The dash of daring that brings a classical music festival alive  

Xenia Hanusiak reports on Leif Ove Andsnes’ 2019 Rosendal Chamber Music Festival
Xenia Hanusiak
Xenia Hanusiak

It was not until the final note was struck at the 2019 Rosendal Chamber Music Festival that I could sigh, breathe, and then collect my thoughts to understand what I had just experienced over the past four days. Up to this point, I was sometimes spirited, irascible, irreproachable and perplexed as to why I was not in a complete state of bliss.

After all, I was experiencing a rare musical biography of Shostakovich, performed with dedicated expertise by some of the world’s most highly acknowledged interpreters of his repertoire.

It was only as the festival drew to a close that I realised how this three-concerts a day sonic mission, led by intrepid pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, provided the space to contemplate the critical value of the festival experience itself: a unique place where performers and audiences share the same time and space to experience an extended communion of emotions and thoughts. For this, we can thank the ancient Greeks: their notion of bringing communities together for commemorations of life, through festivals dedicated to harvests and Gods, is now embedded in our contemporary cultural life.

Anthony McGill © Liv Øvland
Anthony McGill © Liv Øvland

Like pilgrims of old, summer music festivalgoers are devotees: musicians and audiences abandon sandy beaches and the Alps to sit in concert halls. And just as climbing the Himalayas offers awe and daring for the mountaineer, so does the festival experience for the classical music fan. In the right hands, a classical music festival is an expedition: it allows you to become immersed in an experience that may at first seem remote or insurmountable.

Be it avant-garde, traditional, lighthearted, popular, or high-minded, this encounter instils in the person the ability to meet the unknown. Akin to an intrepid traveller in search of connection and adventure, a festival must inspire curiosity in the festivalgoer.

At Rosendal, director Leif Ove Andsnes positions music and its incisive power to transform. Through his programming, he says: “I want to share this with you because it is important.” The purview is both broad and specific.

In Andsnes’ case we experienced the palpable effects of a totalitarian society on Shostakovich. We began our journey with optimism, listening to the firecracker excitement of Shostakovich as a 19-year-old student declaring his precious self in his Prelude & Scherzo: Two Pieces for String Octet. The piece and its performance was everything you want to hear from a young artist – wild, unrestrained and brimming with ideas. The following days ebbed and flowed in levity and melancholia. By the festival’s conclusion we were rattled by a portrait of desolation in chamber version of his 15th symphony.

Ensemble Allegria © Liv Øvland
Ensemble Allegria © Liv Øvland

The journey revealed how a lack of tolerance for individuality and repression of dialogue influenced a composer and his ideas. We felt the suppression in the cries and whispers, melancholia, ecstasy, pleas and shouts of his chamber music and songs, recreated by the artists in as a palpable present as possible.

When Andsnes, together with violinist Veriko Tchumburidze and cellist Clemens Hagen, threw themselves into the score of the second piano trio they created an interpretation that you could never encounter in an urban concert hall in a subscription series. Played with death-defying velocity and unfailing precision the trio stripped the score to its most primal rhythmic and sonic elements. For the audience, the effect was nail-biting and pulse quickening, as if we were all about to walk off the edge of a cliff hand-in-hand together.

Moments such as these can never be reproduced and reminds us why we attend concerts – for these rare ephemeral, transient flashes whose permanence only exists as a sensorial memory. The festival experience offers the license for the unexpected to occur.

Festivals also succeed when there is a belief that a discourse of words, image and dialogue are indispensible, and that the aggregation of these pathways together with the natural environment reveal a simultaneous capacity to open us to different breadths and depths. Andsnes’ festival resides in the estate of the idyllic Barionet Rosendal, a 1655 manor house. The roar of the grand waterfall nearby provides an unwitting dramatic film score, pepped up by a collection of scholarly talks by Gerard McBurney to further expand this four-day sonic biography.

We believe our understanding of culture and society is based on the assumption that we know who we are and what our place is in it. According to the African Ubuntu philosophy, “You are who you are because of others.” The communality of the music festival allows this to happen.

Writer and festival director Xenia Hanusiak is a guest speaker at the 9th UNESCO Global Media and Information Literacy Conference in Gothenburg in September.

The fourth Rosendal Chamber Music Festival by Leif Ove Andsnes took place from 8 – 11 August.


Rosendal concert hall i a barn on the manor house’s farming estate © Liv Øvland
Rosendal Concert Hall in a barn on the manor house’s farming estate © Liv Øvland