Festival O/Modernt: Past, Present, and Unexpected

Danielle Blackbird takes us through a unique music festival in Stockholm – O/Modernt.

All photos by author

All photos by author

The applause fades, the lights come up, and a voice calls out, “Chocolate! We need chocolate!” It’s Hugo Ticciati, the buoyant artistic director of Festival O/Modernt, rousing the Saturday night audience once again with his enthusiasm — and yes, chocolate, which he personally hands out during intermission. For those who think of classical music as stiffly formal or hopelessly out-of-date, Festival O/Modernt (“Un/Modern”) will change your mind.

As cellist Martin Rummel takes his place onstage, someone rushes over and seizes his music stand. It’s Hugo again. “You all have to see this,” he tells the audience. “This represents the entire festival!” He turns the music stand and we all see that instead of using sheet music, the cellist has his score for the upcoming sonata displayed on an iPad. General laughter, and Martin protests, “But my cello is as old as this building!” We are sitting in Confidencen, built on the grounds of Ulriksdal Palace in 1670 and converted to a theatre in 1753. So that cello must be around 300 years old.

This juxtaposition of the old and the new is the heart of Festival O/Modernt. Music, like all the arts, is constantly drawing on tradition, but also constantly innovating. Great artists have always been inspired by the past but never content to rest there.  Each year Festival O/Modernt chooses a particular composer and a theme through which to explore this creative interplay across time. 2014’s focus, “Gluck and Neoclassicism,” spotlights composers who hope to strip away musical excess to achieve “a noble simplicity.”

This process often entails a return to the classics, whether that means Greek art and myths or  musical forebearers such as Bach. It all comes down to the question “What happens when you take something old and try to create something new?”


There could be no better venue in which to explore “Gluck and Neoclassicism” than the environs of Ulriksdal Palace. When Confidencen was being refurbished as a theatre, Gluck had just assumed the post of kappellmeister in Vienna. The same neoclassical ideals the composer shared are visible in the theatre’s décor, such as its rows of painted Corinthian columns. Ulriksdal’s Orangery, now a scuplture museum, hosts many of Festival O/Modernt’s more intimate concerts, and here more than anywhere, the visual surroundings re-enforce the musical ideas.

We sit in a room full of 18th century sculpture modelled on the classical style: in the company of these statues, we may hear a 20th century composition inspired by the 18th century, or an 18th century work inspired by Greek myths, or those myths themselves narrated by a British Museum curator. We find ourselves immersed in an artistic conversation that has been carried on across centuries and is still in progress.

The significant use of visual elements in what is primarily a music festival is no accident. Along with combining the old and the new, Festival O/Modernt promotes a conscious interplay among all the arts. In the lobby of Confidencen, an exhibition is on display from the Swedish Academy of Realist Art: this school specializes in using traditional techniques to create contemporary images, which makes these works a perfect visual complement to the festival’s musical principles. O/Modernt also includes a strong literary component, this year featuring texts by the British poet Paul Williamson.

Ulriksdal Orangeriet

Ulriksdal Orangeriet

But the most exciting incorporation of multiple art forms happens on stage. Alongside the singers and instrumentalists appear performance artists engaged in such curious activities as “rock balancing” or  “kinetic painting.” These activities are not merely novelty additions but create an integral visual dialogue with the music. Festival O/Modernt demonstrates that the various arts, like different eras of time, do not need to be kept separate.

This heady mix of concept and performance, ancient and modern, visual and aural already makes Festival O/Modernt aunique and exhilarating experience. But there is one element more that deserves mention. A concert in a grand hall such as Konserthuset or Berwaldhallen can provide a thrilling example of world-class musicianship, but always at a distance. Even in the more intimate setting of chamber music, there often persists a barrier of formality between the audience and the performers.

By contrast, in the festival setting, we get to see more of the person behind the instrument.

The playing is serious, but the atmosphere is playful. A violinst can play a Gluck trio sonata one night and the next day be heard dashing off a Finnish tango (that’s right, Finnish tango) and trading jokes with the bassist. It often feels as if the musicians are having so much fun, they would be playing just the same whether the audience were there or not. We count ourselves lucky we are there because their playing is superb.

Travel and live performance have this in common: you can get an idea about it from pictures, recordings, or descriptions, but there is nothing that equals actually being there. In combining so many different elements with such skill and delight, Festival O/Modernt offers travelers and music lovers an experience which cannot be had anywhere else.

The festival returns to Ulriksdal in June 2015 for its fifth season with a new composer and theme. You will find me there.


Check out our first coverage of O/Modernt.


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Author: Danielle Blackbird

Danielle Blackbird is a theatre artist and woman-of-letters currently making her home in Stockholm. With equal passions for history, language, and the arts, Danielle is constantly exploring ways to create great art informed by scholarship and great scholarship informed by art. Favorite Swedish places include Drottningholm Slottsteater, Carolina Rediviva library in Uppsala, and the Medieval ruins of Sigtuna and Visby. You can read Danielle's occasional musings on her blog.

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