Grieg’s Piano Concerto: Norwegian pianist Oda Voltersvik and Aberdeen City Orchestra in fresh North Sea exchange

Grieg Society of Scotland founder, Dr Sally Garden, returned to the city of Aberdeen – her fond musical ‘home’ – to catch up with the latest, exciting North Sea musical exchange: a concert with young Norwegian pianist Oda Voltersvik and Aberdeen City Orchestra. With a fresh perspective, and familiarity with historical context, it seemed like a hint of something new and promising for Scotland’s classical music scene.

Conductor Tomas Leakey, pianist Oda Voltersvik and violinist and chair of Aberdeen City Orchestra, Aden Mazur, captured post-concert in Aberdeen’s Music Hall. (image: Dr Sally Garden)

In May, this year, I returned to Aberdeen’s gracious Music Hall to hear an orchestra that had engaged me as soloist not long after its founding 40 years ago in the 1980s. Sitting in the audience was, for me, a change of perspective in more ways than one.

Aberdeen City Orchestra, formerly Aberdeen Chamber Orchestra (the city’s second such ensemble since the 1930s), had engaged young Norwegian pianist Oda Voltersvik for a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Having welcomed Norwegian pianist Rune Alver for our Grieg Society of Scotland concert in the city only last year, it was good to hear the fruits of another North Sea musical exchange on what felt like a following wind.

It was also good to be reminded of the professional attitude of Aberdeen’s amateur orchestras, of which the city boasts several. The ACO, ably conducted by Tomas Leakey, presented a programme of Wagner, Beethoven and Grieg, with the evening’s soloist cleverly engaged (after a trip to Norway), by violinist and orchestra chair, Aden Mazur. It was a refreshingly grassroots occasion – the kind Aberdeen is good at – with local hospitality for the soloist and friendly musical networks to the fore.

Ambition, continuity and the beginnings of something new?

Couple that with a nimble reading of Beethoven’s Die Weihe des Hauses overture and the orchestra’s clear sense of ambition – seeking ever more challenging and expansive repertoire, and finding the means to engage an overseas soloist – could this be the beginnings of something new? A hint of future promise? After all, across the water, it was out of the amateur society ‘Harmonien’, directed for a time by Edvard Grieg, that today’s Bergen Philharmonic grew, and – with the exception of the excellent Aberdeen Sinfonietta – not since the days of the Aberdeen Philharmonic Society in the nineteenth century, have we seen all the components needed for such a large-scale, independent initiative come together in North East Scotland’s capital.

Aberdeen City Orchestra before their performance at the city’s Music Hall. (image: Grieg Society of Scotland)

Nor is this an idle comparison. We have been here before.

For it was as leader of the Aberdeen Philharmonic Society orchestra, in the 1880s, that Grieg’s young friend the Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen came to Aberdeen to earn a living and spur the city’s musical life. Grieg joked that Halvorsen should find himself a ‘Frøken Greig’ – a ‘Miss Greig’ – one of his ‘ancestors’ to marry, as Aberdeen had so many! Halvorsen did indeed marry a such a one, not a Scottish Miss ‘Greig’ but a Norwegian Miss ‘Grieg’, the composer’s niece! But that’s another story!

What matters is the sense of ambition and continuing cultural connection across the North Sea.

Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen came to Scotland to lead the Aberdeen Philharmonic Society orchestra. Whilst in the city he taught violin and thoroughly enjoyed its social gatherings and dinners! (Image: Oslo Museum)
A Grieg birthday gathering at Lofthus, Hardangerfjord. Halvorsen (top right) and his wife Annie (bottom left) join their hosts Edvard and Nina Grieg (rows between). (Image: Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek)

Nature and music in one breath

Like violinist Halvorsen, who came with ‘very high credentials’ to Aberdeen, soloist for the evening, pianist Oda Voltersvik brought, and shared with us, the fruits of her developing international career. Voltersvik is currently artist-in-residence with the Edvard Grieg Society of the Dakotas, one of our sister societies in the global Grieg ‘family’, and shortly, will appear as ‘Pianist of the Week’ at the Edvard Grieg Museum Troldhaugen, Bergen.

And the Piano Concerto, brought fresh from Grieg’s Norway?

From the first bright flourish of the piano to the warmth of the final tutti, this was a performance of polish, and Voltersvik’s cadenza, strongly delineated with alternating flashes of sunlight and rumbling thunder – worthy of Norway’s Hardangerfjord or Scotland’s Glencoe – was thrilling. That she possesses such command of changing musical weather (and Norwegian dance rhythms!) is perhaps no surprise, as Lofthus – for a time Grieg’s Hardanger creative retreat – is local terrain for Voltersvik. It was nature and music in one breath.

Image of Hardangerfjord
Grieg’s Hardangerfjord, near Lofthus. (image: Dr Sally Garden)

Grassroots cultural exchange

And talking of nature and music, a final thought.

Like Edvard Grieg, who negotiated his own concert appearances, pianist Oda Voltersvik manages her own diary, taking time to meet and chat and develop opportunities. This she does with a genuine, self-effacing naturalness and generosity of spirit that contributes in no small way to that feeling of grassroots cultural exchange – exactly the kind of exchange Grieg valued: one without intermediary between artist and host. Returning from a concert trip to Stockholm, where he had received many kind invitations to the homes and gatherings of locals, Grieg remarked that ‘never in my life have I made so many visits’, adding that it had been the best arrangement for his art, and that out of it he had made many new friends.

Music-making which arises out of the community, naturally, as with Grieg in Stockholm, or Leipzig, or any of the other European towns and cities he toured, or as here with ACO and their Norwegian guest, and which grows from the tap root of older historical connections, bringing depth, nuance and continuity, is invaluable.

Guided by local hosts, Norwegian pianist Oda Voltersvik takes time out after her Aberdeen concert to visit the Edvard Grieg ancestral gravestone at Rathen, Aberdeenshire. (Image: by kind permission Rebecca Docea)

This is real culture, locally sourced, locally maintained, yet cosmopolitan in outlook. It is precisely the kind of independent development Scotland’s musical scene needs, and one which engages the different artistic and community perspectives and connections, historical and contemporary, that the Grieg Society of Scotland champions and believes critical to the flourishing of Scotland’s classical music culture and identity.

Leaving behind my performer and promoter hats, listening to Voltersvik and the ACO making music together, with such honesty and joy, was the most stimulating and productive change of perspective I could possibly have wished for!

Oda Voltersvik will next appear in Scotland in October 2025 as guest of the Oban Music Society. More about the ACO and how to support the work of the orchestra here. This article is also published at Music Aberdeen.

Author: Dr Sally LK Garden (Jun 2024)