Emil Weatherhead Breistein
Bergen composer Knut Vaage joins Seattle pianist Angelo Rondello for the U.S. premiere of two of his piano works at Benaroya Hall on Thursday, May 11. The public is invited to join him again for a lecture on the history of Norwegian classical music from Grieg to the present at the Nordic Heritage Museum on Sunday, May 14.

Bergen Composer Knut Vaage celebrates Ballard connection with Angelo Rondello and the Seattle Music Exchange Project

By Lori Ann Reinhall
Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association

It was a summer afternoon in his hometown Bellingham when pianist Angelo Rondello ran into some friends who had recently returned from a trip aboard to Japan. He was intrigued to hear that they had been there to run in a marathon that we sponsored by the Bellingham-Tateyama Sister City Association. Angelo was curious about sister cities: what were they and what did they do? His friends explained that the basic purpose was to set up exchange programs between “twinned” cities across various disciplines—sports, education, industry, technology, the arts—the possibilities were endless. The goal was always the same: to bring people from different places and culture for mutual enrichment and understanding.

Rondello went home to his computer and started to do research on sister cities. He learned that the Sister Cities International program has been in existence since 1956, founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as part of the post-war effort to rebuild Europe and Japan. The hope was that the world would not see another war if people could only get to know each other. Wheels started turning in Angelo’s mind. Now living in Seattle, he wondered about the possibility of working with our twenty-one sister cities. He had a vision of bringing the music of Seattle to her sister cities and then bringing their music back home: this was the genesis of the Seattle Music Exchange Project. Angelo continued to do research on composers from the various sister cities and was ready to reach out to the City of Seattle Sister Cities program for advice and support.

Four cities soon emerged as key musical centers: Perugia, Italy; Pécs, Hungary; Kobe, Japan; and Bergen, Norway. Out of the four, Bergen shines as a European center of culture with a longstanding musical tradition. The birthplace of Norway’s most famous composer Edvard Grieg, it is also the home of the prestigious Grieg Academy and one of the best symphony orchestras in Europe. It is also a Scandinavian epicenter for musical composition, with contemporary creative forces including Ketil Hvoslef, Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen, Jostein Stalheim, Glenn Erik Haugland, and Knut Vaage. For Rondello, Vaage’s work stood out: it was something new and different, somehow something distinctly Norwegian. Soon a conversation between the two musicians ensued, and working together with the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association at home and Professor Einar Røttingen at the Grieg Academy in Norway, concert dates were put on the calendar. Rondello and Vaage made musical selections for a May 2 concert in Bergen as part of Rondello’s European tour, and plans were set for Vaage’s American premiere of two important piano works at Benaroya Hall on Thursday, May 11.

A composer’s journey

Knut Vaage, born 1961, grew up on a farm in Western Norway, where he would listen to the melody of his father’s whistle as he called the cows to their milking each day. “It was a simple life back then,” Vaage recalls, “we didn’t have all the jobs and money with the oil industry.” In the postwar years, many of his relatives had emigrated to United States in search of better opportunities, and many of them landed in our own Ballard community, where they took up work within the fishing and maritime industries. But even with a big ocean dividing them, the greater family somehow stuck together. The new Americans regularly wrote letters back home, and they even sent over school clothes for Knut and his four brothers, colorful Western-style shirts and belts with cowboy buckles. There were summer visits from Seattle that kept the family ties strong, a special connection across the seas that had an influence in both directions.

As a child, Vaage didn’t know that he would become a musician. He didn’t come from a famous musical family, but he loved to bang around on the piano and improvise. He remembers that he was so little that it was hard to climb up on the piano bench and his legs weren’t even able to reach the pedals. With the help of his older brothers, he learned to read music, and he soon started to scribble out simple songs. “I was very fascinated with drawing the notes,” Vaage remembers, “and when my older brothers were at school, I kept busy for hours on end.” He left home already as a teenager and moved to Voss, and later Bergen, to work as a carpenter. But the young man took his interest in music with him. Even though he didn’t have a proper piano of his own to practice on, he started to play jazz and blues. Not before long, Vaage realized that music was his true calling, and he went on to study piano and composition at the Grieg Academy. The rest is musical history.

Knut Vaage’s music is best characterized as innovative and experimental, right on the cutting-edge of contemporary classical music. His works encompass a wide variety of musical styles, with a focus on improvisation and contemporary music. Many of the composer’s projects explore the boundaries between improvisation and composed music, and he is known for an acoustic-electronic hybrid sound in his works. His oeuvre ranges from solo pieces to operas and symphonies. Vaage is frequently commissioned to create works for music festivals and ensembles throughout Scandinavia and all of Europe, and is regarded as one of Norway’s most highly acclaimed living composers.

When dreams come true

For Vaage, the trip to Seattle marks an occasion of far greater significance than merely a U.S. musical premiere. While Knut’s mother often visited the family in Ballard, this will be his first trip to meet his relatives on American soil. His recollects how his mother always had plans to bring her five sons to Seattle, but somehow it never came to realization. Vaage has looked forward to this week’s trip all his life, as he finally comes together with his beloved 93-year-old aunt Bjørg Kaldestad and numerous cousins and offspring who have settled down in the Ballard area and beyond. The Seattle Music Exchange Project marks a family reunion for the Vaage-Kaldestad clan, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association President Lori Ann Reinhall made the trip to Bergen to attend Rondello’s concert there, travelling back to Seattle with Vaage to host his stay in Seattle. “Our organization could not be more pleased and proud about this project,” she comments. “Angelo and Knut represent the very best of both cultures, and it is so exciting to support this extraordinary Norwegian-American collaboration. It’s at the heart of what we do.”

Tickets are available to the Seattle Music Exchange Project Sister Cities Concert at Benaroya Hall on Thursday, May 11, 7:30 PM, at www.seattlemusicexchange.com. On Sunday, May 14, Vaage will present a free lecture and musical demo together with Rondello and Mostly Nordic Artistic Director soprano Laura Loge at the Nordic Heritage Museum, starting with an informal meet-and-mingle coffee hour at 3:30 PM. For more information, email seattlebergensistercities@gmail.com.

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