By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Here’s a little fun fact: Eldbjørg Hemsing’s first name has its origin in Nordic mythology: “eld” means fire, and “bjørg” means protector, so Eldbjørg means she is a protector of fire. The fiery 33-year-old Norwegian concert violinist is quite serious when it comes to carrying the torch for Nordic music, a role that has left reviewers in awe of her prowess. Here’s how Gramophone characterized Homecoming, Hemsing’s striking 2020 recording of Grieg violin sonatas: “If you hear Grieg’s violin sonatas as wild, fantastic tales of adventure and romance from the distant north, these three magnificent performances should certainly hit the spot.”
Hemsing is no less impressive on Arctic, her Sony Records debut, an ode to the natural splendor of Scandinavia and the man-made forces that threaten that wild place. The album—recorded in the remote Norwegian town of Bodø, where Hemsing was joined by the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra—adds some real star power, including newly composed music by Jacob Shea (The Blue Planet) and Frode Fjellheim (Frozen). The album also features new arrangements by Ola Gjeilo, James Newton Howard, Selim Palmgren, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Henning Sommerro, as well as melodies by Ole Bull and Edvard Grieg.
“I really wanted to have a very grand, symphonic soundscape for this album and create a musical journey that would be something for everybody,” Hemsing explains. “Jacob creates such an amazing sound world. I am so happy with the incredible 20-minute ‘Arctic Suite’ he and his team created—I am very lucky to have this piece be part of the project.”
And Fjellheim, whose international smash “Eatnemen Vuelie” opens Disney’s superhit Frozen, is an old friend. “I have known Frode for many years—he is a fantastic musician and person!” she adds. “I asked him to compose two pieces for this recording, as I knew his musical language would fit so well with the Arctic project. Frode hails from the Sámi, a population that has inhabited the European polar circle for centuries. His compositions ‘Under the Arctic Moon’ and ‘The Return of the Sun’ are inspired by ‘joiks,’ the traditional songs of the Sámi. In ‘The Return of the Sun,’ he even sings one of these traditional melodies himself.”
The sweeping scope of Arctic should come as no surprise: it is but a milestone in a storied career. This acclaimed musician was just six years old when she performed for the Norwegian royal family at Oslo’s Nationaltheatret. In 2008, she placed third in the highly competitive Eurovision Young Musician’s contest. She is a cofounder, along with her violinist and hardanger-fiddle playing sister Ragnhild, of the Hemsing Festival and the artistic director of SPIRE, a mentoring program within the Nordland Music Festival in Bodø, which promotes and supports young artists in their personal and artistic development. She has performed with orchestras around the globe and in 2019 premiered Tan Dun’s 11-part Fire Ritual.
Strings asked Hemsing to share her thoughts about the power of music, climate change, and her latest recording project.
What was the impetus for the Arctic album? How did it all begin?
This is an album I wanted to make for quite some time. I grew up in the countryside in Norway, in a small village of 600 people, in a region where many of the Nordic myths of trolls and other mystical creatures originated. My mother is a violinist, and my father was a park ranger, guarding the mountains in my region, Valdres, and so my world has literally been a musical journey through nature since I was a small child. From a young age, I was making music with my mother and exploring the forests and mountains with my father. When I first visited the Arctic, I had this deep feeling of awe that I cannot quite explain, a kind of magnetic belonging to nature. I felt so small in this vast landscape and realized that I was just a tiny element in the grand cycles of nature. It was incredible and such an eye-opener to be able to experience this part of the world. I knew I wanted to create a musical universe about the Arctic.
What did you hope to accomplish with the album?
With the Arctic project, I wanted to show people how magnificent and fragile this ecosystem is and remind them that we need to protect it. Large parts of it have never been explored at all, and there is so much life still to be discovered—just think of the huge underwater colonies of fish that were found [by the German research icebreaker Polarstern] during the 2020 MOSAiC expedition. Even though the Arctic Circle only covers about four percent of the world’s surface, it is crucial to the global climate. It is the beating heart of large ocean currents, like the Gulf Stream, as well as air currents, like the Jet Stream. However, in recent years, due to climate change, it is also one of the regions that has seen the largest increase in temperatures, which has had a devastating effect on the ecosystem. It was a challenge to find a way of translating the Arctic and all the feelings I associate with the region into music. I wanted to combine unique and memorable melodies with a vivid orchestral sound that matches the grand panorama to create a kind of visual story for the concert hall, a soundtrack for a journey in your mind. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with so many great composers and musicians to bring this vision to life.
Were there obstacles to overcome?
Yes, quite a few! Firstly, as the years 2020–22 weren’t exactly the easiest to either plan or execute any projects due to Covid, it meant the recording was quite delayed. Due to the size of the orchestra and the borders to Norway practically being closed, we had to be patient and wait to see when and if we could record. It was also quite a process to find the right soundscape for the recording. With the journey of the Arctic as a theme, I really wanted to focus on the colors and sounds of the violin together with a lush, huge symphonic sound and the right pieces. I feel very fortunate to have had such a great team of fantastic musical partners to work with to find just the right sound and repertoire for this album.
The Arctic Suite section is quite ambitious. How did that evolve?
We wanted to create a piece that would take you on a journey through the region. Jacob Shea from Bleeding Fingers Music composed Arctic Suite, based on some of the elements you find in the far north. He depicts the unique natural phenomena of the Arctic, finding melodies for “Frozen Worlds” in winter, the “Aurora” in the polar night, as well as the “Sunrise” in the morning of the polar day. He lends sound to whirling swarms of fish in “Rush of Life” and the poetic whistling of the “Polar Winds,” and ends with a melancholy glance at current environmental changes in “Sea Ice Melting.”
For many, climate change is a remote thing. How would you describe your personal relationship with the environment?
Growing up in the valley of Valdres, I spent a lot of time up in the mountains of Jotunheimen together with my family. I always felt the incredible power of nature, and early on, it was imprinted in me how much respect we need to have for it. Following the mountain rules and being kind to nature is something my father taught me—he always talked a lot about the ecosystem, how every little mechanism is totally dependent on one another, and how we are just visitors in the long lifetime of these mountains. The balance in nature is so delicate, and as we now very much can see, it affects us all when it is out of balance.
Why did you choose the remote Bodø as the site to record the album?
It was a strong wish to record the album together with the Arctic Philharmonic, and being in the city of Bodø, in the magnificent Stormen concert hall, felt like a natural fit. I have a strong connection to the Arctic city. I am an artistic director for SPIRE, a talent program with Nordland Festival and Bodø2024 that runs annually. I have been an artist in residence at Stormen concert hall and have played with the Arctic Philharmonic since they were launched in 2009: we did a ten-concert tour all over northern Norway as their inaugural project.
The setting must have been a real inspiration.
Absolutely! It is pretty incredible to be in the north, particularly in the summertime when it doesn’t get dark, and the sun is shining 24/7. We recorded the album in June, and it was quite funny to me to see the reactions of the recording team, who hadn’t experienced this before. It is really a magical and unreal place to be.
How does nature inspire you?
In every way: the incredible power, life, smells, silence, meditation, experiences, challenges, and peace. Nature is everything, and for me, it’s necessary in order to feel whole as a person. I think growing up amidst the expansive beauty of Norway has shaped my relationship with nature.
You have said that you’d like to be a bridge between young people and classical music. How so?
I think classical music is so powerful. It’s a world where you can be taken through the whole emotional register in a matter of seconds and find so much joy, comfort, belonging, and dreaming all in one place. I think everybody should have the chance to discover classical music, and I believe very strongly that young people should have music in their lives from an early age. Classical music is so honest, real, and unfiltered. I have many times had the incredible experience of being around young people hearing or experiencing classical music for the first time and seeing their reaction. Quite often, it’s “Is this classical music? I had no idea it was so beautiful.” It’s pretty amazing. And it also says a lot about how important it is to have classical music be available and quite literally be heard. There are so many incredible performers out there who people should know, people who dedicate their lives to creating beauty and incredible emotional moments. And I really wish and hope to be able to spread the love of music to as many people as I can!
You often are described as being an ambassador of Nordic arts and culture. Why is that important to you?
My homeland is a huge part of my identity, and so it’s important for me to share about Nordic arts, culture, lifestyle, and mindset. The Nordics are a peaceful part of the world where equality, kindness, and respect for each other are highly valued qualities. The societies of the Northern countries are some of the happiest on earth. The nature of the seasons in this area can be quite dramatic, particularly in Norway, where half of the country lives in complete darkness for months, and non-stop sun in others, which affects the arts and culture massively. Looking back to the national Romanticism period, particularly for paintings, the dramatic landscape was a big inspiration, as well as the northern lights and fjords and mountains. In the North, there are many people celebrating the moment when the sun returns in January—the few seconds of the sun is enough to give hope and energy for lighter times to come, after months of complete darkness. In a world where we are all easily connected, influenced, and share a lot of the same culture, I think it’s important to define what makes Nordic culture unique and special, and keep the history and traditions alive.
What Eldbjørg Hemsing Plays
Hemsing plays the 1707 “Rivaz, Baron Gutmann” Stradivari, made from a single piece of figured maple and on loan from the Dextra Musica Foundation. She uses a Pierre Guillaume bow and Jargar Superior strings.