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Some Kind Of Heaven: Six days of Jussi-appreciation in Stockholm and Borlänge, September 8-13th

By Sue Flaster

Fans of the late Swedish tenor Jussi Björling converged on Stockholm and Borlänge, Sweden, during September 8th-13th.  They came from all around the world to attend an International Congress that chronicled Björling’s extraordinary life and career.

Lars Björling, Ulla Westlund, Raymond Björling in Stora Tuna Church

Titled “A Celebration of the Jussi Björling Museum after Ten Years,” this event was the brainchild of Harald Henrysson, Curator of the Jussi Björling Museum in Borlänge, and was organized through the combined efforts of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Sällskapet, The Jussi Björling Appreciation Society (UK), the Jussi Björling Society-USA, and the Jussi Björling Museum. 

The Congress drew participants from Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Norway, and Sweden. The Congress program included eighteen presentations and panels, a major concert at Stora Tuna Church, dinners, receptions, and tours.

A gala concert of Jussi Björling’s audio and visual recordings was hosted by Bertil Bengtsson on September 8, the evening before the official start of the Congress.  This event sold out the 400-seat auditorium of Stockholm’s Royal College of Music, with quite a few disappointed fans unable to find last-minute tickets.  The audience thrilled to Jussi’s voice as projected through the top-quality sound system, and during intermission they bought up every single CD in Naxos’s display of their new “Jussi Björling Collection.”

Highlights of the first day include the venue itself: the opulent Golden Foyer of the Royal Opera House, where we got a warm welcome from the new Director of the Royal Opera, Anders Franzén, and greetings from the Chairs of all three Societies, as well as a short welcome from Harald Henrysson, and an intriguing keynote address from Andrew Farkas.

As Harald said, “we have gathered here, Jussiphiles, from ten countries, surrounded by Sweden’s operatic history.  I hope and believe that five days of interesting and engaged lectures and presentations on Jussi Björling and of listening to his rich recorded legacy will offer us much new and deepened insights about one of the 20th centuries greatest artists and one of Sweden’s greatest prides.”  The day, September 9, had been chosen to mark the anniversary of Jussi’s death in 1960.

Other outstanding presentations were an overview of Swedish operatic tradition from Stefan Johansson, Chief Dramaturg of the Royal Opera, and a panel of singers who had performed with Jussi:  Kjerstin Dellert, Elisabeth Söderström, Ragnar Ulfung, Ingvar Wixell, Per Grundén, and Eric Saedén. The knowledgeable moderator was Stockholm broadcast personality Niklas Lindblad.

The afternoon ended with a fascinating tour of the Opera House.  Then many of us went to dinner at the nearby Bern’s restaurant, and returned to see a performance of Smetana’s Bartered bride.

We moved to Stockholm’s Music Museum for the second day, where we were welcomed by its Curator Stefan Bohman. John Steane and Jürgen Kesting each gave provocative commentaries on Jussi’s art, well illustrated with some of the tenor’s greatest recordings.  And then we went out into the spectacularly sunny day, to ride busses to Stockholm’s Stadshus (City Hall) where a warm welcome from the Vice-mayor was followed by a marvelous buffet lunch and then a tour of the historic building.  The whole city looked absolutely gorgeous.

After we returned to the Museum, we heard Ann-Charlotte Björling in conversation with Andrew Farkas, as she generously shared memories of her father, on Siarö and during travels to Rome and London for recording projects.

The day’s final speaker, Johan Sundberg, Professor of musical acoustics, addressed the highly technical subject of human vocal production, with special attention to unusual features of Jussi’s vocal technique. Many of us felt just on the verge of understanding this big topic. (Luckily there was no quiz afterwards, although a lively discussion did help clarify the issues.)

Friday evening, many of our group elected to return to Berns Restaurant for a relaxing dinner prior to attending a performance of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore at the Royal Opera.

Saturday morning brought yet another beautiful day, as we boarded our punctual busses for the drive to Borlänge A number of important touristic sites were pointed out on the way, such as the world’s largest Dala horse, and Harald Henrysson’s home.

After checking into our Borlänge hotels, Harald opened the Museum to our excited and acquisitive band, and much enthusiastic record-shopping ensued.

Another lovely buffet awaited us, courtesy of the City of Borlänge, after an interesting tour of another historic site (the 15th century Ornästugan, where Gustav Vasa, first king of the Swedes, had hidden from the marauding Danes).  The outdoor setting was idyllic, and we were honored by warm words of welcome from city officials Lars Ivarsson and Elsy Andersson.

Back at the Museum, the evening concluded with an evening talk by Richard Copeman, President of the JBAS, on collecting Björling memorabilia.

On Sunday, September 12, Congress participants joined Harald Henrysson for a walk to the site of Jussi’s birthplace, and, for a time, his childhood home, indicated by an historical plaque where the house once stood.

Following lunch, the program shifted to the adjacent Mission Church where composer, conductor, and musicologist Lennart Hedwall discussed Jussi Björling and the Swedish Art Song.

Harald Henrysson‘s program Rare Björling recordings in the collection of the Jussi Björling Museum featured a number of choice items from the period of 1937 to 1957 played in an approximate chronological order. Nearly all of these items can only be heard at the Jussi Björling Museum.  (If you haven’t been there yet, you need to plan a trip to Sweden – preferably with a group of JBS-friends.)

That evening, participants boarded busses for Stora Tuna Kyrka (Church) and visited the graves of Jussi, David, Gösta, Rolf and other Björling family members prior to attending a memorable Festkonsert at the church featuring Jussi’s son Lars, grandson Raymond Björling, and local soprano Ulla Westlund performing with the Dala Sinfonietta.

The program resumed at the Mission Church on Monday where Sue Flaster presented the voices of Olle, Gösta, Karl, Rolf and Ann-Charlotte Björling in audio recordings and video segments.

Stefan Lindström, a sound engineer with extensive experience in sound restoration, discussed the art of sound transfer engineering and, in particular, his experience with the transfer of historic Björling recordings for Naxos-Sweden. He described in language accessible to the layperson the recording process from singer to microphone to record, and then remastering of an analogue recording to CD via digital technology.

After lunch we heard from Marianne Liljas, a doctoral student, on the origins of David Björling’s teaching techniques, and one more superb presentation from Stephen Hastings, ingeniously titled “Jussi Björling’s invisible technique.”

The splendid conference ended with a banquet at the Galaxen Hotel, from which we all needed to be forcibly removed.