When His Majesty King Harald V of Norway visits Tacoma this weekend, he’ll get a musical performance he’ll never find anywhere else — a string quartet of traditional Norwegian hardanger fiddles, viola and cello. Made by Northwest luthier Lynn Berg and played by Tacoma musicians, the instruments are the only ones of their kind anywhere in the world, says Gig Harbor cellist Linda Caspersen, who’ll perform at a luncheon Saturday for the king at Pacific Lutheran University alongside Svend Rønning, Janis Upshall and Stein Olaf Hansen.
King Harald is visiting the Puget Sound region for the first time in 20 years to deliver the commencement address at Pacific Lutheran University in honor of the college’s 125th anniversary. He’ll also visit Seattle, and will be awarded an honorary doctorate of law from PLU, which was founded by Norwegian immigrants.
“They have a beautiful sound,” says Caspersen, who commissioned the cello and played in the Harding Kvartett’s debut at PLU in 2004. “We filled Lagerquist Hall.”
Hardanger fiddles are common enough in Norway and America, a traditional version of the folk violin that was originally used to communicate between neighbors across Norway’s steep mountains and valleys, and for entertainment and dancing. First documented in 1651, when its body was more square, the fiddle now looks much like its classical counterpart except for the astonishingly beautiful wood and mother-of-pearl inlay around the purfling (edges) and along the ebony fingerboard. Elaborately inked tendrils run around the outside of the belly and back, and even the tuning pegs are decorated. The tip of the scroll is also traditionally carved — on Upshall’s fiddle it has a pointed, questing lion face like the prow of a Viking ship, topped with a gilt mane.
The other major difference is musical. Hardanger fiddles have four extra strings that run underneath the fingerboard, which resonate sympathetically as the upper ones (tuned just higher than a classical violin at B-E-B-F sharp) are played by the bow. The bridge is very flat, which allows two strings to be played at once; the E string is wound with steel; and the overall sound is warm and a little buzzy.
Berg, a Portland luthier and PLU alum, made Caspersen’s cello after she’d complained to him at a hardanger fiddle workshop how hard she was finding the Norwegian violin after years of cello playing. Already having two fiddles (one of which he donated to PLU), Berg then made a viola to complete the quartet — the only such in existence, says Caspersen.
The quartet has played several times since the 2004 debut, and will perform both a Norwegian Bunadbrura (bridal march) and a suite of Norwegian melodies arranged by PLU music professor Brian Galante. Most of the group is of Norwegian ancestry, and a few have even played for Norwegian royalty before. All have connections to PLU. They’ll be dressed in full bunad attire for the king’s private luncheon performance — even Upshall, who has a slightly problematic secret about playing with a Norwegian hardanger quartet: She’s of Swedish descent.
“Out of respect for King Harald and to celebrate the Norwegian hardanger tradition I have chosen to wear a beautiful Bunad (loaned) to me by Linda,” said Upshall, who owns a Rattvek Swedish folk costume. “I’m happy to celebrate the glory of Norway with my Norsk friends!”