Making noise in Stavanger

A democratic outlook and creative programming – not to mention a brand new concert hall – are propelling Stavanger Symphony Orchestra forwards. 

When I catch director Trude Marit Risnes on the phone, it’s clear she’s happy with the progress being made at Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. ‘We are flying,’ she says happily. ‘Everything is going the right way – though it’s always important to stop and reflect and see what we can do better.’

SSO moved into the new Stavanger Concert Hall last year and has since seen a 40 per cent rise in concert attendance. In the past 12 months, the whole house (made up of two auditoria) has attracted 260,000 people, 90,000 of whom attended an SSO performance. One certain challenge with a new concert hall is how to continue to exceed audience expectations and ensure new visitors keep coming back long after the launch.

‘Yes, a new venue is big news for a city and a region like ours,’ says Risnes. ‘But that’s soon over and when the initial excitement passes we still need to find ways to fill the hall.’ And so the creative team is actioning a comprehensive artistic strategy that includes an international tour and some clever programming.

For the past 20 years SSO has focussed on early orchestral music; in the 1990s Frans Brüggen, and later Philippe Herreweghe, were the first artistic directors responsible for developing the orchestra’s baroque and classical repertoire. Fabio Biondi took over this responsibility in 2006. Now under the enlightened joint direction of Biondi and fellow conductor Steven Sloane, the artistic development of all musicians is key.

From this autumn, Biondi will share responsibility for SSO’s artistic direction with the talented young maestro, Christian Vásquez. Caracas-born Vásquez, who is also music director of the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, became chief conductor of SSO at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, inaugurating an initial four-year term with Mahler’s Symphony No 2.

Stavanger Symphony Orchestra Christian Vásquez
Christian Vásquez

Risnes is keen to continue a tradition of inventive, if not sometimes unorthodox, programming. The 2013-14 season has been divided into the Classical Series, which stages six concerts per year and acts a kind of introduction to classic repertoire, and the Main Series, a spread of 16 concerts that offers repertoire to suit a more knowledgeable audience. ‘We’ve had fantastic development in both series: in 2011, before we moved to the concert hall we had a 10 per cent increase in attendance, last year we had 26 per cent increase, and this year we have 4.5 per cent increase,’ says Risnes.

At the Classical Series the audience is guaranteed one well-known classical piece; suitable for people who are familiar with classical music, but perhaps not extremely knowledgeable of the genre. The Main Series, on the other hand, challenges the ideas of a trusted audience and takes more risks.

SSO’s current manifesto goes back to basics: the main objective is simply to become better known. Yet within such basic contraints, the orchestral team is certainly inventive. As with last season, the current ethos is to work very specifically with differing audience groups, and to take a much more personalised approach with its communication strategy.

As the audience gets up close to the orchestral players, barriers are broken down and the footfall increases at the concert hall

Various bespoke schemes have seen SSO put community outreach projects at the centre of all its activities. The ingenious SSO Underground ‘jumping’ scheme, an island-hopping tour of the area presenting chamber ensemble concerts to difficult to reach residents, has done much to connect musicians with the general public, especially those who lack the opportunity to visit the main concert hall. And whilst SSO Underground will continue into 2014, a new scheme begins next May that will take chamber ensembles from the stage to schools and kindergartens.

‘As the audience gets up close to the orchestral players, barriers are broken down and the footfall increases at the concert hall,’ Risnes says. ‘The overall effect has been tremendous.’

In terms of the personal and artistic development of each musician, SSO’s strategy is to give players their turn in the spotlight – and not just deliver the tried and tested wow-factor of presenting big name guests. ‘It’s important for us to promote our own soloists because then we show the audience who is playing in the orchestra. This way we develop musicians and enable them to reach a higher artistic level.’

Musicians are also given the opportunity to programme their own chamber concert series. ‘The musicians are very involved in our programming and ask artistic questions,’ says Risnes. ‘We are receiving more ideas than before and taking on more initiatives and projects – all of which are totally driven by music and our musicians.’ This truly democratic environment allows for creativity to be expressed across the ranks; the result is enthusiastic players who meaningfully contribute to the development and sustenance of the company.

Equally, creativity happens at a production level. The technology at the orchestra’s new home, combined with the opportunity to rehearse in an excellently acoustic hall, has done much to boost standards and morale – as well as lay the foundations for an experimental programme – all of which benefit the audience by presenting a new and unique experience. In the opening week, SSO staged The Magic Flute complete with digital 3D projections; a presenting format that has been adapted and expanded to other concerts.

‘We’re also experimenting with how with 3D sound affects a concert, different lighting solutions for the concerts, and the techniques we use to vary all this at different concerts, as well as how we incorporate visuals. For example, we have film concerts where we show very high-quality clips of movies.’

Later this month one such concert will be dedicated to Steven Spielberg movies, under conductor Nick Davies. Christmas will see a festive slant to the Main Series via Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve (suite), based on the love between witches and demons in Nikolai Gogol’s book, The Night Before Christmas. December will also see Handel’s Messiah conducted by Michail Jurowski with soloist soprano Evelina Dobraceva.

Adds Risnes: ‘I would dare say that we have had a huge success story. For the musicians, it’s a valuable experience to play in such a brilliant hall that is acoustically amazing and they improve their playing every day. Though naturally, the pressure on each musician is higher – because in this hall you can hear everything.’

Photos © Emile Ashley