In February 2023 — the definition of “late winter” in the northern hemisphere — Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing released the seasonally apropos "Arctic." Her debut album for Sony Classical, recorded with the Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic, is a reverent send up to the icy reaches of her home. Hemsing is in the middle of a United States trip that first took her to the catacombs of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Now she’s headed to Newport, Rhode Island, where she’ll be performing at the Newport Music Festival on July 14.
The classical scene features no shortage of compositions and projects dedicated to natural beauty, the environment and the climate crisis. Hemsing is opting for a different angle. With these pieces — a program mixing new works by Jacob Shea and Frode Fjellheim with those by composers including Einojuhani Rautavaara and Edvard Grieg — the violinist wants us to imagine the Arctic in all of its sweeping glory; as an ecosystem to be appreciated and — crucially — still within the reach of rescue and rehabilitation.
On the eve of her U.S. tour, Eldbjørg Hemsing spoke with GBH News from London about the newly commissioned works for the album, her familial connection to a cornerstone of Norwegian classical music and her relationship and appreciation to the landscapes of her homeland. Excerpts from the interview, lightly edited for clarity, are below, and you can hear the full interview above.
James Bennett II: You're going to be in New York and Brooklyn as part of the Greenwood cemetery, Death of Classical series, concerts in the crypt. And then in New England at the Breakers at the Newport Classical Festival. What draws you to these locations?
Eldbjørg Hemsing: Well, I'm really excited about just meeting the audience there and, of course, also playing in the venues. I mean, they're all so very, very different, but also very specific. I heard so much about both the Newport Festival but also the Death of Classical series. And they definitely have such a unique atmosphere and such a unique setting to play in, and I'm just really excited for it.
Bennett: Setting is also a prominent feature, of your debut for Sony Classical: "Arctic." Why is setting so important to you? Because music is a sonic thing, right? But there's a sense of place to the way that you kind of curate these programs. What does place mean to you in this way?
Hemsing: Yeah, I think place evokes such an emotional connection. Imagine playing it in your living room versus being in a very specific place, how much the piece itself can change and the experience you have with the piece. And I think places, whether it is a physical place or more of a concert venue or maybe it's a place that you go to yourself, just in your mind even, it's something very, very powerful about that. I really hope that the pieces that we are performing for these concerts will also help take you with us on the journey. In this case, to the Arctic, to the cold north.
Bennett: You've said before how difficult it is to talk about the beauty of the Arctic with words. I want to hear from you about how music allows you to express the wordless.
Hemsing: I think some of the key words of what I wanted to try to express with it is just ... how majestic, how massive; in a way, how incredibly exciting and beautiful and untouchable this area is. And what I specifically had in mind was a lot of the music that we used for the album is not very rapid, let's say. Some of it is quite slow. We can almost imagine like a whale, you know, in the water, how slowly it moves and how we are just there.
Bennett: Or glacial.
Hemsing: Yeah, exactly. It's just like very, very imagistic, I suppose that's one way to put it. And I didn't want it to be too much literal ice cracking and melting and all that kind of horror of it. Instead, I really wanted to try and show some of the beauty of it. Let's say the sun shining a bit through the music.
Bennett: It's interesting how you mentioned wanting to capture the majesty and the beauty of the Arctic without kind of lurching into a jeremiad, "oh, no, catastrophe!" thing because I was thinking about how this album as a whole, fits into this practice of creating music around the environment.
Hemsing: I think when it comes to, particularly, the environment, it is very easy to get a bit stuck in a way when you just get presented everything in numbers. Like one and a half Celsius, you know, what does that actually mean for us? It's hard to envision it or even feel how much of a difference it really makes. So putting music or various expressions on such a big topic I think is super important. I do really hope that it's a contribution to the conversation.
Bennett: How do you deal with life during those months of, you know, near total darkness? You've said the only real differentiation between the day and night is the hues and shades of blue.
Hemsing: Yeah, I think it does depend a whole lot. I mean, it's definitely quite different when you are used to it and it's part of your DNA. But I suppose either you just really love it and are good with it and know how to deal with it, or you just really don't. But for me, I would say that because I travel so much, I am actually not so much constantly in the darkness, obviously. So I think that that really makes a big difference.
Bennett: Frode Fjellheim has some contributions to this album. He comes from the Sámi indigenous tradition. Why was it important for you to have indigenous musical representation and contribution on this album?
Hemsing: Whenever you talk about someone else's tradition, you want to be super careful and very, very respectful. So I have a very good friend of mine, Frode Fjellheim. I thought, when we talk about the North — the indigenous tribe has been repressed for so many centuries — if we're going to talk about the North, we also need to have an inspiration from them. And that's why I asked him if he would be interested in making a piece or two, which he thankfully said yes to. And because he was involved, I felt it was very safe to do it in a way. We just wanted to kind of pay respect to them, but also use some of the elements that are important, which is the "Return of the Sun" — which is also similar to the "Arctic Suites" — but also on "Under the Arctic Moon," which is also a very special mood that's been put into this piece.
Bennett: You're going to be doing this program where so much of the music is coming from this album about the Arctic and the appreciation that we should have for nature. Do you feel like a bit of an ambassador for the climate change course correction while you're touring this program?
Hemsing: I wouldn't necessarily say "ambassador." I would say more just hopefully giving a different voice to the topics around it. I found actually, it's quite difficult sometimes to talk about climate change because people either seem to think it's the whole activist side or it's nothing. Right? It's very one-sided often. And I don't feel like I'm in either of those boxes. So I would say it's just more of hopefully just bringing a different conversation to the table. I hope.
Bennett: You said you were eager to meet the audience and see how we connect to this music. How can we — i.e. people that aren't you — how can we develop a new respect for nature? Or what do you encourage us to think about?
Hemsing: I mean, it sounds very easy, but just to appreciate the nature and appreciate the need we have for it. I mean, we're so dependent on nature and so dependent on keeping the natural cycles as they are. And I think also learning about all the different microorganisms and how much they depend on each other, it's also extremely valuable and helpful. And when you live in big cities, which I also do myself now, it's sometimes almost a bit easy to forget what it feels like to be out in the completely untouched nature. And I think that purity and that incredible and natural way of how the earth also works is also important to appreciate and learn about.