Home Away from Home

PMF’s new music director finds bits of his heritage in Door County

There’s an old joke, according to Norwegian conductor Rune Bergmann, that Norwegians and other Scandinavians didn’t show much imagination when they immigrated to America because many of them settled in cold, woodsy areas that were nearly indistinguishable from the places they’d left.

“They remind us of home,” Bergmann said.

And that feeling of familiarity was what attracted him to Door County. From the weather, to the celebrations of Norwegian history, to the familiar last names he sees on mailboxes around the county, this place feels remarkably similar to his home base 20 minutes from Oslo, Norway’s capital. 

Bergmann had come to America before to conduct in Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey and elsewhere, but he had never visited Wisconsin until he joined Peninsula Music Festival (PMF) as a guest conductor for two concerts in August 2022.

And now he isn’t just a guest anymore. Instead, he’s PMF’s new music director, and he’s busy coordinating the 71st Symphony Series, set for this coming summer. 

Bergmann is doing much of the planning from Norway, relying on Zoom and other programs to communicate with people here in Door County.

“If something good came out of the pandemic – I’m not sure it’s even possible to say that – it’s that we each got better at communicating with technology,” he said. “Four or five years ago, to plan a festival almost without seeing each other for six months would be almost impossible.”

Before August, Bergmann hopes to fly to Wisconsin once or twice so he can become reacquainted – in person – with everyone he’s working with, and he’ll also fly in for the three-week festival. 

According to David Keen, chair of PMF’s board of directors, Bergmann has big shoes to fill. In 2019, former music director Victor Yampolsky announced that he would be retiring after working with PMF for more than 30 years, so PMF started the search for a new conductor. 

By 2020, the organization had assembled a lineup of five possible replacements, though a decision wasn’t made until after the pandemic.

One of the five candidates was Bergmann, the music director of Canada’s Calgary Philharmonic, the artistic director and chief conductor of Poland’s Szczecin Philharmonic and the chief conductor of Switzerland’s Argovia Philharmonic. In addition to his credentials, Bergmann stood out for his enthusiasm – something that a postpandemic PMF needed.

“Not just for our symphony, but for all symphonies after COVID,” Keen said, “you really need a lot of energy to get back up and running,” and according to Keen, Bergmann has that kind of energy – plus his connection to the area’s heritage was a bonus. 

“As it turns out, he’s a Viking,” Keen said, “so the fit is almost natural.” 

As Bergmann began to put together this year’s program, his first step was to consult current board and staff members about what has – and hasn’t – worked for previous festivals. Now he’s talking to the board about his ideas for the program and suggesting guest conductors, soloists and music pieces. The board will then decide what’s most realistic for the festival.

“That process takes a while because it always starts with a dream, and the dream is usually too big, too expensive and too much,” Bergmann said with a laugh. “Then we’ve just got to tweak it.”

In a month or two, once all the final adjustments are made, musicians will receive contracts and music to prepare. 

Although the bulk of Bergmann’s work is backstage, not onstage – “When I’m conducting on the stage and the orchestra is playing, that’s kind of 10% of the entire process,” he said – it’s the onstage portion that originally sparked his interest in music. 

When Bergmann was 8, he watched famous conductor Carlos Kleiber lead an orchestra, and, looking back, he views it as a “life-changing experience.”

“Just the first 10 seconds of that overture, watching his hands and how he was kind of whipping the music in such an excitement,” Bergmann said, “a light came up in my head, and I talked to my parents, [saying] ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Decades later, he knows his 8-year-old self made the right call. He said he loves both people and music, so being a conductor is the perfect job for him.

At the beginning of his career, Bergmann traveled wherever he could get a position, but now, as a more seasoned conductor, he accepts positions only in areas he wants to visit. His favorite places are ones where “nature meets music.”

“This is where the potential is so big,” Bergmann said of Door County. “This place combines the beauty of music that is new and innovative, but also old in a way. I think the place and music have a lot in common in that we will take care of the traditions and the history, but we still want to develop.”

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