In Norway he’s a celebrity. You seldom hear his name mentioned unless it is accompanied by “good” and “trumpet”. In fact, he came to play the instrument by chance. He grew up in a musical family and started to play the piano at the age of three. When the family home was converted, the piano was moved to the basement, a frightening place for a little boy afraid of the dark. He found consolation in the trumpet, and in a school band conducted by his father.
Ole Edvard Antonsen is an ambassador and an impressive advertisement for the Norwegian brass band tradition, the popular movement of voluntary enthusiasm that provides basic musical training for most Norwegians. While many young Norwegians are content to regard the brass band as a hobby, Ole Edvard had a brilliant talent and incredible self-discipline.
By the age of fourteen he was semi-professional and had performed solo with many orchestras and ensembles, including the Odense Symphony Orchestra in Denmark.
At twenty he was the first wind instrumentalist to graduate from the Norwegian State Academy of Music and was awarded the highest distinction. For eight years he played regularly with the Oslo Philharmonic before taking the final step and starting out on his solo career in ’88. By then, he had already won the prestigious CIEM solo competition in Geneva (the first time the prize had been awarded to a trumpeter since Maurice André in ’55) and in ’89 he won the UNESCO competition in Bratislava. In the run-up to the Olympic Winter Games at Lillehammer in 1994, he was one of the official “Olympic Musicians” appointed to promote Norwegian music. However, Antonsen does not need official appointments to enthuse himself or his audiences – that is an inherent, God-given gift.
Ever since boyhood, Antonsen has been “one of the guys”. He has always been interested in pop and rock music, and approached jazz with humility. As a free-lance musician, he was frequently used as a studio and backing artist and played in the fun-loving wind group Horns for Hire. These experiences were useful when he made the pop CD Tour de Force which, with a Norwegian Grammy award and sales of 140,000, became one of the best-sellers in ’92. It consisted of Antonsen’s favourite pieces and one of the big debates of the year concerned whether it was even possible to play Honky Tonk Woman on the trumpet. Had he anything to contribute to this classic? Yes, he had!
Antonsen’s discography is impressive and interesting. It reveals a curious, searching artist who, with insight and courage, puts not only his instrument but also the willing listener to the test. His début CD in ’89 was The Virtuoso Trumpet, where he played contemporary compositions for solo trumpet and, accompanied by pianist Einar Henning Smebye, performed works by Honegger, Françaix and Jolivet (Simax). Four years later, he did the big concertos; Haydn, Hummel, Telemann, Neruda and Tartini with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra (Trumpet Concertos, EMI).
He has toured extensively with British pianist and organist Wayne Marshall, and their CD Popular Pieces for Trumpet and Organ was released in ’94. The following year he tackled the larger format with Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings with Mikhail Rudy and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Mariss Jansons (EMI). He spent two whole years working on and recording the pop CD Read My Lips (EMI, 1997).
In this case he had collected original tunes by Norwegian pop composers and flirted with a variety of styles and genres. It did well on the sales charts but was given a lukewarm reception by the critics. He redeemed his reputation with last year’s release, 20th Century Trumpet (EMI) with pianist Wolfgang Sawallisch. The minimalist treatment of works by people like Hindemith, Enescu and Martinu provided contrasts and a contemplative atmosphere. On this CD, Antonsen shows that he has continued to develop and definitively achieved one of his goals; to become invisible and not stand in the way of the music.
This is his ideal outside the recording studio too. He makes efforts to ensure that the trumpet is not experienced as a physical instrument. His task is to create a form of musical expression that eliminates visual images. The listener’s inner vision must not be of a trumpet, a dead lump of metal, but everything that is and gives life and feeling. In this respect, he envies the human voice which can glide uninterruptedly between the notes. Phonetics provide a larger register where vowels and consonants colour and form the sound and the temperament. He wants to liberate himself not only from technicalities but from himself, so that he does not occupy too much space.
Perhaps that is why he is so interested in space. Architecture and acoustics are at least as important as time and place when he approaches a new orchestra and a new auditorium. How long will it take for him to “fuse” with the room? What is “lying in the walls”, exuded by the orchestra, the conductor, the building or the atmosphere? Will he be able to “sing” his trumpet here?
This year he is commuting between new spaces, in Australia (on tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra), Germany and Scandinavia. He already has names like the Berlin Philharmonic, the Atlanta Symphony and the Israel Chamber Orchestra under his belt. And if he should meet Randy Crawford or Rickie Lee Jones at an airport somewhere, they’ll probably talk about earlier gigs.
Terms like “crossover” and “light classical” don’t exist in Antonsen’s vocabulary. He is too fond of music and has far too much respect for his job for that. His task is never to be a hybrid, a constructed, virtuoso monster who plays for the gallery. He demands to be judged by classical standards when he is performing classical music. If he is being a pop musician, he wants to be judged as one.
His intuition is absolute. In other words he always finds something new, for instance in Haydn’s trumpet concerto. He has lived and learned since the last time he played it, so the world looks and sounds that little bit different too. The moment reigns over intuition, and as music it is anti-intellectual. Antonsen juggles between in-depth studies and nano-details that can change the totality of a work and the immediate musical physicality that is felt in his legs. “Give music back the legs” might be his motto, whether he is engaged in detailed research prior to one of his many first performances or, like Wagner, transcending “the tyranny of the bar line” in the well-known and much-loved Marcello concerto. And when Ole Edvard Antonsen has conquered his legs, he is close to the brain and the heart – and invisibility.