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Rune Bergmann is looking for the sound of Calgary

Matthew Parsons

There’s a changing of the guard happening at the podiums of Western Canada’s symphony orchestras. Saskatoon and Regina have both welcomed new maestros in the last couple of seasons, and this past October, the Victoria Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra all announced the new leaders who will take up their batons starting in fall 2017.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve introduced you to two of these fresh faces: the VS’s Christian Kluxen and the ESO’s Alexander Prior. Finally, meet Rune Bergmann, the incoming music director of the Calgary Philharmonic. He’ll be filling the shoes of Roberto Minczuk, who has been the CPO’s music director for 10 seasons. Bergmann hails from a small town in Norway, and is already chief conductor of the Szczecin Philharmonic in Poland. He’ll split his time between the two jobs when his tenure in Calgary begins.

But until then, he has engagements all over the world. When we reached him by phone at a hotel in California, he had worked with three different orchestras in the previous three weeks. His next big project, just after we spoke, was a program with the Pacific Symphony, featuring some complex music by Rautavaara and Stravinsky. We talked to Bergmann about his favourite music, his goals for his time in Calgary, and his formative years in Norway.

Where did music start for you as a kid?

My parents love music, but classical music wasn't really part of that community. It was a tiny, tiny place. Only 8,000 people living there. But actually, there's an enormous amount of people that became professional musicians from this place. Everybody worked in the furniture business, making furniture in huge factories. The man who used to run these factories found a beautiful wife when he was travelling, and brought her home to this place. What he didn't know was that she was a world-class concert pianist. This environment planted something musically into us all.

On Saturdays when my parents gave me some money to buy candy or something like that, I just saved the money until I could buy recordings. I remember my first recording I bought was the Beethoven first and second symphonies with the Chicago Symphony playing. And I will never forget that experience, when I heard those first chords of Beethoven's first symphony. That will stick with me forever. So, I didn't buy candy that much, I bought mostly recordings then. Now I buy more candy, though.

I remember I was probably eight years old, and my father woke me up to come watch the New Year's concert from Vienna. And Carlos Kleiber came in and conducted the Fledermaus overture, and I think about 10 seconds into that I just turned to my parents and said, "This is what I'm going to do with my life."

But coming from this small place, when I said I wanted to do music, that wasn't really a direction my parents knew it was possible to go at that time. So they had two demands. My mother said, "You can do whatever you want, but you have to do your pedagogical studies, so you will be able to teach." So, I did my degree in that, and of course at the time I thought, "What's the point?" And today, I'm so happy — not because I needed the licence to teach, but more that you learn a lot from teaching. And I'm sure that impacts my conducting. And my father said, "You can do music, but you have to do business school first." So, I did. At the time, I thought it was a waste. But I see now that when you work in cultural life that is always under economic pressure, knowing how to read the numbers and knowing basic stuff about marketing made me a better person.

Do you remember something specific you learned about music from watching conductors you admire?

I was so lucky that during my youth I was watching the rehearsals of the Oslo Philharmonic. And this was in the fantastic period of time when they had Mariss Jansons as the music director, Manfred Honeck as the principle guest conductor and Herbert Blomstedt as kind of an honoured guest. And those three are so different but so great in different ways. I think that was probably the best education: to see that three totally different conductors with different conducting techniques — and some of them really didn't have great technique either, but they have their eyes and they have their brain and they have their passion for it — just to see how differently they worked. Some of them have to explain a little bit more while another conductor could just show it with the fingers. That was something I will never forget.

And Mariss Jansons — he's probably one of the best orchestra builders in the world. Like: how to take an orchestra from wherever you are and just get it up to the skies. That was such an inspiration.

Do you see yourself filling that same role as an orchestra builder in Calgary and in Szczecin?

Well, I'm still quite young compared to Mariss Jansons. And the orchestral playing level is much higher now than when he started 40 years ago. You don't have to really take something from zero. Probably if you're going to end up at 100, you can start now at 70. [Laughs] That's a huge difference from those days. I mean, there were really good qualities with orchestras at that time as well. But today you can sit anywhere in the world and listen to any orchestra in the world. You just search for them and usually you find something on YouTube. That means that orchestras like Berlin and Vienna, now they're not so alone anymore at the top — because everybody can actually see them and listen and learn. This is the way I became better as a conductor as well. I was never satisfied. I searched and I looked and I went to concerts and I approached conductors and I was hungry to find out everything, so I could learn from that and grow. And I think all orchestras have this now a little bit. The world is getting smaller.

What are your key goals for your time with the Calgary Philharmonic?

I think that it's just finding our voice. What is it about the Calgary Philharmonic that makes it unique? I think many orchestras today are struggling a little bit with their identity. They play well but they are not sure why and how. So, I really hope that together we will find a mix of my goals and personality and the orchestra's goals and personality. And that will become what we can just say is "the Calgary sound." Everybody will say, "Oh yeah, that's the Calgary Philharmonic." That's my goal. I want the orchestra to become an orchestra for the world. I've met people all around the world that are so interested in a specific piece that they'll travel around the whole world seeing performances of it. So, I hope we can fill up the hall with our local audience, and a lot of tourists who will come and explore the great things about the city of Calgary.

Could you tell me about a piece of music that you've been studying or listening to that you think people should know about?

I just recently did a piece that's not performed too often: the Prokofiev second violin concerto. It's such a beautiful and strong piece. I paired that with the Tchaikovsky fifth symphony, which probably has the most feelings of all symphonies. So, if people want to listen to something today, I would recommend them to listen to those. There are so many ways to approach Tchaikovsky's music. Every time I open that score it just becomes more and more clear to me that you shouldn't make it over-romantic, because it's actually already written in. If you make the most out of every curve in the music it gets to be too much.

This week, I'm doing another piece that people might not know, by the Finnish composer Rautavaara, who unfortunately died a couple of months ago: the Cantus Arcticus, for birds and orchestra. This is the first time this orchestra has performed that. And just seeing their face when we did it the first time was priceless. Rautavaara went up to the Arctic and recorded the birds and the wildlife. And it's just written in the score where the birds come in, and you have them on loudspeakers. For the audience, it feels like they are in the Arctic when we play. It's one of my absolute favourites.

Do you have an approach in mind for community outreach?

I think the most important thing for an orchestra to do is to play very good. And sometimes it doesn't even matter what you play. If you perform it honestly, from the heart — if everybody onstage really delivers their heart and soul in what they play — the audience will feel it. They don't have to understand it but they have to feel it. Every concert has to be an event, an experience that will make people so excited that they [chuckles] bring their three friends to the next concert. In the first place I was music director, over six years we doubled the audience, just doing this: just focusing on the performance. And people started talking about it, and the media said, "Wow, what's going on with this orchestra? Suddenly they sound different!" So, it's all about getting people excited.

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