|Aarhus Cathedral, with blue sky and bicycles|
You may know, if you've ever looked at my profile, that I'm a Nordic Noir addict. And it so happens that Denmark – Aarhus in particular (the city of Dicte) – has long represented a home from home for me and Tom. His first job was with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, several decades ago, and he still goes back to play with them from time to time. I’ve just been there with him for a week and took in a hefty dose of vitamin D in that extraordinary Scandinavian sunlight. And I could hardly help soaking up an atmosphere that is so pleasant, so relaxed and so kind of wholesomethat it shows up, in no uncertain terms, just how batty things have become here in Brexit Island.
For instance, the Danes have no problem creating lanes in which their many cyclists can function without being squashed by lorries or running down pedestrians. It’s not rocket science. Nor, it seems, do they have any trouble building concert halls. The Musikhuset’s latest addition, about ten years ago, along with wonderful facilities for the (fee-less) conservatoire, boasts a splendid acoustic, a compact shoebox design and plenty of space backstage, complete with lovely Danish-design wooden floors throughout.
|Rooftops with Town Hall bell tower|
I arrived just in time for the opening of the Aarhus Festival: a jamboree of music for all, street art, food, exhibitions, yoga, kids’ events et al, that takes over the town centre for ten days every September. One little proviso: I have to recommend that if you go for the festival and you value your sleep, try staying somewhere a bit out of town. We were dead centre, and an Irish band singing ‘Old Macdonald had a farm, ee-ei-ee-ei-oh’ at 1.30am wasn’t quite what we’d had in mind.
But over at the Musikhuset it was a different story. The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra had joined forces with the festival and the Elbphilharmonie Summer Festival for some concerts with the American singer and composer Shara Nova, and as the festival’s curtain-raiser they presented a special performance attended by Queen Margrethe of Denmark, who gave a speech to declare the festival open.
You can imagine the buss and fother that would have ensued at an event like this in London. In Aarhus, no problem. There was a little extra security. The smiley, extrovert monarch spoke from the podium with jokes and no notes. Shara Nova gave her all in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sinsand some songs of her own, with the sympathetic conductor Andreas Delfs keeping a hand on the balance and vivid instrumental colour. Some people who don’t usually like ‘crossover’ declared themselves delighted by the whole thing – muggins included, very moved by Shara’s empowering, self-aware, open-hearted songs.
With Shara Nova and Delfs, the Aarhus team had just become the first Danish orchestra to play at the Elbphilharmonie – and the recent signing of Leif Segerstam as principal guest conductor is another bright feather in their cap. As things are clearly on the up, I took the chance to talk to the CEO, Kristian Rahbek Knudsen, about how, in his two years in post, he has been pulling out all the stops to put the orchestra firmly onto the international map.
The opening concert for the Queen, he tells me, means a tremendous amount to the orchestra – as did the unusual excursion across to northern Germany the previous week. “It was a fantastic experience for everyone to play for a sold-out Elbphilharmonie,” he says. As for the royal concert, “This is the gala opening of the Aarhus Festival, but it’s also a chance to reach an audience of invited guests who might not normally come to our concerts: a chance to reach a lot of decision-makers and potential sponsors, and of course to mark that the orchestra is a significant player in the cultural life of the city and region.”
|Kristian Rahbek Knudsen|
“For instance I’m generally not a fan of the crossover genre, because too often you’re adapting material for a symphony orchestra and it’s never quite there, but what I love about Shara Nova is that she’s a composer in her own right: we’re playing full-blown compositions by her for a symphony orchestra. The genre is more towards the popular, but her compositions are brilliantly done. That’s what ties this programme together.”
And taking Weill to Germany – wasn’t that coals to Newcastle? “We knew it would be challenging for Hamburg to take an American to sing Weill with Brecht lyrics in English in Germany with a Danish orchestra, but I think it worked tremendously well. It’s always fun to be a little naughty with programming!”
Other symptoms of Knudsen’s shake-it-up approach are one-hour Saturday afternoon concerts that are deeply family friendly, equally attractive for children, the evening-avoiding elderly and the parents in between. Education is at the heart of Knudsen’s aims: as part of the European Capital of Culture projects in 2017, the orchestra “adopted” all new babies in the city, sending parents an app full of music, and sending players out to give infant-friendly community concerts for them. About a thousand families took up the offer, says Knudsen, and the aim here is to follow the children with music up to school; and after that, every schoolchild in the city has the opportunity to hear the orchestra twice during his or her school days. Essentially the orchestra should travel with them until their education is complete.
As for new forums for performance, the orchestra recently played at a heavy metal festival, performing music from cartoons and computer games - “We had an audience of 20,000 headbanging heavy-metal fans – they are traditionally nerdy and intellectual, with a lot of niche interests, including an overlap with the audience for computer games, and it was a huge success.” But the vital thing, he insists, is never to compromise on the standards: “We’re working on new formats and howwe present things, but we never go into dumbing down what we present.”
|Musikhuset - interior (photo: CFMøller.com)|
The orchestra seems to be finding itself working a bit harder than usual. “But when I took over, I had the distinct impression there was a huge appetite among the musicians to bring the orchestra out and create a much bigger awareness of its activities within the city,” says Knudsen. “We’ve also started up a fundraising initiative based on the UK/US model, and the musicians are queuing up to come and play for these sponsors. It’s something we needed to do.”
This is despite the fact that the organisation receives 80 per cent of its funding from the public purse – half from the government, half from the town. “We now have a suggestion from the Ministry of Culture to increase our funding for the next four years, through a dialogue we’ve had with the minister and a lot of key politicians in parliament trying to explain our situation,” Knudsen says.
I wonder how to halt the bright green tint that is creeping over my skin with envy at the thought of the continual financial struggles of UK orchestras - which, let’s face it, aren’t going to get easier any time soon.
Yet Denmark does need to fundraise. “I think it’s important to have a third revenue stream, besides public funding and our ticketing income, that is a solid fundraising operation,” says Knudsen. “Every cultural institution needs one now and it’s a good way of creating a buffer against any potential cuts.” Already he has seen results: “We’ve been very lucky. For the first time a local foundation is sponsoring the full costs of two chairs for the orchestras, and Leif Segerstam’s post as principal guest conductor has been partly funded by a charitable foundation as well.”
|Segerstam. (Photo: auroramusic.se)|
Pulling Segerstam aboard for three years seems a significant coup, alongside the recent contractual renewal of Aarhus’s well-liked chief conductor Marc Soustrot, also for three years. “Segerstam is legendary in many ways, and infamous!” Knudsen acknowledges. “But we had him here last year and it was a great experience. It’s going to be really exciting. We’re planning to do some live recordings while he’s here: there are several composers he’s never done on disc before so we’ll see if we can create some exciting live recordings out of that.” One of his hopes is that in due course the orchestra will be able to create an app on which subscribers can listen to its beautifully high-tech recordings.
“I would like the orchestra to be a force to be reckoned with,” he declares. “Aarhus is the second city in Denmark. If you look at second cities in the rest of Scandinavia, they all have internationally significant orchestras and I think we should be the same here.” Effectively, then, they want to be the Bergen Philharmonic of Denmark? “Certainly – and I think that is perfectly within reach.”
Could we learn something from Knudsen’s ambitions back in the bigger but more beleagured UK? (UK population: 65m. Denmark: 5m.) Is it perhaps easier for a city the size Aarhus to build up its civic relationships with its flagship orchestra than would be the case in the competitive, stressed-out UK capital? “You couldn’t reach all the schoolchildren in London - but you could try,” Knudsen insists. “You could go some of the way. It’s important to see the orchestras as educators and builders of culture. The LSO has been very successful with that and I’d love to see more funding allocated by the British government to support such activities.”
Personally I’d like to see more funding allocated by the British government to anything that is not Brexit. “It’s a worrying prospect for the British orchestras in general, what’s going to happen,” Knudsen agrees. “I think there are ways to work around it, but it’s going to be disruptive. I can’t see anything positive coming out of it, and I think this is becoming clearer to the British public.”
Knudsen is well placed to judge: he lives in Cambridge and divides his time between England and Denmark. His wife is a neuroscientist based at the university and Knudsen himself was formerly a fellow there in chemistry. “I’ve lived in the UK for 15-16 years, so it’s home,” he says. “After my time in Cambridge I was doing a lot of work in business consultancy and I was wondering what the next step should be when someone pointed out this position. I was born in Aarhus, it’s my native town and I’d played the violin in the orchestra while I was studying – so I thought this could be a wonderful way to combine my various activities.”
|A stroll by the Kategatt on Denmark's east coast|
So how does he do it? “I think dialogue is important, explaining to decision makers what an orchestra does,” he says. “There has been a tendency in Denmark that the way of communicating has been angry shoutouts in newspapers telling the politicians how incompetent and stupid they are – and that’s not very useful! You can get a long way by having good and constructive dialogue with politicians, to explain what we do and what the benefits of it are. And we are taken seriously.”
The next step, though, is to create a wider, international awareness of both the orchestra and Aarhus itself, and what an attractive place it is to live. Are you a good orchestral player looking for a strong orchestra, a pleasing environment and a wonderful Scandinavian attitude to family life? Come and get it. Even the language is not as difficult as it might sound. Tom insists that it’s just like English, only 1000 years out of date (yes, I know, I know…).
“We offer a good salary, it’s a full-time, contract job, and it’s a perfect place to live and raise a family. You can afford nice, big accommodation, which would be impossible in London” says Knudsen. Harsh, but true. “We have four-hour rehearsals [UK orchestras usually do six hours per day] and it’s a fairly benign workload. I’ve seen how hard people work in London and it’s amazing.”
Indeed, Danish society is set up to facilitate a work-life balance that’s fast becoming impossible in the UK. “I’ve seen so many of my female colleagues in UK giving up their careers to have children,” says Knudsen. “In Denmark you can have children and have a career. We have the infrastructure for it.
“We’re going to hire more musicians and we have an international blend of players already. We welcome good players from all over the world to join us.”
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