Musical Sisters: Seattle and Bergen celebrate 50 years of friendship and the birthday of Norway’s most beloved composer with jubilee gala concert
by Lori Ann Reinhall, President, Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association
“Wonderful!”, “Fantastic!”, “Amazing!”, Extraordinary!”, “Thrilling!” — these were the words heard over and over again as visitors left the sanctuary of Seattle’s Ballard First Lutheran Church on Sunday, June 18, after listening to a “almost all-Grieg” program in celebration of the Bergen composer’s 174th birthday three days earlier.
It was the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association’s fourth annual Edvard Grieg Gala, this year billed as a “Jubilee Extravaganza” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the friendship between the two sister cities, and as one concertgoer observed, “a gala performance it was for sure.” With some of the best young local talent that Seattle has to offer, together with two of Bergen’s most celebrated performers, the audience was held captive in a state of enchantment for nearly two hours, the spell only broken by roaring applause and a series of standing ovations.
Both Seattle and Bergen are cities that stand out as cultural capitals in the world arena, and as the president for the Seattle-Bergen group, I could not help to remark in my opening introductions, “Seattle and Bergen may very well be the most musical sister cities in the entire world!”
Two years ago, when I first met soprano Reidun Horvei during her visit to the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, I knew that it would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We each have a strong interest in emigrant and folk music, and I was deeply impressed with Reidun’s research. We immediately hit it off and kept in touch. With the jubilee concert, I understood that I had found the ideal occasion to invite my new friend and colleague back to the United States: we wanted the concert to be special and authentic, so Reidun was perfect for us.
The association was overjoyed when Horvei accepted the invitation, and even more excited when she told us that she would bring along concert-pianist Inger-Kristine Riber. Both hail from Voss in Hordaland County and are acclaimed performers in nearby Bergen and all of Norway. They have appeared in the international arena, with followers in the Seattle area, and excitement and anticipation mounted on both sides of the Atlantic.
There is unmistakably something unique about the two Norwegian performers: when Reidun Horvei and Inger-Kristine Riber appear on the stage, a touch of magic comes into play. With complete technical mastery of their art, there is nonetheless a spontaneity and playfulness rarely experienced in concert halls today, as they captivate their audience from beginning to end. Looking at the two onstage in their traditional Norwegian costumes, the Voss bunad, one has the sense of being carried away to another time and place — and once the music starts there is no doubt about this.
Riber both accompanied Horvei and offered up solo selections that allowed to her to flaunt a mastery of her instrument. Her interpretations were at once subtle and fervent, with an unprecedented power and fiery passion. Riber’s rendition of Grieg’s tour-de-force piece Wedding Day at Troldhaugen brought the house down, as some wondered if the piano at any moment would explode in sheer ecstasy.
After the performance, Gerd Korsnes Jones, who immigrated to Seattle from Ålesund after WW II, reflected: “I’ve never heard Grieg played so fantastically! Inger-Kristine Riber is without a doubt one of the best pianists in Norway! We are so lucky that we got to experience her performance. And Reidun Horvei was extraordinarily talented. She has a magnificent voice, and she took us with her to Norway up into the mountains. It was a uniquely wonderful concert that I will remember for a long time.”
Memorable it was. With Horvei, there was a sense of total bewitchment, with perfect pitch and flawless diction, coupled with a theatrical lightheartedness bordering on mischief. The Norwegian songbird immediately connected with her audience, transporting them to highlands and mountains, the land of fjords, lakes and rushing waterfalls. The New Norwegian (nynorsk) texts of Arne Garborg’s Haugtussa cycle brought tears to eyes of the many Norwegians in the audience. They were lulled to sleep with Gjendine’s Lullaby, and everyone woke up in astonishment with Horvei’s Cow Call.
In a concert that went from climax to climax, Horvei and Riber were in good company with some of Seattle’s best local talent in the Grieg Gala Festival String Quartet. Rachel Nesvig greeted concertgoers with traditional tunes on her Hardanger fiddle as they arrived, and later joined in with Horvei and Riber, adding depth to the performance. Without a doubt, one of the highest points of the concert was when they all came together in Inger-Kristine’s arrangement of a traditional Bergen folk dance, Springdans frå Bergen. For this world premiere, Rachel Nesvig took up her Hardanger fiddle again, backed up by Allion Salvador playing first violin, Aleida Gehrels on the viola, and Zoë Kohen-Ley on the cello. The sanctuary was immediately filled with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
After the intermission, the concert took a more serious turn, as the string quartet returned with Grieg’s String Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op. 27. Regarded as an apex of Grieg’s high classical repertoire, the string quartet’s young and talented musicians played with a sensitivity and maturity well beyond their years, followed by another round of thunderous applause and yet another standing ovation, followed by flowers and more applause.
The Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association is committed to meaningful cultural exchange, and with the Grieg Gala Jubilee Extravaganza, they proved that they were up to the task. The Seattle community poured into the Ballard church for the free, world-class concert that was open to all, and many stayed to celebrate with a lavish reception of Norwegian delicacies, complete with krumkake, gourmet birthday cake and other delights.
The 2017 gala concert was a befitting way to celebrate 50 years of friendship between two musical sister cities that share a heritage of a rich culture, a confluence of tradition and youth, a promise of enduring humanity that transcends all borders and time in a common goal of beauty and understanding for a better world.
Photos courtesy of Inger-Kristine Riber and Martin Ng