slightly less empty, less quiet but identical but international east pier.

At the near end of the domestic pier was the airport’s freestanding square chapel in slatted wood – a church within a cathedral, pierced by strange, double-filtered light. (It has since been removed and replaced with a shopping outlet). Huge, similarly slatted pods of offices and restaurants hung in the gigantic forest-clearing-like atrium between the two piers, translucent organs floating beneath a sky-like roof. The impression was of all the space in the world, conceived to calm and aerated the frenetic, time-dependent activity of negotiating one’s way onto an aeroplane.

Even the Duty Free shop in arrivals had a monochrome minimalist beauty: bottles of liquids taxonomically arranged in front of more glass walls, behind which escalator mechanics churned inside perspex casing at 45-degree angles. Underneath it all was a railway station that replicated the entire structure in miniature – a minor celebration of the very same materials, shapes and formal relationships. I always thought of this railway station as equivalent to the positif section of a baroque pipe organ that hangs from the bigger casework, a larger version of itself.

Leaving Oslo in the years that followed, I would always try to get to Gardermoen early. There was something tranquil about the place and to some extent there still is – embraced as it is by as much nature as possible for a facility serving an unnatural activity. Its granite and wood, its pervasive light, the hint of the surrounding hills and trees – all nurtured a deep if transient satisfaction in me. I even wrote a love letter to the building in its own erstwhile in-house glossy magazine, 360° Oslo.

In the old days, sitting at a sections of glass wall overlooking the apron was like getting a box seat at a silent, slow motion ballet danced by aircraft. Rather than pumping chart music into public spaces as at Stansted, Gardermoen’s parent company Avinor used to pipe the sound of flowing water and birdsong into its buildings, and at volume levels bordering on the subconscious. It had as soothing an effect as the structure’s repeating patterns and stringent symmetry (before the post-2010 alterations, anyway).

To most people, Gardermoen was and remains just another faceless airport – a palace of procedure, a building to exit, one way or another, as quickly as possible. For those with a deeper interest in design and culture, it was a monument made interesting by its combination of international developments with distinctly local accents. It celebrated the wild and beautiful landscape outside, replicating it inside with its profusion of wood and granite and its dramatic soaring roof. It harboured natural light according to the sun’s distinctive low position in the sky at Oslo’s latitude. It strove for the utmost clarity of form, avoiding unnecessary hierarchies and facilitating the most intuitive of ‘user journeys’. It extended a long Nordic tradition of furnishing airports, like other once-in-a-generation buildings, with bespoke furniture and fittings that would never be manufactured again. A more Scandinavian building it is hard to think of. And what a beautiful way that is to greet visitors to a country, or bid farewell to them.


Sydney’s Scandinavian Opera House

2023 marks 50 years since the opening of Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House – one of the most celebrated and troubled architectural projects in history. It gets a passing mention in The Northern Silence, so here’s a little more (and some links to further writing).

Side elevation: Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House from the harbour

Before the theatres in Oslo and Copenhagen, there was the opera house in Sydney – the life’s work of Danish architect Jørn Utzon, even though he spent the vast majority of his life estranged from it.

The story of the unknown Utzon’s winning of the contract to build the Sydney Opera House is the fairy-tale prelude to the nightmare that ensued. That didn’t stop the structure Utzon disowned becoming the world’s most iconic theatre – perhaps the most immediately recognisable man-made structure in the world.

Louis Kahn famously said of the Sydney Opera House that the sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off it. Specifically, the sun was reflecting off more than a million clay tiles manufactured in Sweden by the ceramic factory Höganäs.

I’ve never been to Australia (I’ll get there one day) but my partner Sarah was baptised in the building Utzon designed immediately after the opera house: the parish church at Bagsværd in the north Copenhagen suburbs.

As written in The Northern Silence, Bagsværd Church (pronounced Bow-Svair) strikes me as an architectural counterpart to Svend Hvidfelt Nielsen’s Symphony No 3 – a symphony that spirals upwards before evaporating into white space much like the ‘horizontal’ tower of Utzon’s Church.

Apparently, Utzon conceived of the undulating surfaces that line the interior of the Bagsværd tower like rolling clouds while lying on a beach in Hawaii. He was tracking homewards, heartbroken, following the collapse of his relationship with his client in Sydney.

Before it all went sour, Utzon had moved his family to Australia and set up an office there staffed by aspiring Danish and local architects. It was a creative dream, until it wasn’t. Compromise after delay after soaring cost after yet more compromise resulted in the biggest calumny of all: Utzon’s enforced resignation at the hand of the newly elected Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, who insisted the design for the building’s interior be put out to fresh tender.

The ‘horizontal tower’ of Utzon’s church at Bagsværd, north of Copenhagen

Hughes, in cahoots with the newly appointed house architects of Sydney City, authorized the pivotal design alteration that would set in train the building’s decades of practical and acoustic problems: the transferal of the opera auditorium to the smaller, second ‘pod’ indented for spoken theatre (Utzon’s plan was for a hybrid main auditorium that could present both concerts and opera).

Theatre moved to a space designed for backstage operations that would have no relationship with the building’s foyers nor its harbourside environment. Tons of specially built machinery and equipment was binned. Utzon’s ideals – a merging of principles borrowed from Yucatán temples and the building practices of the Sung dynasty – were unceremoniously trampled.

Utzon vowed never to step foot on Australian soil again. The project effectively ended his relationship with the famed structural engineer Ove Arup and practically torpedoed the architect’s own career – tainted, as it was, by the disgrace of a grand project left unfinished. Personally, Utzon was devastated. Barely a day went by, according to his son Jan, when wouldn’t make mention of the opera house in Sydney.

Utzon wouldn’t travel to Sydney again. But in 2005, 50 years since the announcement of the Sydney competition, Jan did so on his father’s behalf. Utzon was re-hired by the Opera House to make good on a tiny proportion of the havoc wrought on his own designs (mostly front-of-house, but incorporating improvements to the opera theatre), with his architect-son as partner and envoy.

Foyer of the Joan Sutherland Theatre (the opera theatre) at the Sydney Opera House

Minds had softened. It was acknowledged by Utzon that the building was organic, imperfect and would be subjected to inevitable generational change. Almost more important was the sense of a reconciliation with Sydney, with Australia. It brought Utzon some peace and lubricated his path to work on other projects.

At the Utzon Center in Aalborg, the north Jutland city where Utzon’s father managed the shipyard, you can see the wooden model for his design for a new opera house in Zurich – a fascinating auditorium which, if built, would have been configured like no other (it was scrapped in a cost-cutting measure, a move described by some as yet another manifestation of the ‘Utzon Curse’). You can see drawings pertaining to his one other nationally significant project, the Kuwait National Assembly (eventually vandalised by violence and bad taste), and a boat designed by his father whose hull hints at the form of the Sydney building’s distinctive roof.

In the meantime, Australia’s long and admittedly apologetic attempt to put right what went wrong with Utzon’s building, as much for the benefit of the current audience as anyone else, has completed its latest phase – and right in time for the building’s half-centenary celebrations in 2023. This latest redress, mostly focused on the concert hall, has been deemed a triumph – a rare cause for joy in the history of a grossly troubled building. It was marked with a performance of, appropriately, Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony given by the Sydney Symphony under Simone Young.

Further Reading

Peter Murray: The Saga of the Sydney Opera House

Michael Asgaard Andersen: Jørn Utzon: Buildings and Drawings

Geraldine Brooks: Unfinished Business (The New Yorker, 2005)

History Lesson: the American Society of Civil Engineers

Arquitectura Viva: Bagsværd Church


Kentucky Fried Keflavík

In 2013, I had the chance to work in Iceland for the first time. The assignment was to interview the Finnish musician Osmo Vänskä, who was in Reykjavík to conduct the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Lots happened on my brief visit, some of which is recounted in The Northern Silence. I met Lárus Jóhannesson for the first time, at his brilliant record shop 12 Tónar. I had my first taste of Harpa. And I ate a KFC at one of the most architecturally distinctive branches of the restaurant anywhere, situated near the airport in Keflavík. I wrote about the building for my now-defunct blog Moose Report, and re-publish it here.

While I’m at it: I write in The Northern Silence about Iceland’s societal intimacy and closeness – which comes with pros and cons (the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is particularly eloquent on this in the book). Recently I was chatting to the Icelandic composer Bára Gisladóttir – who lives in Copenhagen and is also featured in the book – and mentioned the KFC in Keflavík. She told me that the franchise is owned by a relative of hers.

Another curious thing about that first trip: I landed in Iceland on 13 June. On my two subsequent visits to the country – unconnected work assignments – I would arrive on exactly the same date. I have gleaned a good sense of how western Iceland feels in midsummer.

PK Arkitektar’s KFC building, Keflavík, Iceland

Calm descends easily over Keflavík’s KFC. The high ceiling sucks up conversation. The west-end wall-window thrusts nature into a space built for its distortion. Like the raw Icelandic landscape outside, the cast-concrete walls urge you to pause and consider things bigger than chicken and chips. Bigger than yourself.

Kentucky Fried Chicken Iceland bestowed a new restaurant on the coastal settlement of Keflavík in 2005. The town is a satellite to the Icelandic capital, living off small-time maritime industry and the airport four clicks away. The franchise owners wanted the job done by Reykjavík firm PK Arkitektar. The chicken shifters got a stand-alone building that strives for a certain uncompromising beauty born of its distinct surroundings. 

From the side that faces the sea, it sits up, sharp – like a statement Grand Design or a new Nordic railway station. From the opposite side, it’s more unassuming, a sibling to the grander but equally angular office building that looms behind it, just by the sea shore. On the outside, the matt-black tiles refract that green-black solidified lava on which Iceland sits. Concealed partially within that tiled blackout are the entrances. You have to work hard to find them. Gotta earn that chicken.

The building has been described by one critic as ‘a play of boxes’. It’s not much of a game, more a satisfying exercise in positioning – one long shoebox with two protruding squat towers, knowingly spaced. On one tower the KFC logo is distilled down into its white initials, aligned classily top left. The grinning colonel is exiled to the other rump. On their own, white-on-black, with the dignity of a corner positioning, those letters take on a new status. Suddenly they have the weight and dignity of an organisation built on diligence and authority. KFC as KPMG.

Not for long. Inside there’s faux-wood, brown plastic and stencilled glass aplenty – all described by one journal as a ‘dialogue’ with the modernist sheen of the exterior structure. In reality it’s a compromise. McDonald’s can fill its eateries with Arne Jacobsen furniture without turning its customers off, so couldn’t KFC have strived for something better?

Side elevation

Like a metaphor for life, operational realities are flies in the ointment of PK’s aesthetic vision. On-site marketing promos sully the grey concrete and frosted glass. The children’s play structure seriously compromises the effect of that west window. These flaws are by their nature temporary. Maybe it’s the kids who get the last laugh, up on that multi-coloured plaything, getting a close and unusual perspective on a nifty piece of design that has Lego-like simplicity.

The room isn’t entirely ruined. Perhaps it’s the light play that changes the feel of it: the brightness and shadows from the high, deep strip window that runs from north to south above the counter and the opposing ketchup bar. The brutal Icelandic coastline tamed by the perpendicular windows in the main dining area.


Joi is the broad, blonde twenty-something who sells me my chicken, chips and Pepsi from behind the counter fronted by a slab of frosted glass with more elegant KFC initialling, this one etched (it’s the only interior fitting that has real beauty). ‘I think people just come here for food, not to look at the architecture,’ he says, and acts with professional benevolence when I ask if someone from the restaurant might be able to order me a taxi. ‘But yeah, it’s a really cool building,’ he adds with a creeping smile. ‘Not all the KFCs in Iceland are like this. I think there are seven or eight. Maybe they’ve had the same big ideas about architecture in one or two of them, but not the others.’

You can’t deny the instant-hit of the food. It might not have the taste-depth of the super-good lamb I eat later in the day at Sólon on Bankstræti, but boy does that greasy bread-crumbed chicken hit a spot. (The chips have nothing on McDonalds’s, but you knew that.)

Try to spot Keflavík’s KFC from the airport road – or even from your plane (landing from the east at KEF, you might fly right over it) – and the chances are you won’t. It hunkers down among its neighbours, into the streets and into the black rock. That’s one aesthetic victory.  If the calm that infuses the space fills diners in parallel to their chicken, that’s another.


Scandinavia, the Weilersteins and the Payares

Joshua Weilerstein has been announced as the new Chief Conductor of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in Denmark – the latest chapter in his family’s substantial Scandinavian love affair

Joshua Weilerstein conducts the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne (Yuri Pires Tavares)

It’s great news that Joshua Weilerstein will assume the Chief Conductorship of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra from the 2023-24 Season. He is a capable conductor who takes charge of an ambitious orchestra with a stunning concert hall in Musikkens Hus – one that gets a fair bit of text in The Northern Silence by dint of its striking Gehry-like design and the transformative effect it has had on the locality since it opened in 2014.

Bijoux Aalborg is a special city, brimming with life and creativity. It has a bold Alvar Aalto-designed art gallery, an architectural museum built in homage to its most famous son, Jørn Utzon (who designed the Sydney Opera House) and a large student population. For those who care about such things, it also has a heavenly, crystalline little airport.

So, exciting times. But gratifying ones, too, given Weilerstein’s varied and multifaceted links with Scandinavia – which apparently run in the family. The Weilersteins, it seems, have the Nordic region under their skin.

Joshua won the Malko conducting competition in Copenhagen in 2009, which bagged him contracts to conduct orchestras throughout the Nordic region over a period of years (it took him to Aalborg for the first time in 2011). He has since recorded with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic.

For the Weilerstein family, it didn’t end there. The next Malko competition – in 2012 – was won by Rafael Payare, currently in his first season as Music Director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (he recently presided over a fine run of Toscas at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen). Payare is married to Weilerstein’s sister, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein. ‘I sure know a lot about the Malko Competition,’ Alisa once told me.

Back in 2012, Alisa wanted to get to Copenhagen to see her future husband participate in the Malko final, having played a concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London the night before. But she was bumped off her flight and ended up getting a connection via Trondheim, Norway. ‘I had never heard of Trondheim. But I saw these wild untamed landscapes and I thought, “this is a really fascinating place; I have to come back here,”’ she told me in 2018.

Come back she did. When Payare was contracted to conduct the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra as part of his Malko prize package, Alisa travelled with him. Without much to do as her partner rehearsed the orchestra, she was shown around the town by Kathryn Hjesvold of The Trondheim Soloists, Trondheim’s zippy string orchestra (Hjesvold is a British former IMG agent).

A relationship was born that came to fruition in 2018, when Alisa was appointed Artistic Partner at The Trondheim Soloists. She quickly released a recording of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht with the ensemble that was awarded a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, and embarked upon a tour with it that took her back to Copenhagen.

‘I’ve done some of my very best music making here in Norway,’ Alisa told me when we met in Trondheim. ‘The musicians [of The Trondheim Soloists] like to rehearse, to work and to explore new ideas and repertoire. There is an openness to absolutely everything, it’s liberating.’

Musikkens Hus, Aalborg, designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au of Austria

I hope her brother finds a similar attitude at the top of Jutland, the bit of Denmark that gazes across the Kattegat Sea towards the more dramatic landscape of southern Norway.

I’ve always been impressed by the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra’s programming and I love spending time in its concert hall. It has been without a Chief Conductor since 2015 (Michael Schønwandt has been keeping the ensemble on its toes with regular visits as principal guest conductor in the meantime) and has clearly bided its time. The ensemble also celebrates its 80th birthday in 2023, just in time for Weilerstein’s arrival.

More significantly, Weilerstein’s appointment consolidates a heartening trend among Denmark’s regional orchestras – away from appointing perceived ‘prestige’ Chief Conductors, who come with impressive central European CVs but are nearing the end of their careers and are apparently not too interested in examining what a symphony orchestra can be.

Weilerstein has the dynamism to put a different sort of focus on his orchestra in Aalborg – one that matches the flair and connectivity of its new home. I hope the orchestra will flourish under him, and see no reason why it shouldn’t. Either way, I look forward to watching and listening.


Love / Ambition

The John Fulljames era at the Royal Danish Opera ended this summer. Here are some thoughts on his parting gesture, a new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, whose messages of optimism came with their own bitter aftertaste.

This review was commissioned by and written for Opera News in New York. But a glitch meant it was never published. So here it is. Better late than never…

Wagner: Die Walküre Royal Danish Opera / 6.3.22

Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan in Die Walküre at the Royal Danish Opera (Camilla Winther)

After an absence of 16 years, Wagner’s Ring returned to the Copenhagen Opera House in March. The audience had waited long enough. Early performances of this Die Walküre sold out and there was rapt attention in the auditorium for the duration of the opening night’s 5 hours. Artistic Director John Fulljames took charge of the staging, the last he will pilot while still in post. Conducting was Thomas Søndergård, who played timpani in the pit the last time the Ring was seen at this address, in the production by Kasper Holten that opened the new opera house and put the Royal Danish Opera on the world map.

Fulljames’s intelligent production couldn’t help but bring to mind the sorry administrative mess that will see him depart this summer, and his projected complete Ring apparently aborted after he was allegedly deemed insufficiently Scandinavian to run Denmark’s national company. Here was further evidence that the boss bows out with his head held high, his staging focusing hard on the hopelessness of Wotan’s quest for power and the sort of short-term schemes that are doomed to fail in the face of true vision and genuine humanity. 

Wotan was on stage from the start, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur fixated on architectural models and spreadsheets, who assumed the status of a guru for his MacBook-wielding posse of office-bound Valkyries. When it all came tumbling down, he clasped to his chest a model of a broad staircase punctured by a giant spear, devastated that he – like Fulljames perhaps – would never get to see his plans come to fruition.

That model was the set we saw at full-scale on stage. Beneath the staircase, the under-class of Hunding and Sieglinde struggled in dirt and grime. Above it, Wotan’s elite workforce distributed Frappuccinos as they high-fived their corporation’s latest successes. It formed a strong image of the world in which we find ourselves, but proved even more resonant as a landscape of heartless ambition against which Siegmund and Brünnhilde’s visions of love and empathy proved so instantly transformative.  

The dramatic power in Act II was severe, Brünnhilde’s initial exchange with Siegmund riven with a line of tension drawn from a combination of sadness and complete stasis, the Valkyrie rooted to a single spot on stage until the pivotal moment at which she could resist the power of human love no more. After a caricature of a meek, abused partner in Act I, the Sieglinde of Act II, debilitated by a deep sense of shock, proved strikingly moving to watch.

That role was taken by Ann Petersen, her apparently ageless voice clearer than ever and offering in tone color what it can sometimes lack in agility. Her characteristic ability to rise to the occasion, even in the middle of a phrase, gave her portrayal a vital dramatic edge. Bryan Register’s Siegmund proved his heldentenor credentials, its lyricism mingled with a sense of over-excitement adumbrating a potentially fine Siegfried. Morten Staugaard found unexpected depth and growl as Hunding and his laconic acting oozed malice. Hanne Fischer’s portrayal of Fricka was deeply satisfying. Only the assembled Valkyries underwhelmed, a fragile ensemble stocked with too many promising but inexperienced singers from the Opera Academy.

There was real quality where it mattered. Both Tomasz Konieczny’s Wotan and Trine Møller’s Brünnhilde were defined by their superior approach to text. Konieczny’s bright, gleaming, legato-infused baritone does so much with words and can apparently color a note even when his mouth is closed; his ‘Abschied’ was most moving at its quietest. Møller focused on meaning and diction, drawing attention away from the size of a voice that, in the end, seemed big enough anyway.

Søndergård paced everything to the text and with ample elasticity. Strings were occasionally lost in the orchestral balance – not normally a problem with the Royal Danish Orchestra – and detail in the prelude to Act II was frustratingly low. But grandeur and scintillating rapture were kept in good balance. Ultimately, ambition and power were trumped by love and beauty, realized as effectively via the notes we heard as by the tenderness we saw.


Paradise Lost

I wrote this essay back in 2016 for the art magazine Elephant, after I’d done a few interviews for them. There was a change in Editor, and it never got published.

In the years surrounding my move to Denmark, I was quite taken with the purity and discipline of the infrastructural aesthetic. In other words, railway stations, airports and other public buildings (and some commercial brands) all appeared impeccable to the eye – designed, organized and maintained with a sort of rigorous discipline and sense of formal beauty.

On the rail network, there was a minimalism and uniformity to signage. The integrity of existing buildings was always honoured. This, together with some more contemporary elements of Nordic design, seemed to say something bigger about the aspiration of these nations, Denmark in particular. It had something to do with state ownership, the social democratic project and so on.

The essay wasn’t perfect; now, it even seems quite politically reactionary and small-minded. Maybe that’s why it never got published. Anyway, I’ve put that right and published it here.

Exterior of Skodsborg Station, on the coastal line north of Copenhagen (Andrew Mellor)

Until a few years ago, you could see two cash dispensers ranged on a brick wall towards the far northern corner of the main concourse at Copenhagen Central Station. To do so, was to behold a scene of concentrated, orderly beauty. Danske Bank’s ATMs had their own stern elegance: a glass panel ran along the top, from which the bank’s corporate imagery was picked out of the deep, glinting green-blue and aligned to the right. Below that was an imposing steel frame that contained and tamed the plastic slots, screens and buttons with a fierce, functional elegance.

Imagine, for a second, those two identical machines side-by-side, pinging out from the orange bricks, dignified by a handsome framing archway – a banality made beauteous by the chance meeting of colour, texture, light and geometry. From typeface to placement, it was a sight that spoke of Denmark’s aesthetic heritage as loudly as a Hammershøi painting or a Henningsen lampshade. But no longer. Recently the small section of wall and its twin cash machines were obliterated to make way for a convenience store. It was a little paradise, in a strange way. Now it is lost.

There are corners of railway stations and other civic structures across Scandinavia that induce similar feelings of deep satisfaction – and perhaps even something more. But nothing quite matched that spot in Copenhagen. Before I lived in the city, I would head back to the cashpoints whenever I visited. ‘Part of growing up and learning to travel well,’ writes Alain de Botton in The New Art of Travel, ‘means daring to take our own interests a little more seriously.’ We must accept, argues de Botton, that ideas of beauty aren’t always those canonized by guidebooks and galleries.

When we refer to a ‘beautiful country’, what do we really mean? We surely mean something broader and more complicated than the beauty of dramatic natural landscapes, evocatively decaying streets or spectacular architectural conceits. The beauty I sensed on my first visits to Scandinavia, while admittedly less poetic and intellectually valuable, was no less imposing, fortifying or relevant. Arguably, it was even more so: banal, to a point, but all encompassing and indiscriminate because of it. The beauty of public infrastructure – the gallery walls to the artistic endeavor that is life as a citizen – is arguably the most aspirational of all.

Outside the confines of a gallery or corporate headquarters (the two are often indistinguishable anyway), the two ATMs in Copenhagen suggested that beauty resonates at more levels than we care to admit; that beauty, as well as its natural home in exalted artistic endeavor, can be found in the soulless mechanisms of economics even if it exists there as little more than a sideshow. Somewhere in between the two falls the European social-democratic project, where the principle of public infrastructure as a point of national unity and civic aspiration has delivered a wealth of exquisite structures and institutional identities over the last century. They constitute an aesthetic treasure trove that, it could be claimed, deserves protection just as artworks do.

Is a ‘beautiful’ country simply one that has control of its own aesthetic? Every railway station in Denmark looks like the product of one eye: uniform furniture and signage in deep blue-grey (conceived as if to purposefully offset the yellow or red brick structures of the 19th-century buildings) deployed with a regard for the power of minimalism and sprinkled with a bespoke typeface that underscores its own bureaucratic clarity with a touch of flair.

Does that sound crushingly boring or proto-fascist? Both, you may think. But there comes a time when anyone involved in creative processes – from composers and painters to brand consultants – must admit that the product of one person’s eye or ear is generally far superior to that of many.

Just as Gustav Mahler or Eugene O’Neill exercise an almost physical effect on ideas of ‘living’ and ‘being alive’ as you sit and listen to their work in communion with others, so the careful deployment of furniture, colour, or even a beautifully conceived brand in a public space can have a similar effect. ‘In small things’, the poet Thomas A Clark wrote, ‘delight is intense’.

The cashpoints may be gone, but Copenhagen Central Station still impresses as much for its disciplined combination of that resilient deep grey (and its rigorous control of those typefaces) as for its more overtly ‘interesting’ wooden cantilevered roof. As De Botton reminds us, it’s okay to respect one as much as the other. Likewise, to be surrounded by the deep blue and recurring SAS typeface that saturates the principle landside space at Copenhagen Airport can be a galvanizing, thrilling and deeply satisfying experience. In my experience, the history and integrity of the corporation’s entire endeavor holds you aloft as you head for your temporary position above the clouds.

In certain parts of Europe, details like these are a twenty-first century surrogate to National Romanticism, the sort that gave birth to social welfare and state provision of funds for artistic endeavor in the first place. It might be dangerous to consider them a point of ‘civilization’, because that word enshrines the importance of discord and inconsistency as much as it does harmony and uniformity of ideas.

That doesn’t stop discipline in public design being, potentially, a source of intense pleasure. The look of urban life in Copenhagen, from signage and street furniture to less easily defined ideas of Nordic sunlight and human deportment, played a part in my decision to live in the city. There will be people reading this magazine who opened a particular bank account because of the look and colour of the debit card. You know who you are.

In that sense, capitalism maintains its curious relationship with the principle of design excellence for the greater good. Those cashpoints at Copenhagen Central Station were the product of private enterprise – before priorities moved on.

If you can find a Danske Bank cashpoint now, that deep blue glass panel which used to dignify the bank’s brand image with large amounts of space will probably be filled-out with additional white text imparting useless information (very few of the ‘pure’ machines remain). For a time, SAS’s self check-in machines metamorphosed from gorgeous, upstanding slabs of translucent deep blue with the letters SAS picked out of one corner in the airline’s iconic typeface – again, afforded the dignity and elegance of space – into gaudy turquoise blobs which appeared to blow and aesthetic raspberry at their handsome predecessors.

That’s business. The corporate merry-go-around waits for no man and the prioritizing of profit will mostly undermine long-term vision, aesthetic or otherwise. Anyone who has developed a bottom-up re-brand of an organization only to witness their carefully distilled imagery eroded and undermined over time will know about that. But shouldn’t the operations of the state be tied to more solid, long term objectives, visions and principles? The rise of neo-liberalism poses a direct threat to that idea, politically and creatively. On a more basic level, it suggests there will be no public infrastructure left to make beautiful in the first place.

There’s little chance the New York Subway or London Underground would have made such important contributions to the field of graphic design if they had been the children of private enterprise. Nor would the design traditions those institutions likely continue to survive protected if their entities were placed in private hands. Consistency of design would be replaced by a corporate free-for-all the likes of which has taken root on the UK’s privatized rail network, which now lacks any form of visual consistency and is in the process of selling every available inch of advertising space – including station destination signs – to the highest bidder. The UK rail network has lost its central aesthetic. The nation’s subsequent, panicked search for an identity surely isn’t unrelated.

Denmark, the rest of the Nordic region and whole swathes of Europe might not be far behind. It doesn’t take a diligent student of civic design to note that minimalism and neo-liberalism will never be entirely happy bedfellows. If space can be sold, it will be – eventually.

Capitalism may have produced its own strand of design-led beauty, as the Danske Bank cash machines proved. But that tale of two cashpoints reminds that when a design culture is established and nurtured by the state, it will shape the behavior of the private sector to some degree as well.

You may conclude that a neo-liberal meritocracy is perfectly capable of preserving and developing civic design traditions from Berlin to Brisbane – that it will, in fact, sharpen such traditions and invest them with even greater invention. Recent history suggests that the opposite is true: that when you let market forces off the leash in public spaces, an aesthetic horror show awaits. In the meantime I treasure the plain, restrained, bureaucratic beauty I see in Denmark and all over Scandinavia.


Doing Politics

Towards the end of The Northern Silence, there’s a reference to Finland’s sometime Culture Minister Paavo Arhinmäki. He admits, in a quote from an interview he gave me while in office, that he is ‘probably one of the worst Culture Ministers ever.’

The interview took place in January 2013 on a roof terrace in Cannes. It was unusual in every sense. I was used to interviewing musicians, not politicians. Also, I was offered the chance to interview Alexander Stubb at the same time – then Finland’s Minister for European Affairs and Trade (and an entertaining columnist in Finnair’s magazine, Blue Wings). Just a year later, he would become the country’s Prime Minister.

Music Finland arranged the interviews. I couldn’t think of what to do with the results – they weren’t really saleable – so I wrote them up for my now-defunct website, Moose Report.

Given the quote’s inclusion in the book, I thought the context might be worth republishing here. I also remember vividly the circumstances under which I wrote the article – late one night, the following February, in Andy’s Pub in downtown Oslo, emptying a few large glasses of beer as I went. Reading it now, I think that shows…

Arhinmäki & Stubb

Paavo Arhinmäki (L) and Alexander Stubb at Midem in Cannes, 2013

Have you ever played football against Alexander? I ask the question of Paavo Arhinmäki, Finland’s Culture Minister, as his government colleague the minister for European Affairs Alexander Stubb stands a few yards away posing for a photograph on the roof of a Cannes hotel.

Now, I’m no David Frost, but I think it’s one of the more astute questions of my interview with Arhinmäki. It’s also the last: I’m about to walk over and begin on Stubb. These two Finns might be members of the same government – they’re also pretty much the same age in political terms – but that’s where the similarities end. Ideologically, physically and linguistically they are poles apart. ‘He hasn’t ever played football,’ says Arhinmäki, glancing upwards at the altitudinous Stubb. ‘He’s a hockey guy.’

Of course he is. He would never play football, would he? Just look at him. He’s far too clean-cut. Stubb is famous in Finland and Europe for sporting achievements far beyond kicking a ball on a flat piece of grass. He’s competed in marathons, triathlons and Ironmans.

As he hops up onto the balcony wall for the photographer, he looks chiselled and immaculate in a pale-blue striped blazer. With that single item of clothing he’s gauged the tone and geography of the occasion and nailed it. Perhaps the most impressive part is that he’s come to the French Riviera straight from the World Economic Forum in Davos. He must have packed that pale-blue blazer before he left Helsinki eight days ago. That’s the sort of foresight a good foreign minister needs. That’s the sort of thing that prevents world wars.

If Stubb is the smooth-talking, media-savvy, soundbite-literate and undeniably impressive international politician, Arhinmäki is your clever mate who’s done extraordinarily well for himself. Talking of soundbites, I’m immediately surprised by the first one Arhinmäki offers me. Try this for size: ‘The culture minister before me Stefan Wallin was probably the best or one of the best and I’m probably one of the worst Culture Ministers ever.’

He refers, of course, to the fact that Wallin was in the enviable position of being able to dole-out huge funding increases to cultural institutions, while Arhinmäki is being forced to do the opposite. His cuts are generating angry column inches in arts-loving Finland, but anywhere else in Europe (with the possible exception of Germany and Norway) they’d be seen as fair game: a few brown Smarties dutifully removed from the top a still rich-and-chocolatey cake.

Even so, if I’d got Maria Miller to admit she was ‘the worst culture minister ever’ I’d have a front-page headline on my hands (despite the fact that the statement is self-evidently true).

It isn’t that Arhinmäki doesn’t know how to deal with a naïve-looking music journalist out of his depth sandwiched between two politicians, it’s actually the opposite. He wants to disarm himself early on in the interview.

That way, when I ask what his favourite arts event of the last year has been, he can immediately draw on his special advisor’s brief – knowing that I have a finger in the pie of a major classical music magazine – and say it was the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. Tadaa: a neat, back-door and quasi-international routing of those Finnish commentators who have accused him of wanting to dismantle Finland’s extraordinary operatic/orchestral infrastructure.

That’s a little unfair, given the fact that Arhinmäki immediately goes on to reel off a varied list of events starting with Pulp’s Finnish debut (‘I met Jarvis Cocker’) and finishing with a self-arranged view of a private collection of Lichtensteins and Warhols.

What Arhinmäki also does very well is see-off my rather pathetic attempt to align certain elements of musical performance (ie, ensemble singing and playing) to the ideologies of the left. ‘I have had culture as a hobby all my life, and many of my best friends, they are actors or painters’, he says. ‘But it’s not my role to say what is good art and what isn’t. We don’t know in this day what is going to be important art for a whole nation in 50 years.’

He does lurch to the left as part of that statement, but only to cite and criticise the far-right True Finns party, who would only fund artistic projects rooted in Finland’s Golden Age that are ‘easy to understand’.

In the end, Arhinmäki defends those elements of Finnish cultural life which are so humbling and inspiring to people like me who love the arts but particularly enjoy watching operas and listening to orchestras. He points to the issue of engagement: ‘the main idea in our whole cultural policies [sic] is to try to get as many as possible to enjoy all different kinds of art and culture.’

It’s not Arhinmäki’s list of cultural experiences from the last year that strikes you – impressive as it is – as much his emotional and intellectual reactions to them. ‘Patriarkka [Juha Jokela’s play at Finland’s National Theatre] was a discussion about different generations and their political ideas. When I was watching it, I was the whole time wondering what I’m doing, am I doing everything right and wrong about my family, and things like that. It’s very important that it’s that way, you can feel it.’

And so to Stubb, who smoothly slips in a reference to literary hero Elias Lönnrott (he who compiled the Kalevala) when I ask him whether the epic poem – celebrating its 150th year in English this year – has a hand in shaping the everyday life of modern Finns.

Turns out he thinks it does, but only in general terms and in an international sense (a recurring theme): ‘every country has its Kalevala’. I must have missed England’s 736-page poem that takes in incest, fratricide and the formation of the earth through the cracking of an egg on the knee of a semi-submerged woman.

Stubb has far less tenuous things to say about work-life balance – in fact, he delivers a frank admission that takes me back almost as much as Arhinmäki’s ‘worst minister’ protestation. ‘I’m home at five-o-clock when I’m back in Finland,’ says tamed capitalist Stubb. ‘I think it’s bullshit to do long hours to be honest.’

Is that how the Finnish workplace operates? ‘It’s a generation thing. In the olden days you had a whole bunch of politicians who did long lunches, long dinners, and had a certain lifestyle and basically ignored their families. Nowadays, if you look at my Prime Minister and myself, both of us have young kids, and I have to set some rules. I’m away from home for the better part of 4 months a year, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend [the remaining] evenings in cocktail parties or dinners or something.’

That’s not all. Stubb made his name as an economist before entering centre-right politics, and he’s no idiot when it comes to numbers. He’s stumbled Pythagoras-like upon the truth that you can divide very one of earth’s days into three parts of eight hours each: ‘you work for 8 hours, you play for 8 hours, and you sleep for 8 hours’, he tells me.

It’s the sort of statement – especially when delivered in piercing January sunshine on the shores of the Mediterranean – that gets you thinking; that has you inadvertently mapping out a new blueprint for your own life.

That – as well as the moment he pulls out his yellow Nokia Lumia 920 and begins to enthusiastically take me through its features (an experience I last enjoyed at the hands of a deluded individual in an O2 shop in Streatham) – is what I’m left with after meeting Stubb. I’m not even going to tell you what he said about David Cameron. That was quite revelatory, as it happens…but I’d rather you remembered the 8+8+8 theory.  



I’ve amassed hundreds – thousands – of photos from my travels around the Nordic countries. Only one was good and relevant enough to be included in the finished edition of The Northern Silence – the image of Sade Kamppila and Viivi Roiha I took during Silence Festival in Kaukonen (Plate 6).

Here I’ll post some more, each with some relevance to the text itself.


Chapter 1, Landfall, describes my first visit to the fjords of western Norway, when the whole area was so shrouded in mist I could hardly see a thing. ‘Only on subsequent visits could I fill in the blanks: the colossal peaks, sheer hillsides and serene snaking fjords’ (p.13).

This shot is from one of those subsequent visit – made three years later in September 2009. It’s a view of the Stalheim Canyon, from the coach that takes visitors on a winding mountainside road from the village of Gudvangen to the fjordside town of Voss.

Sauna party

The sauna party at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival (p.31) was an experience I will never forget. Until you’ve spent an entire night at one of these parties, I’m not quite sure you can really comprehend the combination of wildness and oneness with the earth that lies at the heart of the Finnish psyche.

I was with another British journalist at the time, Jonathan Wikeley (known these days as an organist, choir-trainer and music editor). He has his back to the camera in this first photo, taken at around 3am. A few hours later, just before we made it to bed, we took this shot using my camera’s timer, sitting at the end of the little jetty that heads out into the lake. Looks like I still have a ‘sauna beer’ on the go.


Lars Graugaard

The Danish language has a brilliant word for ‘draft’ (in the sense of drafting a piece of work). The noun is ‘udkast’, and translates literally as a ‘throw out’.

I have always understood it more as a throw at – to throw ideas at a blank wall or a canvas. Some will stick, some won’t. What remains will need a fair bit of tidying-up.

This blog exists to extend the discussion of Nordic music and musicians initiated in my book The Northern Silence. I hope it will also prove a useful home for those bits of ‘udkast’ that, for whatever reason, couldn’t be included in the final edition.

One of them, deleted on the grounds of continuity, was a brief look at the music of the Danish composer Lars Graugaard.

Graugaard’s music has fascinated and enchanted me since I got my hands on Engage and Share in 2018, an album he recorded with the Grup Intstrumental de València.

When ‘udkasting’ the chapter Scandinavian by Design, I originally allowed a discussion of the improvisatory qualities inherent in some of Sibelius’s music to lead to a brief word on Engage and Share. A slightly tidied-up version of it is pasted below, together with some thoughts on the album that originally appeared (in Danish) in the magazine Klassisk.

Graugaard’s music is full of thrills. There is plenty of it to explore on the composer’s own website here.

Lars Graugaard (photo: Manuel Alberto Claro)

Cause and Effect: Lars Graugaard

Even if they didn’t want to replicate Sibelius’s sound or aesthetic, plenty of composers after him clocked the structural implications of his reactive, quasi-improvisatory designs. Some borrowed his techniques. Others attempted to achieve the same ends using the opposite means – writing music that feels less organic, more induced.

Lars Graugaard, born in Denmark, has produced a series of works employing almost mechanistic principles of cause and effect. What emerges is lucid and impactful music that remains true to functionalist principles in keeping its form clear and treating instruments as essential parts moving in sympathy with one another. Inevitability remains, but in a less gravitational, more forced form.

Slonk (2017) is an onomatopoeic title for a piece whose spasms and waves push it forwards like a musical caterpillar, hugging the ground at predominantly low pitches. Despite the mass of proximate, grinding sound, all is clear. This is nature music from the street – adventures not on mountaintops but in backalleys. It has the consistent feel of an improvisation, even if you know it can’t be.

Slonk‘s form is always clear and the instrumentation fresh and uncluttered despite the forest of sounds – the intense drilling of individual instruments and the low brass that offer up moaning roars like faltering girders.

Blind Lemon (2013) is more theatrical, as the villains of low woodwinds conspire against their innocent siblings higher up, the former burning themselves out before the piece ends in cleansing lightness. A little cosmic tune on the celeste appears to form the turning point, coming after the naturalistic chattering rhythms that are half John Adams half Richard Wagner.

Engage and Share (2014) tells of Graugaard’s musical ideals in deeds as well as in the words of its title: lyrical fragments in clarinets drag the music upwards from its clanging depths towards a tundra consisting of beautiful but barely audible etching. A sense of adventure is built in from the start, with the help of those exceptional dark colours.

Listening to all three works is akin to observing the insides of a fantastic contraption or machine, in which every moving part serves a purpose and operates in sympathy with the others. Part of that comes from Graugaard’s background as an improvising musician – the guys who don’t play a note unless it’s as a reaction to a note someone else has just played or is still playing.

There is a consistent sense of direction – of forward motion – in Graugaard’s scores and in these three, the journeys are as clear as they are rational (in the case of at least two pieces, up from the depths towards the light via a process of construction from low notes to high ones). At both ends of the spectrum, Graugaard’s exploration of tone colour is special.

Accordingly, Graugaard’s music sounds like it is being written as it is being played. Rhythm and motion combine with that remarkable sense of colour to form highly functional and very Nordic sound journeys in which mostly inaudible rhythmic underlays tease the music along (again, see Sibelius). On top of that, expressive melodies emerge, often on two instruments operating as a team and tied by a specific interval. Colourful lyric threads ascend and descend over long distances. Just bit players in an enchanting musical display which is all Graugaard’s own.



The first paragraphs of The Northern Silence – from the opening chapter, Tapiola

From the glass walls of Helsinki Airport, Finland’s forests resemble a dado rail separating the horizon from the sky. But the country’s ancient woods are different. They are altogether more inhospitable, inaccessible and unkempt. They don’t start or finish; they come into being and drift elusively away again. The deeper you venture in, the more their base rhythm shifts. Those neat forests harvested for timber and pulp in suburban Helsinki are clipped and consistent. Finland’s old-growth forests are sprawling and unruly, littered with glacial boulders and standing pools.

            I am clambering through one such forest with two Finns, Pekka and Esa. We are on the outskirts of the town of Pietarsaari, high on the country’s west coast in the district of Ostrobothnia. It is late November, around midday. The sun has emerged, but will remain visible for a few hours at best and will cleave resolutely to the horizon while it does. Its position there actually makes the forest lighter: rays filter sideways through the trees, particularly near the forest clearings where no canopy can interrupt them. I have not experienced this particular kind of light in a wood before. It illuminates millions of tiny particles in the air. It is bracing and embracing, a visual equivalent to submersing yourself in lake water.

            Pekka Hako is a musicologist, folklorist and educationalist from Helsinki and wants to talk about this distinctive late autumnal light. He is a bear of a man, unmistakably Finnish from the drooping legato of his spoken English to his high cheekbones and Nokia gumboots. He mentions the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, born not far from here. ‘Aalto tried to recreate this effect in many of his buildings,’ Pekka half-shouts as he walks some metres ahead, negotiating rocks and dodging squelching mud, gesticulating with his left arm to signal he’s speaking. ‘He considered the sun’s position at latitudes like this and tried to find ways of getting its light to infiltrate buildings in the same way, using latticing and panels. He wanted just the quality of light we have here.’

            Aalto wasn’t the only one. This lustrous, piercing sideways light leads me to music – to the last major piece for orchestra by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. In Tapiola,[i] Sibelius created what seems on the surface to be an orchestral depiction of Finland’s spirit of the forest, as set out in the country’s folkloric poetry. At its simplest, Tapiola can be interpreted as a journey deep into one of these woods. It carries with it the heaving undertow of forest winds and creaking trees. It makes oblique references to mystery critters lurking in the half-darkness. It saturates your ears with a sense of the unseen and the unknown. It disorientates at macro and micro level: underneath the orchestra’s elusive twists and turns, the entire musical structure sits uneasily in its own key.

            Despite the fear and foreboding, Tapiola eventually comes good. In the score’s final bars, the orchestra reaches outwards in an almost physical embrace. Its string sections divide and spread-eagle, alighting on notes just far enough apart to affect the musical equivalent of a damp, luminous glisten. The music shifts key for the first and only time – into the major. As an evocation of autumnal Nordic light momentarily filtering through forest trees, the final bars of Tapiola get closer than Alvar Aalto ever would. We are left with the reassuring impression of the forest as a foe turned friend.

            After those crepuscular chords, Tapiola disappears into the silence from which it emerged. Sibelius would do the same. For more than thirty years following Tapiola’s first performance in 1926, the composer wrote little he deemed fit for public exposure. Were the warning signs there? Tapiola has only one half-melody, itself built mostly from repetitions of a single note. Despite that valedictory shift from minor to major, the piece effectively remains within the confines of a single key, a design feature almost unheard of in music at the time. The whole score is alarmingly short on actual musical material. Little wonder silence followed Tapiola. As one musicologist has written, ‘Sibelius reduced his music more and more until, in the end, there was none.’[ii]

            Silence, it’s tempting to speculate, had proved itself too intrinsic a part of Sibelius’s musical language for him to resist embracing it fully. Or perhaps, from his home in the woods, he let it embrace him. The composer had explored the eloquence and energy of silence in plenty of works before. In some, he uses it more obviously. But in Tapiola, silence is the natural state over which each and every sound treads discourteously, right from the rumbling kettledrum with which it sneaks into being. Here, Sibelius uses silence not as a rhythmic lubricant or a dramatic device pitched in counterpoint to extreme noise. Rather, it lies under each and every note, like the inaudible breathing of the forest. Playing the silence, the best conductors know, is how to play Tapiola.

            Silence is more prominent in the northernmost reaches of Europe, in urban as well as rural environments. Sometimes it is real and pure. Sometimes it lingers despite the noise – the deafening silence of poetic fantasy; stasis charged with ferocious thought. Like the forest of Tapiola, it can exist internally as well as externally. Sibelius’s life after Tapiola was filled not with silence, as legend dictates, but with attempts to fill it – with a world of stillborn noise ultimately suffocated by a silence more powerful.

[i] Tapiola refers to the realm of Tapio – in Finnish mythology, the god or ‘spirit’ of the Forest.

[ii]  Goss, Glenda Dawn (2009). Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.