Oslo flexes its cultural muscle

Nine years after Ultima was first staged in Oslo, English eccentricity has left its mark on this edition of the Norwegian festival.
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The Independent Culture
OSLO, NORWAY'S capital city of little more than half a million, is the setting for one of Europe's most lively contemporary music festivals. Capital cities have a habit of overwhelming such delicate activities: making an impact in an environment busy with numerous counter attractions creates difficulty. But Oslo is different. Norwegians, with a population of four million, are aware that commercial life is difficult. Co-operation rather than competition is the key. Co-operation between 16 Norwegian music organisations swells the cultural base - and the potential for attracting finance, performers, composers and audiences.

Ultima's origins stretch back to the hosting by Norway in 1990 of the World Music Days, the annual Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music. As Geir Johnson, Ultima's tireless Festival Director explains: "During the 1980s a whole new generation of composers born between 1950 and 1960 emerged. This generation - Ase Hedstrom, Rolf Wallin, Ceceila Ore and others - represented a new international trend in Norwegian musical life. They travelled much more. They brought impulses to Norway and they helped form ensembles like the Oslo Sinfonietta, Cikada, working closely with musicians of their own generation. Getting the World Music Days in 1990 meant an opportunity to show the excellence of this new generation. We used this opportunity quite consciously to build a competence within the country, within the music institutions. We made a decision strategically to try and extend the experience of the World Music Days into a festival concept. We managed to transform the energy of a one-off experience into a yearly occurring event."

Ultima is now in its ninth year. For 10 days, from the beginning of this month, the capital has been deluged with activities - new music concerts, fora, electroacoustic installations, opera, dance, film - with up to eight events taking place on any one day, a problem to some extent through having to choose what to miss as much as what to catch. I caught the last four days of Ultima, which featured a predominance of British music and musicians.

Electroacoustic music and concerts with live electronics had particular emphasis, a trend perhaps more popular in continental Europe than in Britain. But a raft of composers from the UK including, Nick Melia, Simon Waters, Mathew Adkins and Neal Farewell, provided a complete tape concert.

The work of Jonathan Harvey peppered programmes, his Ashes Dance Back presenting a high point in a performance at the Aula of Oslo University, by the extraordinary New London Chamber Choir, visiting Ultima for the first time.

Until the recent building of a new concert hall, the Aula was Oslo's main venue for orchestral concerts and it was here that the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra under Zsolt Nagy gave the last of the festival's orchestral concerts. If the festival often seemed bathed in the grey modernist aesthete of the international avant garde - the concert featuring works by the Norwegian Jon Olvind Ness, Danish composers, Bent Sorensen and Karl Aage Rasmussen - Britannia by James MacMillan (a satirical dig at English imperialism) livened up affairs. What a Norwegian audience can have made of snippets of Elgar and Scottish reels is anyone's guess. Even more baffling must have been the work of Chris Newman.

In the gloom of a re-appropriated factory workshop with new ventilation ducts set against peeling paint, Newman stoked the cause of English eccentricity. His act is rubbish of the highest sophistication. Newman cannot sing but that's the point: he delivers his dead-pan songs in a harsh, cracked monotone of no particular pitch. The lyrics are his own, on one level hilarious, on another deeply disturbing: "My dick went away. It didn't want to play. Far, far away-ay. It won't come back today-ay." It seems unsurprising that the bitter-sweet Schubert is Newman's favourite composer. The audience howled for more.

Norwegian Opera presented the world premiere of the brothers Henrik and Axel Hellstenius Sera, a 65-minute one-acter. Lacking Norwegian, the language was impenetrable but the story seemed a good one: Lilith can't stand the noise in the world any more and tries to collect all noise on CD to give to God to destroy. An angel and a sound engineer frustrate her intentions. Musically, it bristled under the direction of ex-Ensemble Contemporain flautist, Pierre-Andre Valade. Vocally, the production was strong, Ketil Hugaas as God, demonstrated an extraordinary range; a Wotan in the making.

The Arditti Quartet closed the festival with one of its astounding canters of works by Nancarrow, Carter, Harvey and Ligeti. But it was the work by the Norwegian composer, Ragnhild Berstad, which touched most. Norway (and Ultima) has a bright future.