Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Norwegian jazzers bring contemplative Christmas to Newman Center

Singer Solveig Slettahjell and pianist Tord Gustavsen are featured in “A Night in Bethlehem,” coming to the Newman Center on Dec. 7. Photo: Barbro F. Steinde

Those who want to fully embrace the American holiday experience have any number of shopping malls or ice skating rinks to visit. Those who prefer to spend the season in a more contemplative mode have another option: A Night in Bethlehem.

The Christmas-themed jazz show, which brings its national tour to the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 7, features a trio of Norwegian musicians — pianist Tord Gustavsen, singer Solveig Slettahjell and trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig — and their somber, meditative takes on traditional songs like “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” along with a number of Norwegian and Swedish carols.

The bulk of the songs in the show come from the same-titled A Night in Bethlehem, an album the trio recorded in 2008 in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

“Most of the songs are hymns that we have sung in our homes ever since childhood,” Gustavsen writes in an e-mail. “The project is a biographical labor of love for all of us, where we dig deeply into childhood musical experiences and try to make sense of them as creative artists here and now.

“At the same time, the project is a spiritual — and also, to a certain extent, political — pilgrimage,” he continues. “It took place physically in the sense of traveling to Bethlehem and recording the material, with all the political tensions and the miseries of the region as a very real context for the session, along with the intensely inspirational qualities of the historical church built on the grounds where Jesus is actually believed to have been born.”

Gustavsen says getting into the church to record wasn’t easy, but the album’s producer knew some of the monks in the adjoining monastery, who let the musicians stay late at night to perform. The trio brought in portable recording gear — high-quality microphones and a laptop — and rented the only Steinway piano in the Palestinian territories. The sacred atmosphere, he says, added to the album’s evocative sound.

“We tried to approach songs as honestly and delicately as possible, and to play them in a way that felt relevant and truly alive to us,” Gustavsen writes. “Solveig and I are deeply committed to exploring slow tempos. Solveig has a unique ability to make every phrase and every syllable breathe and come alive, and it often seems to me that the slower we do a piece, the stronger it appears.”

Steve Seifert, executive director of the Newman Center, says he usually tries to program a show that is seasonal without being the “usual suspects,” like A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker.

“[This show is] more contemplative,” he says. “It’s really very beautiful and calm, and I think in what is usually a pretty hectic season it’s going to be a nice experience.”

A Night in Bethlehem begins at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 in DU’s Gates Concert Hall, 2344 E. Iliff Ave. A free “Behind the Curtain” lecture begins at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $32–$48; visit  for tickets and more information.


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