Saturday 4 March 2023

With 'Arctic' she wanted to provide positivity and hope, to show what is worth preserving: Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing on her latest project

Eldbjørg Hemsing
Eldbjørg Hemsing

The Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing recently released her debut album, Arctic, on the Sony Classical label. Recorded with the Arctic Philharmonic, the disc is a musical portrait of the Arctic featuring music by Jacob Shea alongside works by Frode Fjellheim, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Ola Gjeilo, James Newton Howard, Henning Sommerro, Selim Palmgren (1878-1951), Ole Bull (1810-1880) and Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). Recorded in one of the Artic Philharmonic's home towns, Bodø which is the second largest town in North Norway and located just North of the Arctic Circle, the recording was made in the cultural centre, Stormen (the storm) which opened in 2014. Eldbjørg comes from a musical family, both her mother and sister are violinists and together the two sisters organise a chamber music festival, The Hemsing Festival in their home town of Aurdal.

One or two statistics are perhaps helpful here, to convey the sheer distances involved. Bodø, just inside the Arctic circle, is around 1,200 km from Oslo in the very South of Norway. Tromsø is a further 500 km North of Bodø (some 1,700 km from Oslo) and it is over 900 km from Bodø to Honningsvåg at the very tip of Northern Norway. Aurdal, where Eldbjørg comes from, is some 170 km from Oslo, between Oslo and Bergen. All these distances are by road, courtesy of Google Maps, and for comparison, London to John O'Groats is 1,100 km.

When I ask Eldbjørg, why make an album about the Artic, she comments 'Why not?'

It is an incredible area that she first visited when young. She finds it massive, overwhelming and powerful, and she wanted to give a different voice to it. The Arctic is difficult to explain in words, hence the music. Some of the pieces were created especially for the disc and others are pre-existing ones that fit the programme, both contemporary composers and older ones. The Arctic Suite by Jacob Shea and the music by Frode Fjellheim were written for the disc.  Jacob Shea wrote the music for the TV series The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, and Eldbjørg finds his style very visual. The Arctic is so vivid and atmospheric that he was perfect to write music evoking it. Frode Fjellheim is from the Sami people that live in the area; he wrote the opening song for the Disney animated film Frozen, which was based on yoiking. There are also works by Henning Sommero, Selim Palmgren, Ole Bull and Grieg in new arrangements made by Ben Palmer. So the disc is very much a mixture of old and new. 

The Arctic Philharmonic is a relatively young orchestra; it was founded in 2009 and Eldbjørg performed on their inaugural tour. The orchestra is made up of young musicians and she sees it as important that there is a home orchestra for the North (it is based jointly in Bodø and Tromsø), and Bodø is one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2024 (along with Bad Ischl in Austria, and Tartu in Estonia).

The Arctic is under a lot of pressure at the moment, both from climate change and threats of development. Eldbjørg comments that it is hard not to be polemical, what happens there affects the whole world - the Artic melts four times faster than anywhere else in the world, yet the resulting water affects the whole globe. But for the disc, Eldbjørg wanted to show the life and beauty there, the things that we want to preserve, and to bring out a different side to the area rather than being overtly political. There have been other fantastic projects created about the Arctic already, but she feels that it is easy to be all Doomsday, though such projects simply make her feel hopeless and sad. With Arctic she wanted to provide positivity and hope, to show what is worth preserving.

Aurdal - The Hemsing Festival
Aurdal - The Hemsing Festival (Photo courtesy of The Hemsing Festival)

She grew up in Aurdal in the mountains of Valdres, in the middle of Norway; it is a small village with a mountain nearby. She has visited the North several times, from Bodø to Honningsvåg, the Northernmost city in mainland Norway. The Arctic is an amazing area, full of variety, everywhere is different and it is huge, covering eight countries. She has another musical link with the North, she is the artistic director and mentor of SPIRE,  a mentoring programme presented within the Nordland Music Festival in Bodø. SPIRE is a talent academy for young musicians intended to mentor them and give them the tools they need for their professions.

When we spoke, the Hemsing Festival was only a week away, the festival's 10th edition. She admitted that whilst the festival is fun, this felt a bit sudden. It takes place in and around Aurdal, a small village that gets a couple of thousand visitors. The idea is to have intimate musical encounters in small venues. The audience comes from nearby villages, the nearest city (around 50 minutes drive away) and further afield, and the area has the facilities to be able to host them. For Eldbjørg, the village has a particular charm and the idea is that the audience feels close to the artists. For Eldbjørg and her sister, Ragnhild (also a violinist) who founded the festival, their wish was to give something back as they got so much support from the village when they were younger.

Arctic - Eldbjørg Hemsing - Sony Classical

It was probably inevitable that Eldbjørg played the violin, after all, she grew up with a mother and elder sister playing the instrument, so there were only violinists in the house. It became very natural for her to play, and with time she discovered her incredible passion for the instrument. She feels lucky that she was able to develop a strong connection to music and that she is able to play it.

Her favourite repertoire depends on her mood, and she plays everything from early Baroque to modern. She enjoys a variety of music but feels that it is important she plays music created today, with a repertoire from the more academic approach through to the more melodic. 

Once the Hemsing Festival is over, she is in Germany playing chamber music in Ingelheim am Rhein, then, she is in the UK in June, performing Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali [further details]

Arctic: Jacob Shea, Frode Fjellheim, Ola Gjeillo, James Newton Howard, Selim Palmgren, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Henning Sommerro, Ole Bull and Edvard Grieg - Eldbjørg Hemsing, Arctic Philharmonic - Sony Classical [Link Tree]

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