Many of the major culture-bearing institutions in Europe have closed their doors and switched off the light. The Bergen Festival is opening a new window.
By Anders Beyer
With equal measures of anxiety and hope, tradition-rich festivals on the continent are throwing in the towel and saying “We hope to see you next year!” Cancellations, postponements, possible bankruptcies and desperate cries for help have made their mark on the arts and culture since the pandemic took over our part of the world in earnest, and the public are increasingly looking for cultural experiences that do not involve exploring yet another Netflix backwater.
No one knows with certainty when we can be together again in a way that resembles the cultural community that we had before the disease forced the world into hibernation. Even when the official all-clear sounds for the crisis, mankind will be so affected and frightened that our collective behavioural patterns will be transformed for a whole generation. Now we have reasons to pause for thorough reflection over how cultural life can not only endure but thrive and grow in our new reality.
In this historic situation new spaces are being created for the creative forces that see the crisis as the beginning of something new which in the best case can be better than what existed before. We have the potential for reflection, closeness to family and children, for redefining ‘the campfire’ and thinking about what it is that bears us forward in a world that appears to be running amok.
Perhaps this is a farewell to much that we know today. It takes a certain courage at present not to be slightly pessimistic on behalf of the future. But this is also a rather tiresome western habit: back when the pure Dorian mode of antiquity was being out-manoeuvred by the sensual Ionian, conservative Greeks were worried about the music of the future. We must continue to use the arts and culture as compasses to navigate in our own time, as the adhesive that binds us together as a society and helps us to make sensible democratic decisions about the right and wrong course.
When we were planning this year’s festival with the general theme of moving, we had of course not foreseen that the word would take on an almost prophetic meaning. I gaily prepared festival speeches about the importance of allowing oneself to be moved and to travel through time and space, and saw the words withering away as airports and borders began to be closed down. At the same time the meaning-content was intensified. For art will remain in motion, it will continue to move, and limitations can be a powerful creative stimulus. A popular theory has it that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine in a plague-ridden London, and not many hours passed from when Norway closed down until the first living-room concert was on the Net.
The Bergen Festival Foundation has the function of organizing artistic events of a high national and international standard within a specific interval, and an aim to be the foremost Norwegian manifestation of its kind, with an international impact. What does this mean when cultural events are prohibited, travelling activity is not recommended and people cannot meet? Cancellation was of course considered and discussed, but in our hearts – and with coordinated recommendations from state and government in our heads – drawing a line through the Bergen Festival 2020 was never a valid alternative.
One of the major tasks of the Bergen Festival is to take care of our heritage in music, art and culture.
One of the major tasks of the Bergen Festival is to take care of our heritage in music, art and culture. We do not do this by leaving it to sparkle in glass cases, but by constantly laying new festive tables. Invitations and the menu change with every festival, and this year the banquet takes place at your, my and everyone’s premises, whether we live in Bergenhus, Brooklyn or Beijing.
With a point of departure in our original programmes and the official rules and recommendations, we have created a new Bergen Festival 2020, along with a number of good partners. Classical music and arenas like Grieghallen, Håkonshallen and the KODE composer’s home, the homes of Edvard Grieg and Ole Bull, form the core and framework for over 60 different programme items. There will be a flow of new concerts and productions, chances to revisit individual events from the last two years, and an outdoor programme with a long festival history.
We want this year’s festival to be a manifestation of the best Norwegian practitioners of international art. We wish to be inclusive, also of art institutions and festivals that have closed down or cancelled this year’s version. We want to give artists and cultural workers commissions, and thus help to keep the wheels in motion in our sorely tried sector. But most of all we wish to give the public the music and events they had been looking forward to, and also hope to open a window for some who have not visited the festival before.
The Bergen Festival has worked with long-term strategies for giving artistic content a longer lifetime on digital platforms. This year we have taken great leaps forward, although the programme we are now launching does not break down boundaries for what one can do with technology. What we are presenting with ill-concealed pride, however, is a festival with an extent and an artistic diversity which means that our large national and international public, from the ‘front row’ in their homes, can experience the cornucopia of options that has always been a hallmark of the Bergen Festival. Right now, in fact, we are among the major players in our class on the digital market, also on the international scale.
Art and culture define who we are and very much bind us together. Now we must find new ways to come together and, we hope, gain new insights along the way. Schoenberg followed his 12-tone serialism, but composed as before. Everything has changed, and everything is the same. The aim is still to avoid being reduced as human beings to columns and numbers in the spreadsheet which will never be able to account for what actually makes life worth living. Beauty. Community. Love.
© Anders Beyer 2020
An edited version of this text was first published in Bergens Tidende May 10 2020.
For a Norwegian version see here.