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A Visit to Troldhaugen
John Robert Brown
For an autumn holiday this year I chose Norway. I know the country's major cities fairly well, because in the past my international work, for which I auditioned HE music students, always included Norway. In October 2009 the UN placed Norway top of the list of the most desirable countries in which to live, ranking countries on their education, wealth and life expectancy. Britain, which was ranked 16th two years ago when the research was last conducted, has now slipped five places to be ranked 21st.
I based the holiday in Bergen, which has several attractions for a musician. The most famous is Grieg's house, at Troldhaugen, which is only a short ride by cab or taxi from Bergen city centre. The site at Troldhaugen has a permanent Grieg exhibition. One can visit the composer's house, dine in the restaurant, and view Grieg's composing hut in a peaceful setting alongside Lake Nordaas. During the summer months, daily piano recitals (given on a well-maintained Steinway) take place in the adjacent Troldsalen, the concert hall, which has been skilfully blended into the site by the use of a traditional Norwegian turf roof.
Visits to Norway are made easy by the welcoming nature of Norwegians. English, heard everywhere, is spoken well. Education standards in Norway are very high. Largely because Norway is the largest oil producer in Europe, and ranks in the top ten in the world, Norwegians are rich. They enjoy the second highest GDP per-capita after Luxembourg. Indeed, Norway has the third highest GDP per-capita in the world.The country has a small population, fewer than five million.
Norway is still not an EU member, which means that students coming to Britain from Norway have to pay full overseas fees, not the lower fees offered to EU residents. No surprise, then, that UK universities and music conservatoires are keen to recruit prosperous English-speaking young Norwegians.
Norwegian undergraduates frequently have a better command of English grammar and spelling than their British counterparts. I have witnessed one or two sorry cases where a Norwegian student's English has even been better than the (UK native) senior staff who were running the British institution in which they were studying. Semi-literate managerial edicts, or the spoken use of 'haitch' for aitch, were the subject of Nordic puzzlement and derision! What could one say?
State welfare in Norway is impressive. All Norwegian residents enjoy virtually free health care, minus a small deduction, as well as up to one year of paid absence from work when ill. Parents enjoy generous maternity leave (ten months at full wages or twelve months at 80%) which can be shared between the mother and father. When a child is sick, a parent can stay at home with the child without losing pay. Government-subsidized day care makes it easier for both parents to work. Such welfare may come as a surprise.
However, for me the great surprise, one that recurs, is how little we British people know about Norway. After all, Norway is, like France, just across the sea from here. Yet when I speak about going to Bergen - the former ancient capital of Norway, located on Norway's west coast 230 miles east of Shetland - acquaintances frown and ask: "Is that in Austria?," or: "Is that in Switzerland?"
As one might expect, Norwegian musical life is well-run. A generously funded and well managed Norwegian Music Information Bureau (MIC) is located in centre of Oslo. The MIC receives funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Church and Cultural Affairs, for which the 2004 funding (the latest for which figures are available) was the equivalent of US$1,243,230, an enormous amount for such a small country. Fourteen staff are employed at the MIC in Oslo. From personal experience I can vouch for the high level of musical knowledge and expertise available, and the friendly way in which enquiries are handled.
MIC's goal is to work for increased use of Norwegian music domestically and internationally, to spread the word about professional Norwegian composers, performers and other participants, regardless of genres and artistic style, to act as a central collaborator for participants in Norwegian music activity, and to develop services for music publishing and information about the Norwegian music scene. The Norwegian Music Information Centre is the first point of contact for British players and composers who wish to investigate work possibilities in Norway.
Some Norwegian performance venues are superb. The ancient and enormous Nidaros Cathedral (Nidarosdomen) is in Trondheim, being the largest medieval building in Scandinavia and the most important church in Norway. In Bergen, the Grieg Hall (Grieghallen) is a 1,500 seat concert hall, the home of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra since the hall's completion in 1978. The hall is the venue for the annual Norwegian Brass Band Championship competition, which occurs in mid-winter. And attracting international attention this year is the new and glitzy Oslo Opera House, which has won the 2009 Mies van der Rohe award, the European Union prize for contemporary architecture.
Mention should be made of the Norwegian Folk High Schools. Folk High Schools (FHS) are said to be the single most original concept Scandinavia has contributed to education. Small, usually catering for 100-150 students aged between 18 and 25, Folk High Schools (fhs) are distributed across Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark. Some 400 Folk High Schools serve the 23 million people of the five Nordic countries.
Providing a one-year residential course, a Folk High School is an option after completing upper secondary school. The name 'Folk High School' is unfortunate. Translated into English, it gives a misleading impression. Originally it meant a university or tertiary institution. 'Residential Adult College', Community College' or even 'People's University' would be an accurate modern description.
Courses, which run from May to September, offer a range of non-traditional subjects, including arts, crafts, philosophy, theatre and photography, history and music. Incredibly, in Norway I have come across courses in jazz, learning to fly and, at Voss, Sund,Toneheim and Manger, the playing of woodwind and brass instruments.
Yes, I'd agree: Norway is a most desirable country in which to live.