Hear the sense of adventure in Henning Kraggerud’s polar-themed composition

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra present a rare co-commission in Polar Opposites.

By Stephanie Eslake, TSO News April 2023

“The story of Romantarctica starts with a white landscape,” Henning Kraggerud reveals.

“Surprisingly romantic feelings are evoked in the sparse environment. You meet yourself in a new way – your innermost feelings cannot hide from you as easily as in a metropole."

Henning’s composition paints a picture of the northernmost and southernmost parts of the world. Informed by the curiosity and adventure of mankind, his music evokes the vision of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and British competitor Robert Scott, as they each attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Roald succeeded: in 1911, his team raised the Norwegian flag in the sub-zero air. He then travelled up to Hobart to break the news.

“We are invited to look at their innermost secrets and the wildest dreams in their hearts,” Henning says of Romantarctica, which projects the spirits of these early polar pioneers. The Norwegian composer-violinist was also inspired by Fridtjof Nansen, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who from 1893-1896 travelled farther north than anyone in the world had ever been.

“In this piece, we find ourselves present simultaneously both in the north and in the south, and in different times of the past and future.” Each region, Henning believes, conjures “an aura of mystery and magic, which inspires heroism and thinking”.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s concert Polar Opposites unites musicians from both sides of the world; from orchestras as far north and south as you can hear. Henning, who is artistic director of the Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, will conduct and perform violin. His co-soloist is Andrew Seymour, the TSO’s principal clarinet.

Henning has previously travelled the 16,000km journey to play with the TSO, and he observes similarities between these cool-climate regions.

“From the fresh air to the ice-cold ocean waters, the people are remarkably warm and open, both in the very south and the very north.”

Romantarctica is a co-commission between Henning’s local Arctic Philharmonic and the TSO. Polar Opposites marks its Tasmanian premiere, and the world premiere of another sort: it’s the first time this music will be presented with clarinet as one of the solo instruments.

Romantarctica is composed with highly flexible scoring from the start. There is one higher and one lower solo instrument,” Henning says. That’s why you may never hear this work performed in the same way again, as “anyone who learns one of the solo parts can perform it in multiple settings – even with pianist, string quintet, chamber orchestra, sinfonietta, or varying sizes of symphonic orchestra”.

Equally rare is the type of clarinet audiences will hear rising above the orchestra: Andrew’s recently acquired basset clarinet. As the woodwind expert explains: “This extends the range of my regular clarinet down by four semitones.”

“Henning asked for this in his music, and I was happy to be able to get this new instrument – so I'm looking forward to giving its debut performance here!”

While the music captures the excitement of treading new territory, it also honours the more sombre events that took place in these early days of polar exploration. Though Robert Scott reached the South Pole just weeks after Roald, he never made it back, perishing with his team in extreme weather conditions. Henning composed a recurring funeral theme to mark the sacrifice. He includes further musical devices such as vibrato, to hint at the freezing pioneers’ emotionally demanding journey and their trembling bodies; and “crackling noises” to portray the threatening glaciers surrounding them.

The result of Henning’s musicality, according to Andrew, is “unashamedly romantic”.

“With the subtitle 'Heroes from the past and hopes for the future', it conjures images of the polar regions and the great voyages of the explorers seeking to discover unknown places.”

Watch: Henning Kraggerud performs the world premiere of Romantarctica in a chamber version.

Book now to hear the Tasmanian premiere of Romantarctica featuring Henning Kraggerud (conductor and violin) and Andrew Seymour (clarinet). Polar Opposites takes place at 7.30pm May 12 in the Federation Concert Hall, nipaluna/Hobart.