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Oslo's new Opera House and Copenhagen's newer Koncerthuset

June 4, 2009 |  3:00 pm


The master builders have been busy in Scandinavia. 

When Oslo's Opera House opened in April of last year, it instantly became one of the Norwegian capital’s central attractions.  A side benefit to the award-winning building, designed by the local architectural firm Snohetta and popular for its sloping walk-way roof that juts over the harbor, is that after nearly a century of lobbying, Norwegian Opera has a special home and thus a crack at international prominence. 

Copenhagen Then, in January, Copenhagen unveiled a big blue cube that also is a major new concert hall. Designed by the French architecture star, Jean Nouvel, this is the largest venue since Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in Los Angeles in 2003 to have acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota.  It was built for the various ensembles supported by Danish Radio, but the DR Symphony, Denmark’s most important orchestra, gets the biggest boost.

I visited these two new halls on consecutive days this week and found them to be almost exact opposites in their musical and civic functions. In Oslo, architecture comes first; in Copenhagen, music. Each town probably got what it needed most.

On a sunny and warm Monday (and a national holiday) in Oslo, the Opera House was a hangout.  Taking a cue from Frank Gehry, who said he designed Disney Hall as the living room for L.A., Norwegian Opera refers to its roof as the parlor of Oslo – a parlor, that is, for sunbathers and climbers, along with reckless bicyclists and skateboarders. It offers sweeping fjord views along with plenty of scenes of ugly construction.

Elektra_03 Maybe roof-allure inspired Norwegian director Stein Winge to stage his new production of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” which opened Monday night, in an upside-down room. Having singers stand amid the base of a chandelier, while overhead are sofa, table and chairs stuck to their ceiling, is practically commonplace in a post-Eurotrash era. Moreover, when so much about attending opera in Oslo is alienating, one more bit of topsy-turveydom hardly registers. 

To start with, there is the situation in which a beautiful building in the center of town feels isolated from the city.  The access is via a long pedestrian bridge from the dodgy area around the central train station.

Then, try a half-hour exercise precariously climbing up, down and around the steep, snow-blindingly white ramps of the roof. I was more than a little disoriented as I found my way into the theater.  The lobby is fanciful and quite nice. But the interior of the hall is a dark, gloomy, conventional horseshoe.  With 1,364 seats, the room should seem intimate, but it’s huge.  An enormous pit, which doesn’t extend under the stage, puts the singers at a considerable distance even from my fourth-row orchestra section seat.  The sound I heard was honest if without bloom, but that’s true of just about any opera house so close to the stage.  I had little sense of what the English (Arup) and Norwegian (Brekke Strand) acoustical firms accomplished.

Winge’s production was notable mainly for portraying all the characters as monsters.  They are that, but Strauss’ great achievement was in finding secret pockets of warm seduction. Winge left, instead, a misogynist impression, more Ibsen than Strauss. Caroline Whisnant was the stalwart Elektra, Agamemnon’s crazed daughter. Ragnhild Heiland Sorensen was a bland, abuse-eager Chrysothemis, Elektra's softer sister. The powerful Susanne Resmark, though, was quite scary as their ghastly mother Clytemnestra. Patrik Ringborg conducted an eager orchestra eagerly.

In about the same amount of time it takes to walk to the Opera House in Oslo, you can be whisked by Copenhagen’s new metro from the center of town to the DR Koncerthuset 2 miles away. But this time you wind up in the middle of nowhere -- a formerly abandoned section of Copenhagen where Danish Radio has set up its new headquarters. The hall’s certainly not yet a tourist attraction. When I asked at my hotel how to find it, the receptionist had no idea what I was talking about.

Even so, Nouvel’s blue cube tries very hard to get attention. In the dark (not that there’s much of it here at this time of the year), concert scenes are projected on its blue exterior like glowing stencils. This must be a nod to Gehry as well, since he chose Disney’s steel for its ability to reflect project video of the concerts inside, a special effect the Music Center foolishly cost-cut out of the budget. 
During daylight, Nouvel's building has an industrial appearance, covered in blue scrim.  The Spartan lobby is concrete, steel and neon.  But the hall itself is wonderfully realized.  Like Disney, it is vineyard style, although asymmetric and with a higher ceiling, which means that Toyota designed a movable canopy to reflect the sound. The seating is 1,800, which is 400 less than Disney, and there is no balcony, but the hall does not feel any smaller.

This is a glorious space, with arresting swirls of wood and great, tall, lovingly crafted seats.  The Disney system of risers is duplicated here, and Toyota insisted upon the same crucial soft wood (yellow cedar) for the stage floor.

Salonen The DR Symphony’s season has already ended, but Tuesday night the Philharmonia Orchestra from London happened to be in town led by its current principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (remember him?) with his new, boyishly short haircut. The program was to have been ambitious – Berg’s Violin Concerto (with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist) and Mahler’s massive Sixth Symphony.  But the economic crisis has hit orchestras overseas, and something involving fewer musicians was necessary. The new program was Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” for string orchestra and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. Salonen, who once personally helped out the L.A. Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series when it was in trouble, stepped in again and contributed his fee.

Word has been circulating that the Koncerthuset is Toyota’s first failure, since the January opening did not go well. But that is nonsense. The hall wasn’t ready in January, and it’s not fully finished yet. It’s complete enough, however, to know that it has Disney’s special acoustical cocktail of powerful rich bass, clarity, delicacy and spine-tingling immediacy. 

For a visitor from L.A., Tuesday’s concert felt like home away from home, although with a few differences.  The Philharmonia, which has a dark sound, is not as exciting an orchestra as the L.A. Philharmonic. The British players’ reaction time is probably about a millisecond slower, on average, than their American counterparts. Then again, to many Brits, the L.A. sound is flashy. 

On Tuesday, there was gorgeous string playing in the Schoenberg and the Bruckner symphony, a Salonen specialty, had a warm glow, proper heft and great drama if not, believe it or not, quite the spiritual depth that Salonen got in L.A. Still, this was an excellent concert. Toyota was present and afterward players who hadn’t been on the Philharmonia’s recent L.A. tour went up to the acoustician to say that this was the most satisfying stage they had ever played on.

Scandinavia is not known for great concert halls or opera houses. But Denmark now has a genuine showplace.

-- Mark Swed

Photos from top:

Exterior view of Oslo's new opera building. Credit: Mark Swed/ Los Angeles Times.

The Koncerthuset in Copenhagen. Credit: Bjarne Bergius Hermansen/DR

"Elektra." Credit: Norwegien Opera & Ballet.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting a rehearsal of the Philharmonia Orchestra in Copenhagen. Credit: Agnethe Schnittkrull/For The Times.