Geoffrey Newman in Conversation with Henning Kraggerud

Henning Kraggerud © Robert Romic

There are few artists who convey a greater sense of communication and discovery in the concert hall than Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud. There is a life-enhancing glow in his appearances, and one surmises that his bountiful inspiration must come from somewhere – perhaps from a tradition that stresses experimentation and an almost Renaissance diversity in musical reach. Kraggerud is not only a beautifully fine-toned and sensitive violin soloist and chamber musician, but a devoted educator, a play/direct specialist, a (sometimes) violist and a composer. One might tangentially note some of the same inspiration and independence of purpose in other Norwegian artists, such as pianists Leif Ove Andsnes and Håvard Gimse, violist Lars Anders Tomter and, more recently, violinist Vilde Frang. A prime motivation for this interview is to understand where this freedom of spirit comes from – and the educational components that may have spawned it – as well as its implications for a more innovative approach to concert performances and programming. Kraggerud’s more recent compositional projects are also discussed.

Kraggerud currently directs the Chamber Orchestra of the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra in Tromsø. Over the past decade, he has recorded a number of successful Mozart and Sinding CDs for Naxos and, in 2017, the premiere recording of the Violin Concerto of Johan Halvorsen. For Simax, he has a string of successful releases, including the complete Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas of Ysaÿe and more innovative titles featuring his own compositions and a thematic focus: Between the Seasons and Equinox. Perhaps the latter is the most noteworthy, 24 original postludes for violin and orchestra exhibiting remarkable variety and feeling. Another collection of evocative pieces (with Bugge Wesseltoft) comprises Last Spring and has been released on ACT. Kraggerud is a recipient of Norway’s prestigious Grieg Prize and was awarded the Sibelius Prize in 2007.

This interview took place in conjunction with the violinist’s Vancouver Symphony Orchestra appearance in late February 2019, a concert highlighted by Kraggerud and Bernt Simen Lund’s new arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (review). I must thank a former student of the violinist, Catharina Chen (currently concertmaster of The Norwegian Opera and Ballet Orchestra), for acquainting me with his wonderful talents and inspiration years ago.

Geoffrey Newman: To understand the legacy of classical music education in Norway, it seems almost mandatory to start from the role of Oslo’s Barratt Due Institute of Music (founded in 1927) in inspiring young talent.

Henning Kraggerud: Yes, I was there originally and was taught by Stephan Barratt Due, Jr. I am currently a professor at the Institute. The school accepts students as young as they can play and trains them up to their teenage years, when they often go abroad. If you have been at a place like Barratt Due for many years, a change of scenery is probably good. The really talented ones often start lessons with my brother, Alf Richard, when they are seven or eight, then go to study in America, Germany or other places around 15 or 16. My brother is an honoured teacher and has taught a vast number of young musicians. I have inherited a number of these; for example, Vilde Frang was one of my students for several years.

Students come from abroad too. Maybe 25 years ago, my brother started a festival called Valdres Sommersymfoni, where young musicians can show their talents. It attracted musicians from Norway and many other places: if my brother saw special talent living far off, he would quite often get sponsorship from the airline companies to fly them to Oslo for lessons and to join Barratt Due. The idea was, if you have a talent, you will be picked up and you will be helped. Our international students now include Americans and prizewinners from competitions around the world; some of them move to Norway because of the festival. Overall, Barratt Due has teaching facilities all the way up to the Master’s level. While it devotes much attention to the younger students, the Master’s program for those students who start at college age is really great. I should also say that there is a very good state academy in Oslo and pretty good schools in Trondheim and other smaller cities.

GN: What was your own experience?

HK: Before being taught by Barratt Due’s son, I had an important teacher, Leif Jørgensen, who probably taught a third of the violinists in Norway. I first started as a small child with a wonderful lady, Magna Halvorsen, who gave me two- or three-hour lessons each week, played duets with me, talked informally about school and served me ice cream too. I was about ten when she called Jørgensen and set up an audition; she had a good sense when she needed to pass me on. When I got to him, he immediately picked up on my talent for composing and said to me, ‘You don’t need to do the regular etudes. You can compose the etudes yourself’. So when I wanted to study octaves, I wrote a little piece for the purpose, and so on. He gave me a much broader education. He would say, ‘Now you’re playing this piece. You should read some novels from the same time to better understand the time in which it was written’. The entire philosophy around teaching was to look at the bigger picture and the whole person. When I told my brother about this approach, he got very interested. He was only 14 (four years older than me), yet he had already decided to become a teacher and would come to my lessons to take notes on how Jørgensen taught. Eventually, we both moved to study with Stephan Barratt Due. Jørgensen died suddenly when I was 14.

GN: How did this experience influence your own teaching?

HK: I suppose I carried on this tradition in some ways. When preparing a concerto, for example, I get a student to think about a lot of things. I don’t let my students study only intonation and fingering in the violin part; they have to know the orchestral score and all the harmonies too. But my ultimate goal is to foster their independence and make myself dispensable. With Vilde Frang and other great students, I want them to build their own interpretations. Many teachers force their interpretations upon the students, but I’d rather try to convey certain underlying things about how I develop my interpretation, and then let the students go their own way and form their own opinions. Once they get ownership of a work, they are self-fueled; those who are really ignited are perhaps unstoppable. One of my favorite quotes by Gustav Mahler is, ‘Our duty on Earth is to pass the flame on, not to store the ashes’. This pretty much sums up what I believe in. I think this is what teachers often miss: they try to force something upon the student, but it needs to come from within the student to really work.

GN: Does this philosophy overlap to some extent with the Menuhin School?

HK: Perhaps. I actually met and played for Yehudi Menuhin twice. It was very interesting, and we had conversations. He was also encouraging about my composing. I played one of my pieces for him, and he wrote a nice letter about it. He was that kind of person: when you met him, you felt you were actually seen. He saw you as the person you were.

GN: You studied with Camilia Wicks and Emanuel Hurwitz later on – rather different teachers.

HK: Hurwitz was particularly good with sound production and different types of vibrato, and he was very musical. He had a viola in his house with one string, and he would make me play it, starting as if it’s the highest string, then go through the arch as if playing on the deepest string, teaching me how morphing is square in music-making. And this was so helpful. He wanted me to play Brahms, Bach and things like that. It was marvelous to learn from him and, as a human being, he was warm and encouraging. He was actually perfect to study with because he would point my interests in different directions and make me look at other aspects of music.

Wicks was closer to home: a lifetime professor at the Oslo Royal Academy since the 1970s and a champion of Scandinavian music, she studied with Louis Persinger (a student of Ysaÿe) at Juilliard. She was more soloistic in her teaching and, frankly, I think I learned a lot of things from her that few people know in the world. She exposed me to French, Belgian and some American pieces. She’s still alive; I phoned her on her ninetieth birthday.

GN: It’s somewhat unexpected that you would study with Emanuel Hurwitz. How did this actually come about?

HK: It was a little bit by accident. My father was going to have a sabbatical year (he’s a professor of Greek and Latin), and he wanted to live in the area near Oxford because Bodleian Library had all the rare manuscripts. I was 18 or 19 at the time, so I had the opportunity to live for free in England. I immediately started looking for a teacher and, somehow, Hurwitz seemed like the one I wanted to go to, even though I had no affiliation with the Royal Academy of Music. I simply phoned him up, and he agreed, and I went directly to him once a week for a lesson. It was a really nice experience, free of formality. I think this is still possible: I have students in Oslo who have just phoned, asking for lessons. They’re not even violinists – they’re woodwind players – but it shows that they are interested. I still think you can do a lot of good things in the world this way.

GN: It intrigues me that you started composing so young.

HK: I started to compose at about the same time as I started to play and, as a young boy, I composed regularly. I wrote a symphony for a full orchestra when I was ten (in four movements), and I wrote piano trios, violin concertos and oboe quartets. Every time I heard a piece I liked, I would compose something for the same story. So, when I was 11, I was tapping into the Schubert trios and wrote a piano trio. I look at it now, and I recognize how un-Schubertian it actually was! Composition is one of the things I’ve been sharing with my students lately. I’ve been improvising and composing myself, and I encourage them to do the same. The separation between composers and players (which is the rule today) hasn’t benefited classical music life. When you look back through history, it was entirely normal for players to compose and for composers to perform. So I’m skeptical of this separation now.

GN: One thing immediately apparent in your concert performances is how much engagement they offer, and how you always seem to make the music accessible to everyone, no matter how challenging it is.

HK: I suppose I have been lucky in knowing a lot of interesting people, such as my uncle who is somewhat in the music business but more of a philosopher type. I’ve had discussions with him about concerts from an early age, and he always told me, ‘Make music and present concerts that you yourself would like to attend’. You think, you’re actually coming to a concert, what do you want from it and what can involve you? Certainly, performing the greatest composers can communicate to an audience that possesses little prior knowledge, but somehow a viewpoint has emerged over the past 60-70 years that concerts that feature ‘inaccessible’ works have higher quality. This is quite destructive.

GN: Perhaps the standardized nature of concert programmes these days is an impediment?

HK: I agree. I think it was Busoni who was irritated by how random concerts were at his time: you had one piece here and one singer there, and so on. He wanted to create some sort of standard, so he introduced this overture-concerto-break-symphony format. But it’s gone too far now: 95% of concerts are done like that. There is so much wonderful music that is hardly played because of the format rules. For example, the two Beethoven Romances are lovely music, but I hardly ever get to play them because orchestras want only the concertos.

GN: What innovations have you tried with your chamber orchestra in Tromsø?

HK: Our most successful projects have been ones which explore a clearly defined theme, not ones that necessarily present the most popular pieces. For example, every year we have the Dark Time Baroque Music. Even when we do Bach’s The Art of Fugue or something equally heavy in a church, I explain about the piece to get listeners in the right state of mind. These types of concerts take place each year, and people come back again and again for more. The key thing is to develop a theme for the listener, and to not let them down in terms of quality of performance.  Do they really want the standard 90 minutes of music, which stretches rehearsal time for the orchestra? Often in my concerts in Tromsø, we invite well-known authors to give a perspective on the music, and the orchestra may only play 40 minutes. If I can use all the rehearsal time for half the number of pieces, the performance standard will be much higher. The audience gets variety, with some really good actors or authors entertaining them and connecting them to the music, plus the highest quality music making. From any perspective, the worst outcome is an incompletely rehearsed 90-minute concert with little or no thematic entrance point for the listener.

GN: Do you think orchestras will inevitably have to move to more innovative concert formats?

HK: If you look at cell phones and Netflix now, and if you look 30 to 40 years ahead in time, not all orchestras will be here if they don’t adapt. The problem is not the music – which is great – but the way we organize its presentation. At one extreme, I might think of theatre: they would rehearse a play for a month, and then do 15 to 20 shows. But there are those who would insist on new programs more often – and then we may be stuck with the dilemma that the orchestra doesn’t play them with enough inspiration for people to come and listen again.

In my experience, one ensemble that really understands this is the Australian Chamber Orchestra. They create great programmes – which they repeat five to seven times in Sydney – and every time I do play/direct concerts with them, it’s fantastic. Even before starting the first rehearsal, you can see the attitude is different: the individual players are not necessarily better than they used to be, but they now really understand each other and know they have room to express their own individuality.

GN: But surely your own ‘spark’ is critical to any performance.

HK: I think it was Bateson who said, ‘All the best things in life you cannot control, but you can put yourself in a position where they can happen’. If you try to control everything, then you lose the natural beauty in the experience. In play/direct formats, I simply try to create a setting in which spontaneous things can happen, and that means having slightly less control and more freedom for the players to express themselves. Most of my treasured moments in life (not just in music) are when you dare to be yourself, try not to be overly controlled, and try to inspire. I am convinced that my level of energy works really well when you get it in the right direction – real magic can occur several times in a concert. Of course, when you turn it in the wrong direction, it can get back at you.

GN: So, let’s move to your recordings. You recorded works like the Sibelius Concerto and the Grieg Violin Sonatas for Naxos in your early days, but you have now defined yourself more distinctively by projects involving your own compositions. You must be pleased with this development.

HK: Yes, the initial Naxos recordings date from 1995 and 1998, when I was in my early twenties. I’ve done many things since: new projects with Naxos and recordings of my own compositions with Simax. Of course, happiness is relative: once you get to a new level, you start to wish for other things!

GN: It was interesting the way you put fresh life into Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons by interspersing your own compositions in Between the Seasons.

HK: Well, the work by itself is too short for a concert or CD. By inserting my little musical commentary in between, it becomes something new: you listen a little bit differently because it’s in an unfamiliar context. When I expose something of myself in my own pieces, it allows the listener to better understand where I am coming from when I actually play the Vivaldi. I generally got quite good feedback from it, though there were a few who absolutely disliked it, saying it’s wrong to do it that way. But I can live with that.

GN: I was lucky enough to hear your Mozart Violin Concerto No.4 (Nos.3-5 now on Naxos) in your last VSO visit (review). I enjoyed the authentic and fresh feel to the interpretation, thinking of the Norwegian folk fiddle tradition and commenting that Andrew Manze would be impressed. That’s where I was first introduced to your Postlude 10 from Equinox – which I liked a lot.

HK: These concertos were written before Mozart moved to Vienna, so he was still living in Salzburg, exposed to the Salzburg style of playing. They are not like his later works so I drew out a folk-like element in them: whether my playing reflects some aspect of the Norwegian folk tradition, it’s hard to tell. But you’re right on Manze. Just after he had done his own recordings, I did a concert with him, and he was impressed by my efforts. He was conducting, and when I passed his room afterwards, I could hear him practising the violin. I knocked on his door to inquire, and he remarked, ‘I just wanted to see if I could play it like you did it!’

GN: An interesting adventure was your recording of pieces based on Edvard Munch paintings entitled Munch Suite.

HK: For this project, I did 15 commissions from 15 different contemporary composers, and each of them wrote a composition for a big exhibition where I played each piece in front of a different painting of Munch. It was an interesting experience to say the least: this was the only time I have played alongside a museum guard armed with a machine gun. The composers were drawn from all over the world, some really famous, some not so. For example, Aaron J. Kernis based his composition on Munch’s ‘Dance of Life’. This was one of the most difficult pieces: it’s great music, but if I just played it without the painting, people would get less out of it. It was a good lesson: many people told me that having the painting there was a valuable way of gaining access to modern music.

GN: One of your most often played compositions is Preghiera (2011). What significance does that have for you?

HK: It’s likely one of my most played pieces because it’s for string quartet and only eight minutes long. It was commissioned by the Brodsky Quartet, and they have performed it close to a hundred times already. A lot of different string quartets have now picked it up. It was the first work I had written for a long time. I was on tour in America when I started it. The Brodsky said they wanted something with sort of a religious feel: somehow, I got into the right state of mind and Preghiera was the result. It means ‘prayer’ in Italian. It let me get fully back into composition again, so it meant a lot. The listener might be able to feel my own mixture of burden and hope.

GN: Equinox seems to be a genuine breakthrough in your composing – both in concept and in music. Were you surprised by the international response it received?

HK: Equinox aims for a bigger scope, not least because it incorporates Norwegian novelist-philosopher Jostein Gaarder’s texts and involves 24 different postludes, each written in a different key. Musically, it was a breakthrough for me, as I had to think of a lot of new compositional angles and create new compositional techniques. I am delighted that it has gained increasing recognition in the five years since it was premiered: a growing number of orchestras throughout the world have taken it up. A new ‘chamber’ version will be internationally premiered at The Oxford Chamber Music Festival this October. I will be joined by Clare Hammond on piano while Simon Callow will narrate the texts.

GN: As I see it, much of your music weds an attractive simplicity with a deeper poignancy and feeling – making it very accessible – but its style has little to do with abstract modern music.

HK: When I started my composing career and issued my first few pieces, I was asked by a journalist from an avant-garde magazine in Oslo, ‘Why don’t you compose contemporary music?’ And I simply said, ‘Can you define contemporary?’ And they couldn’t. But we had interesting discussions: for example, conjecturing what pieces composed today might still be heard 200 years from now? Undoubtedly, any such piece must continue to communicate on some level. It doesn’t have to be tonal harmony, it can be rhythmic, but if there aren’t recognizable things for audiences to link to their own feelings and associations, the music will not endure. For me, it’s the human element that counts most. I’ve written a few pieces where you can say that I’m in the vicinity of Janáček or something, but I’m not abandoning tonality. You grow up with children’s songs and folk tunes: they are a part of you and a part of most humans.

GN: How many compositions have you written – and what are your future plans?

HK: Maybe close to 200, if you count the pieces I wrote at a young age and don’t play anymore. Just now, I got a commission for a concerto from the Tasmanian Symphony, so I am starting that. It will be premiered in February or March 2021. I wrote a little piece for violin and guitar that we played for the 2018 Nobel Prize winners which is now out on the web. I have a few other plans for what I want to compose, but I find that I don’t like to talk about them much when they are still vague. At least now, the concerto is confirmed. Of course, I still have some surprises lying around, in particular some buried ones, like ‘time bombs’, which I planted ten years ago and still haven’t detonated.

GN: One thing that is evident is that you get great inspiration from constructing ‘arrangements’ of important music in different instrumentations.

HK: Yes, I firmly believe great music can be appreciated in many different forms. Younger players might not be able to access a string orchestra to do a Mozart concerto, so why not provide a string quartet version? There is an obvious virtue in reducing the instrumentation of great works for accessibility, but I have gone in the other direction too: for example, the Goldberg Variations just released in a string orchestra version for Simax and an earlier Naxos release of a string orchestra version of Grieg’s Violin Sonatas. String orchestra transcriptions are desirable, since I can perform them play/direct. I have rearranged my own compositions for different instrumentations, and even in something like the Beethoven Violin Concerto, I can’t resist writing my own cadenzas. I have recently performed the concerto with these. I also made several arrangements of ‘Victimae Paschali’ for Easter 2019.

GN: You have always enjoyed playing chamber music too. Who are your current partners?

HK: I have a piano trio with cellist Adrian Brendel and pianist Imogen Cooper: we play concerts once or twice a year, and have done so for six or seven years. Of the bigger works, we have played the two Schubert piano trios and Beethoven’s’ Archduke’. The latter turned out beautifully and we are doing it again at Wigmore Hall in May 2019. I have played duos with a variety of pianists: Kathryn Stott, Christian Hadland and, maybe every other year, Leif Ove Andsnes. One of my newer favorites – we’ve done five or six concerts together – is Dénes Várjon. Our rehearsals are so much fun and I’m looking forward to meeting him again this summer.

GN: And to complete the survey of your talents, what about the viola? I know you recorded viola arrangements of Schubert and Schumann with Håvard Gimse some time ago.

HK: That’s a well-timed question: just before I came to Vancouver, I was touring with violinist Janine Jansen. We did the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante together in Salzburg. I should mention the very special concert just after this, where legendary Norwegian violinist Arve Tellefsen (now 82) joined me and the Arctic Philharmonic in an inspirational programme.

Geoffrey Newman

I am indebted to Kelly Bao for recording and transcriptional assistance.

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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