Reflections on the article in BT on Norwegian musicians being squeezed out of orchestras.


Recently Bergens Tidende ran a double page picture of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, with the headline ’Norwegian musicians are being squeezed out of orchestras’. The non-Norwegian players were highlighted in colour standing amongst their native colleagues. The ensuing text drew attention to the orchestra´s impending auditions, to which 24 players are invited, only 3 of whom are Norwegian. The auditions are, of course, held behind screens so that neither the player´s sex or ethnicity can influence the jury. The most appropriately talented player wins. This is, of course a concept which lies uneasily in a fiercely democratic country where opportunity for all is so vaunted.  But, as has been said on this blog before, the best art must and does contradict all notions of equality.

BT´s article goes on, rightly, to point out that the issue should not be about quotas, but about the role of culture schools in talent development. Ones immediate response, of course, is to make a comparison with football. Of Bergen´s team Brann, at least 10 of the elite squad are foreigners. Interesting – the word elite is entirely permissible when talking about sport; use it about anything to do with the arts, and risk a mauling.

And Brann, for sure, could not be criticised for neglecting talent development. Sport has managed this well – that balance between football, sand-volleyball, whatever, being ’for the people’ and a vital yet friendly part of personal and social development – and the whole issue of competition as a healthy business unfettered by the weight of democratic necessity. After all, someone has to win a team game. Elite sportsmen/women are historically our national celebrities. The cheers for Norway´s Olympians are still ringing.

But the culture schools occupy another territory altogether. No civilised or sensible person would advocate against music, dance, theatre and visual art as marvellous, inspiring and educationally rich worlds for our children to embrace. Bring words like ’specialist’ or ’talent development’ into the mix when discussing the arts, and other words like ’pushy’ or ’precocious’ are quick to join, with accusations of elitism hovering greedily in the distance. The child who, encouraged by Brann, is becoming a terrific defender, is a star. The child from the Culture School who is playing Brahms beautifully is a nerd or a brat.

But back to the BFO and, to my mind, the splendid, chaotic and exciting mix of cultural influences which combine to define the orchestra´s identity. What is the real issue here? Is it really about jobs which by rights should be for Norwegians because the orchestra is based in Norway? And given that many of the foreign nationals who are BFO members have lived here for decades, trained here, teach here and have raised their children through Norwegian schools, how exactly are we defining Norwegian? At Bergen National Opera we have a young writer, a member of our Unge Stemmer of whom we are absurdly proud, who moved from Germany to Norway as a toddler, and who, aged 16, gained a Norwegian six-book publishing deal. No, she didn´t steal it from a through-and-through Norwegian: she got it because she is fantastically talented.

And, why are we so radiantly proud when Norwegians succeed in countries overseas? When the Bergen or Oslo Philharmonic play in New York´s Carnegie Hall (occasions when, incidentally, no-one is complaining about the national quotas amongst the players) our Norwegian newspapers hail them as heroes, not as usurpers who are taking work away from American musicians.

Or is it perhaps about artistic identity? Is the media suggesting that an all-Norwegian orchestra would perform better, sound better? Why on earth would an orchestra all of one nationality play repertoire by composers from all over the world better that one of mixed nationalities?

I´d suggest that Bergen should be proud that it is a fine, cultured and diverse city in which to live and work; a city which is growing talents of all kinds able to work all over the world; a city which attracts gifted people from all over the world  and encourages them to share their identity, education and gifts.

Mary Miller

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