The Oslo Sinfonietta

The sinfonietta is the ensemble of our time. It emerged when musicians joined forces to play contemporary music for people who wanted to hear precisely that kind of music.

Oslo Sinfonietta

It is paradoxical. A generation ago, the performance of contemporary music was a natural part of our symphony orchestras’ activity, even though the musicians strongly disliked playing new and, to them, strange forms of musical expression. Nor did they shy away from publicly scorning the music they performed. Today, on the other hand, we have a generation of musicians who gladly play contemporary music, while it has become a very marginal part of the symphony orchestras’ repertoire.

This paradox facilitated the growth of a new type of ensemble, unique to our time; the sinfonietta, or flexible orchestra – pools of more independent musicians from among whom it was possible to put together ensembles as needed. However, they were more than mere address lists; the ensembles often had their own sound, their own programme profile, and even their own audience.

This increasing interest in contemporary music on the part of musicians also occurred in other countries, but the trend was probably stronger in Norway thanks to our newly-established State Academy of Music, where the students were not only influenced by their teachers but also inspired by the youthful environment they created, where new ideas and innovation played a natural role. Moreover the new status accorded to music studies had given students a sense of professional security they did not have before.

It was in this environment that, in the 1980s, Asbjørn Schaathun, at that time a student of composition, gathered together some instrumentalists from among his co-students and formed what they called the State Academy Contemporary Ensemble. It was run on a purely idealistic basis, without any form of financial support or payment. They regarded ensemble playing as part of their studies and were able to spend plenty of time learning the music. Consequently, the ensemble had fairly soon established a good reputation, both for the quality of its performance and for its choice of repertoire, in which Schaathun played a decisive role as well as being the conductor, organiser and driving force of the ensemble.

These activities therefore ceased of their own accord when Schaathun went to study in London for a couple of years in the early 1980s. On his return, he gathered his old musician friends together to start the ensemble up again and they called it the Oslo Sinfonietta. However, their situation had changed. Their carefree student days were over, they were all establishing homes and families and had to think of making a living and a career. Nevertheless, the entire process was coloured by a basic concept that might have come from the Communist Manifesto: contemporary composers and musicians had to control the means of production and not be beholden to other people.

The Oslo Sinfonietta made its début in 1986 and attracted immediate attention in musical circles, due both to its performances and to its daring programme policy. The ensemble commissioned a number of works from both Norwegian and foreign composers and tackled important works from the 20th century repertoire, including composers such as Varèse, Boulez, Berio, James Dillon and Tristan Murail, to whom they devoted a whole festival. They did a major tour of Sweden in 1987 with 33 musicians, playing works by Boulez, Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen and Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, all organised from the kitchen table. The ensemble received several invitations to play at prestigious festivals abroad, but did not have the financial means to accept them.

Finance and madness
All in all, there was a large gap between goals and means. While they had highly ambitious goals as regards artistic quality and performance, their financial and administrative resources were more or less non-existent. However, their activities were characterised by an enthusiasm bordering on madness as regards both organisation and music-making. First they would decide what they wanted to do, then the practical and financial side was expected to look after itself, which it certainly did not always do.
Asbjørn Schaathun organised and conducted, despite the fact that he had never harboured any ambition to be a conductor. They were a well-coordinated group of friends with good personal chemistry and a great joy in playing, which affected their performances to such an extent that music-lovers from abroad began to talk of “The Oslo Sound”.

The idealism that characterised their work, however useful and impressive it may have been, had its limitations. The personal sacrifices they had to make in terms of both time and money gradually became too great. Schaathun had to take up a personal loan to keep it going and the musicians, who were already underpaid, had difficulty in obtaining their fees. Their activities gradually slowed down and Schaathun resigned as both conductor and organiser.

They still performed sporadically, such as including at the Nordlyd Festival – the forerunner of the Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival – in 1988, with Helmuth Lachenmann on the programme, and the ISCM World Music Days in 1990, where the Oslo Sinfonietta experienced its international breakthrough, now conducted by Christian Eggen (LtN 3-99), who had gradually gained a substantial reputation as a conductor, particularly of contemporary music.

In the following years, the Oslo Sinfonietta limited its activities to its annual performances at the Ultima Festival, which was run by composer John Persen. However, the ensemble form was missed in musical circles and when John Persen left as head of Ultima after the 1992 season, he initiated a reorganisation and a new form of operation.

In autumn 1993 the Oslo Sinfonietta was re-established, now as an association of composers and musicians. The idealism and joy in playing were still there, but it was made clear from the start, not least to the authorities, that if they were to run a professional, high quality ensemble they would have to have a proper financial base. After long, intense lobbying of the allocating authorities, a solution was finally reached. The Norwegian Cultural Council allocated a grant to support the ensemble for three years from 1995 and the last six months before that were spent on planning their activities during the period of the grant.

John Persen was appointed administrator and producer and offered to work free of charge for a transitional period. The offer was flatly refused; there was to be no more charity – a worker deserves his pay, also in culture’s vineyard. His fee was fairly symbolic and has not subsequently been adjusted, although his workload has increased.

The ensemble comprised the old group of friends, whose enthusiasm and delight in playing was undiminished, plus some older, more experienced musicians. One important prerequisite was that everyone was to make active efforts to develop the ensemble and its style.

The Oslo Sound
The important thing now was to build up an artistic profile. An artistic council was established, with Christian Eggen as leader and permanent conductor for the ensemble. He strongly emphasised forming the ensemble in such a way that it had a sound, a style and a repertoire that gave it an identity. At the same time, it had to be an ensemble for the entire contemporary music world, not only for a congregation of fellow believers. It had to be stylistically open to all forms of contemporary expression and have the ability to see the totality of the contemporary musical landscape. This policy has been followed fairly strictly, although there have been few contributions from the nostalgic movement. The ensemble’s ability for innovative musical thinking has been regarded as good.

At the same time, they have tried to strike a balance between a Norwegian and an international repertoire, and between the very new works and the classics of Modernism. They have felt a particular obligation towards younger composers, which has resulted in the establishment of an apprenticeship scheme. Despite the modest title, the apprentice is a kind of Composer in Residence and the scheme entitles him not only to compose for the ensemble but to use it to try out new ideas. He also participates in the administration in order to learn how to manage and organise a professional ensemble. It is important for a composer to know how a fairly large professional ensemble works, in both organisational and human terms, and to know how much work and which processes a concert or a recording entails.

This scheme demands a great deal of the ensemble, not least in terms of time. Nevertheless, the close contact between musician and composer is regarded as being so important for both parties that they will try to continue the scheme. Eivind Buene, a composer currently completing his studies who has aroused attention both inside and outside Norway’s borders, is at the end of his period as apprentice composer. His cooperation with the ensemble will be demonstrated on a CD due to be released shortly.

The Oslo Sinfonietta has justified its existence through its activities. This is also the conclusion of a report written by dr. art. Erling Gulbrandsen for the Norwegian Cultural Council. So far, however, the allocating authorities have not provided permanent financing for the ensemble, which is living from hand to mouth on grants from one project to the next. This makes planning difficult and the future highly uncertain.

In the Oslo Sinfonietta, Norway has a large, highly professional contemporary ensemble. Hopefully it will continue to be heard at home and abroad in the future.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.8 - 2000 No. 3
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