Thursday, May 04, 2006

Norwegian violinist scales the heights

The Cincinnati Post's Mary Ellyn Hutton interviews violinist Henning Kraggerud in today's paper:
Not many people have fiddled atop the Great Pyramid. One of them was 19th-century Norwegian violinist Ole Bull (1810-80). Another is Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud, who will make his debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall.

Kraggerud, who performs in a Norwegian documentary about the "Nordic Paganini," to be released later this year, will perform Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the CSO led by music director Paavo Järvi.

Also on the concert, final one of the CSO's 2005-06 season, are Bartok's Dance Suite and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 ("Scottish").

Kraggerud, recipient of Norway's Grieg Prize, comes to Cincinnati on short notice, having stepped in for ailing Akiko Suwanai, who cancelled her CSO date last week. It will be the 32-year-old Oslo native's first visit to the Queen City, and he'd like to do some sightseeing, he said.

It would have to be something to equal the 449-foot Egyptian burial vault (though Carew Tower is higher at 574 feet). He climbed the pyramid at sunset with a camera trained on him.

"The filmmaker wanted me to play during the sunset," Kraggerud said.

"He wanted me to climb on the edge. The local guide said, 'You cannot climb there because it's too insecure.' The filmmaker told me, 'You have to be on the very edge, because we want your silhouette against the sky.' "

Kraggerud finished playing on the top, and that's when "the scary part" began, he said.

"It becomes dark and you have to get down again."

Kraggerud and Ole Bull (pronounced O-la Bool) both were influenced by Norwegian folk-fiddle playing. Dating from the 17th century, the folk or "hardanger fiddle" is smaller than the violin, intricately decorated and has four resonating strings beneath the upper set. CSO violinist Paul Patterson played hardanger fiddle in Grieg's "Peer Gynt" with the CSO last fall.

"Hardanger fiddle has some reminiscence from the baroque period and has not changed as much as modern playing," said Kraggerud, "so I have learned quite a bit from that. A lot of the old way of bowing has been preserved in this playing. Most for baroque music, but even for Mozart and Beethoven, it has been (an) influence. When you do not use so much vibrato as you would in late romantic repertoire, you need to be expressive with the bow in a slightly different way than is normally taught in modern violin playing."

Improvisation is another skill handed down through Norway's folk fiddlers. "It's seldom that you would meet people who know how to improvise in the classical tradition," he said.

Kraggerud, who is also a composer and teaches at the Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo, loves to improvise and writes his own cadenzas for many of the concertos he performs. "It's a great way to get to know the score in a different way when you actually have to participate (in) composing the music yourself. You get another type of own- ership of the themes and the music."

Being a composer helps him to be a better player, he says. "It's good for composers to be players and good for players to be composers. I have learned a lot about playing by composing. You should dare to own the music. If you don't dare to question one single dot or tie and you think everything is sacred, then I don't think the music will benefit. My best concerts - often I experiment. Some people like it very much, some people don't like it. That is actually good. The worst thing would be if everybody was sort of halfway."

Like Ole Bull, a friend of Ibsen and Grieg, who are said to have patterned the character of "Peer Gynt" partly on Bull, Kraggerud is a champion of his country's music. He has recorded three CDs for Naxos by Norwegian composers (Grieg, Sinding, Halvorsen, Bull). Another is in the works.

Although he has walked in the footsteps of Bull, whose travels also took him to Cuba and the U.S., where he founded a short-lived Norwegian colony in Pennsylvania, Kraggerud has not attempted to equal him in flamboyance.

"He was a crazy man," Kraggerud said. "He was one of the very first to be doing marketing. Before he arrived in America the first time, he got in league with the perfume and soap makers in Paris - so they shipped off soap and perfume called Ole Bull. Same thing as Jennifer Lopez today." Others exploited his sex appeal. "Some hotel owner, after he checked out, put his bath water into small bottles and sold it."

Bull so fascinated the sculptress of the statue of Leif Erikson on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston that she carved it to look like Bull instead of the Viking explorer. Isabella II of Spain offered to make him a general in the Spanish army.

"He would do the same as (pianist) Franz Liszt, who hired people to faint during his performances - so you had to go out in the hall and wake them with smelling salts. He was a great showman. Those days have gone in classical music."

In the film, which will be released in an English version and a shorter version for television, Kraggerud plays the 1744 Guarneri del Gesu "Ole Bull" owned by Bull.

That instrument has since been returned to the Taiwanese foundation that owns it now.

In Cincinnati, he will play a Bergonzi violin once owned by the great 20th-century virtuoso Fritz Kreisler (on loan from the Dextra Musica fund in Norway).

Violinist Henning Kraggerud performs Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by Paavo Järvi at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall. For tickets, call (513) 381-3300.

Mary Ellyn Hutton's website is Music in Cincinnati.

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