Sunday, July 29, 2012

Springsteen, in Oslo for 'Wrecking Ball' tour, joins memorial to Norway's terror victims

OSLO -- Our trip to Norway at the end of July coincided with Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball" tour of Europe and the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack in Norway on July 22, 2011. It was the occasion, I think, for one of Springsteen's best moments.

Imprompteau memorial, at right, in grounds of Oslo's Domkirke [cathedral] to victims of terrorist attack July 22, 2011.

We had our downtown hotel room windows open for ventilation, and Saturday night we heard Springsteen's concert at Valle Hovin stadium in the outskirts of Oslo. The concert was halfway across town, and the sound was indistinct but loud and energetic -- and all of it pure Springsteen. If nothing else, it made me want to buy the CD.

What I'll remember most of Springsteen's weekend in Oslo, however, is his appearance the following night at a national memorial concert in front of Oslo's iconic city hall, or Rådhus, for the 77 people who were murdered in the terrorist attack. He simply sang and played "We Shall Overcome" on acoustic guitar backed by Steven Van Zandt. It was understated, passionate and wrenching, as the whole weekend of memorials was understated -- this was Norway, after all -- but passionate and wrenching.

And I thought it was one of Springsteen's finest moments in a stage career that spans 40 years.

Oslo was full of memorials to the terror victims. that Sunday's began at 9:30 a.m. with a wreath-laying ceremony at the downtown government buildings, where the July 22 atrocity had begun with a bomb blast, and continued with a religious service at Oslo's Domkirke. It was attended by the king and queen of Norway, the prime minister and enough ordinary Norwegians to fill the 1,500-seat cathedral with dozens more standing along the walls. And throughout the weekend one of those imprompteau memorials grew on the cathedral grounds, as people left roses and little Norwegian flags beneath a red balloon inscribed with the verse from 1st Corinthians "...og storst av alt er kjærligheten / ... and the greatest of all is love."

Springsteen's appearance at the memorial concert that night wasn't announced till the last minute. Reportedly, it was feared an international celebrity artist would overshadow the Norwegians.

But in the event, that wasn't a problem.

Nobody was upstaged, and Springsteen's delivery of "We Shall Overcome" was as intense as anything I've heard him sing, emotional but understated, and the mostly acoustic guitar supporting his voice was bright and intricate -- but understated, too, and perfectly suited to the song and the occasion.

Springsteen and the E Street Band were already scheduled to be in Oslo over the weekend, as part of their world tour to promote the "Wrecking Ball" album. The CD, which came out in February, got good reviews. David Fricke of Rolling Stone called it "the most despairing, confrontational and musically turbulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made." Sales have been respectable, but it hasn't been a blockbuster, especially in America. Fricke says Springsteen is "angry and accusing in these songs, to the point of exhaustion, with grave reason. The America here is a scorched earth: razed by profiteers, and suffering a shameful erosion in truly democratic values and national charity."

Is it too angry and accusing? Do we really want to hear this? Especially in a edgy, polarizing, acrimonious political season?

Maybe, maybe not.


I'll leave that to the critics to sort that one out.

But the "Wrecking Ball" tour has been a blowout in Europe.

Certainly Springsteen's July 21 concert at the stadium in Oslo was a blowout. All day Saturday fans were pouring into Oslo. The crowds along Karl Johann Street, the city's downtown pedestrian mall, were liberally sprinkled with people wearing "Wrecking Ball" T-shirts, and throngs of mostly young people were already hoofing it out to the stadium by mid-afternoon.

Springsteen has his fans in Norway, and so does Van Zandt. He's starring in a Norwegian TV series called "Lillyhammer," in which he plays a New Jersey mobster in a witness protection program in the rather bucolic Norwegian town of Lillehammer.

In any event, speculation began early that Springsteen might appear at Sunday's memorial concert in the Rådhusplassen, or city hall plaza, on Oslo's waterfront. Not only does he have the fan base in Scandinavia, but the working-class values of his songs align closely with those of Norway's governing Arbeiterparti (labor party), so many of whose youthful members were murdered in last year's atrocity.

Previously scheduled by Norway's state broadcasting service NRK (the acronym for Norsk rikskringkasting) for the anniversary date, the national memorial concert [nasjonal minnekonsert] featured the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (universally known as KORK, for Kringkastingsorkestret) and a lineup of Norwegian artists, as well as an arrangement in which KORK and a carillon in the City Hall towers played a call-and-response arrangement of the Norwegian anthem "Til Ungdommen" (to youth), the bells echoing the orchestra. It was raining, and we watched the concert on TV in our hotel room, and it was stunning TV (especially with the bells also echoing outside our window, again open for ventilation).

Background on the song and the production --

Music by the Danish composer and conductor Otto Mortensen (1907-1986) to a poem by the Norwegian author, playwright, poet and journalist Nordahl Grieg (1902-1943). The song became a kind of anthem for several international peace marches in Europe in 1981-82 and later. After the terror attack on 22.7.11, it has become one of the most used songs in memorial ceremonies. The title means "To the youth" or "To the young ones". Here played on the carillon in Oslo City Hall by Vegar Sandholt, with Kringkastingsorkestret (the Norwegian Radio Orchestra) conducted by Christian Eggen, arranged by Håkon Berge. From the National Memorial Concert 22.7.12 in the City Hall Square of Oslo, July 22nd, 2012, one year after the terror attack. 50-60.000 people were there.

A version of "Til ungdommen" with song [performed by Norwegian pop and crossover artist Sissel Kyrkjebø at 2011 memorial] can be heard here:

A footnote. It all suggested to me that Americans who think the Scandinavian folk churches are dying because attendance at Sunday services is lower than in the U.S., might want to find a metric better suited to the facts of the case. Whatever else may be going on, the churches aren't dying.

In more ways than I could count, the Church of Norway was one of the key focal points of the weekend's observances, and -- I believe -- its teachings helped set the tone, for instance when Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien said at the Domkirke, "The light shines in the darkness; darkness hasn't been able to overcome it." Presiding bishop of the Norwegian church, she has sounded the same note on other occasions.

For his part, Prime Minister Jens Stollenberg sounded more like a pastor than a politician as he told survivors at the wreath-laying, "We will not forget you when the long days of summer give way to autumn darkness. Reach out. Show that you care. A chat about everyday things could help someone regain their will to live." It all had the sound, entirely appropriate under the circumstances, of pastoral grief counseling for a nation of 5 million.

How much of Norway's extraordinary response to terrorism is due to its Lutheran heritage and culture? I'll leave the theories and the pronouncements to others, but I had a sense that it's embedded deeply, even in one of Europe's most secular societies.

Another footnote. The July 30 issue of the New Yorker has a very thoughtful and well-researched profile of Springsteen by editor David Remnick. In the article, Remnick quotes Springsteen on how his parents' working-class struggles influenced his music:

... "Those wounds stay with you [he told Remnick in an interview during a rehearsal in New Jersey], and you turn them into a language and a purpose." Gesturing toward the band onstage, he said, "We're repairmen -- repairmen with a toolbox. If I repair a little of myself, I'll repair a little of you. That's the job."
The context was different, of course, but I couldn't help feeling Springsteen was doing something like that when he and Van Zandt performed "We Shall Overcome" in Oslo.

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