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Report on JBS tour of Sweden and Finland (July 4-20, 2007)

July 4-7 in Dalarna province, mostly Borlänge and Mora

The 2007 Summer JBS Swedish safari opened on July 4th  in Borlänge at the Jussi Björling Museum there, a place that some of us regard as the “center of the universe.” This year’s Museum program was unusual in the emphasis on singers other than JB, and on aspects of Jussi in areas other than singing. Really. Harald welcomed all with good cheer (and a new haircut), and we got a running start on a couple of very full days. 

Music journalist Göran Forsling gave us a splendid overview of Swedish singers of the past on Wednesday morning, followed in the afternoon by Museum summer staffer Roger Alderstrand, who discussed – with illustrations – Jussi in caricature. Roger’s favorites, and ours, were the drawings more clearly done out of a spirit of affection.

We learned about more Scandinavian singers on Thursday, with a presentation by Ragnhild Nyhus, Director of Norway’s Flagstad Museum, followed by local music critic (and official transfer engineer for Bluebell Records) Christer Eklund who spoke about the Kerstin Thorborg archive in nearby Falun.  A subset of our group went off to the resort town of Siljansnäs to hear young mezzo-soprano Ann-Kristin Jones [“You-nes”] with the Dala Sinfonietta in a program of Nordic songs by Grieg and Alfvén.  The scenery along Lake Siljan was gorgeous on this lovely Swedish evening, and the concert fit that mood with fresh vibrant singing from local favorite Ms. Jones:  watch for a big career for this mezzo-soprano from Leksand! 

Friday afternoon was devoted to Jussi and an assortment of connections to sports, however tenuous. Jan-Olof Damberg spoke on Jussi as participant, observer, and performer at opening ceremonies live and televised. Harald wrapped up Friday with a carefully researched overview of everything we know about David Björling’s early years and the beginnings of the Björling Male Quartet.

Saturday morning, we loaded on our enormous bus for the first time, and set off first for a quiet visit to Stora Tuna’s church and its graveyard with Jussi and many family members. Then we headed north to Mora and the Anders Zorn Museum. The bus had a huge sign on the side, which announced that we were the “ Jussi Björling Society-USA,” and folks stopped and stared, in amazement, I think.

Kerstin Meyer joined us in Mora, and stayed with the group for the remainder of the Swedish part of the tour. She was unfailingly kind to all, generous with her time and energy and willing to listen patiently to any and all.

Raymond Björling gave a lovely concert at the “Music on Lake Siljan” Festival, with a mixture of folk tunes, arias and other concert pieces. The selections were not always familiar and included some songs from contemporary musicals, but Raymond’s warmth and ease in the material was truly delightful. I’ve heard him sing quite a few times now, and felt that these charming songs might have been written for him.

July 8-9 in Hälsingland

Dan, Harald, and Hans Thunström working together had procured for us the huge bus mentioned earlier, together with our young, patient, and good-humored driver. We set off first for Bolnäs where we were joined by Stefan Olmårs and a contingent from the Scandinavian JB Society. First stop was coffee and cake: the Swedes always have their priorities in order.

Stefan Johansson, Chief Dramaturg of the Royal Opera, joined the group in Bolnäs, and was – as always – a highly informed, articulate and amusing companion during the rest of the program in Sweden.

Stefan O. had us tightly scheduled, and we continued our day with a visit to the only linen mill remaining in Scandinavia (where we saw linen being made the really OLD way), then on to Strömsbruk for some of David Björling’s early history, a short bus tour of historical houses in Hälsingland, more coffee and cake – this time at Stefan’s home, courtesy of Christina Olmårs, and finally dinner at Järvsöbaden and at last to bed.

Stefan O. was the usual masterful if perhaps overly ambitious organizer, and we spent several hours traveling between historical places. The passing impressions of Hälsingland’s painted houses made us all want to see more, and Stefan also arranged that.

Monday we got to sleep in a bit, and then gathered to listen to Bertil Bengtsson speak on the history of the Swedish singing tradition. There were plenty of good questions and comments, followed by yet another typical smögåsbord lunch.

Afternoon travel included a local folk museum in Edsbyn, which was truly extraordinarily fine, both in the quality of exhibits – mostly local folk art – and the quality of the presentations themselves. Our two traveling curators were deeply impressed.

A highpoint on Monday was the annual “Jussi in Our Hearts” concert at Voxna Church. Posters identified the event as a “Jussifest,” and it truly was. Our singers were Scandinavian Society President baritone Bengt Krantz, up and coming young tenor Mats Carlsson, and local talent (tenor and weight lifter) Hans Qvarfell.

Krantz and Carlsson, the professionals, gave us a full program of stirring Swedish songs and arias and duets from opera. But the surprise of the event was elderly and masterful bass-baritone Torsten Föllinger, who sang “Ol’ man river.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

We concluded, as always, with the whole audience singing “Land, du välsignade,” and then we were off to Voxna Herrgård for a lovely smörgåsbord dinner.

Two further major musical events of the day still awaited us after dinner: Stefan Olmårs described an interview he had managed with Renee Fleming, and then our magnificent Kerstin Meyer spoke eloquently about her career and especially on her early encounters with our tenor.

Highlights from her Bluebell aria CD were played, as well as the ‘Ai nostri monti’ duet from Trovatore , with Jussi (1960).

On Monday morning, we had a brief stop for an interview, and then had a look in at Stefan’s own painted house, where his son Olle and Olle’s new bride will be living.

Most of the Swedes left us at Bolnäs to return to their homes via train, and the rest of us rode on to Stockholm’s ferry terminal for our overnight float to Helsinki. 

July 10-20 in Lahti, Savonlinna, and Helsinki  (to be continued)