A guy who looks a lot like Viggo Mortensen elbows in beside me at the bar and grabs a glass of champagne. He flashes me an electrifyingly white smile and disappears into the crowd. The only kids in the lounge at Stockholmâ€™s dramatic concert hall, survey me, decide Iâ€™m not anybody famous, and turn, giggling, to glide behind Mortensenâ€”or his twin brotherâ€”as he evaporates into a haze of Scandinavian celebrities. Here, in attendance at the pre-concert party to honor the 2008 laureates of the Polar Music Prize, I am surrounded by Scandinavian glitterati.
Later, when the lights blink and I move to my seat in the concert hall, I sit right behind two members of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters and Nick Mason, who share this yearâ€™s prize with opera diva Renee Fleming. They have performed a few days earlier and tonight they join a tuxedo clad crowd to listen to Fleming, an oratory adventure that drops jaws and brings tears to otherwise dry, rock and roll loving eyes. This is the sort of â€œPretty Womanâ€ opera moment that turns everyone into an aria fan.
I am in Stockholm at the invitation of Marie Ledin to attend the festivities of the Polar Music Prize. Her father, Stig Anderson, Abbaâ€™s brilliant manager and a popular Swedish lyricist, founded Polar Records and created the prize in 1989. It was his hope to endow the largest and most prestigious music prize in the world. Not well known in the United States, this prize captivates Europe and has been awarded to such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Isaac Stern, Ray Charles, Gilberto Gil and Sir Paul McCartney. Meant to inspire an interest in all sorts of music (Stig Anderson believed that music has no boundaries and crosses all frontiers), the award goes to a classical musician, as well as a pop/rock star each year. Feted at various events in Stockholm for about a week in August, the winners receive their prize during an elegant award ceremony, modeled after that of the Nobel Prize, during which the King of Sweden personally hands over the award.
A few days before the ceremony, I check into The Grand Hotel, Stockholmâ€™s most storied hotel, a glorious, resplendent, queen of a lodge, built in 1874. Sitting quayside where the water of Lake Malaven flows into the Baltic Sea, it has housed movie stars, Nobel winners, presidents, and just plain folks with good taste. Perfectly situated, it overlooks the Royal Palace which glistens today in the last golden bit of summer sun. Standing on the balcony attached to my room, in the newest part of the hotel (created when the original building merged with two adjacent historic mansions), I gaze out, over the water at the crowds teeming around the palace. From my vantage point, I can see some of the fourteen islands, fused seamlessly together with subtle bridges, that make up the city of Stockholm. My favorite spot in this vista is Gamla Stan, the old town, with its maze of medieval alleyways, old buildings, and inviting shops. I make a note to take a walk there laterâ€”but first, Iâ€™m off to attend a press conference with the laureates.
I ride down in the elevator with a nice looking man I would call middle-aged but my kids would describe as elderly. Dressed conservatively, he greets me in the dulcet tones of a well worn British accent and then we both stare wordlessly at the wall. I wonder what sort of business brings him to Stockholm. En route to the press conference, I canâ€™t resist a detour and allow myself a sneak preview of the Grand Hotelâ€™s Hall of Mirrors, an extreme party and banqueting room, modeled over a hundred years ago as an exact replica of the hall with the self same name in the Palace of Versailles. Lushly Louis the Fourteenth, dripping with chandeliers, bedecked with miles and miles of mirrors, the room scintillates with reflections and shimmering rays of light. Itâ€™s like a multi-faceted diamondâ€™s explosion of energy in the midday sun.
Alone in this space that cries out to be filled with people, I do the unthinkable. I indulge in the childish act of spinning around with my eyes half closedâ€”just for a moment. I twirl through time. This was the room that once held the Nobel Prize dinners and shortly it will be filled with an A-list crowd of Polar Prize enthusiasts, laureates and invitees. Royalty has danced here; world leaders convened, and great minds confabulated. When staff members bearing trays of glassware enter, I know its time to get to the press conference.
I slip in a bit late and a bit nervous for my interview with Pink Floydâ€™s Nick Mason. What a surprise to discover that Iâ€™ve met him alreadyâ€”in the elevator, just five minutes ago. We laugh over this and I tell him I still think of him wearing psychedelic print shirts, sheepskin pant suits, and donning funky hats over long, scraggly locks of hair. Later, heâ€™s joined by Waters, whose distinctive face, arching cheekbones, and casually worn jeans render him more rock star recognizable. They answer questions about early musical influences (Elvis and Muddy Waters) and wave away inquiries into band bad blood, breakups and reunions. When Renee Fleming comes over to talk, the three laureates share a mutual admiration that proves Stig Andersonâ€™s belief in the connectivity of all music.
Itâ€™s a pleasant revelation and I spend the rest of the day humming, alternating between an out of tune version of Wish You Were Here and a spotty altoâ€™s attempt at an aria from the Marriage of Figaro. Thankfully for the people of Stockholm, most of the singing happens in my head, but I do belt out a few measures while riding a bike around Djurgarden, a thickly wooded island with miles and miles of trails, floral, fauna and museums right in the middle of the city. By the time I attend the award ceremony, Iâ€™ve wisely put my singing on the shelf but take consolation from the fact that even the Prime Minister of Sweden canâ€™t stop himself from a little karaoke. He introduces the Pink Floyd band, but only after entertaining the audience with his rendition of â€œAnother Brick In The Wall.â€ Ainâ€™t got no education? You gotta love it.
Stay: The Grand Hotel (an Intercontinental property): www.grandhotel.se
Eat: Mathias Dahlgren: Located in the Grand Hotel, this acclaimed Michelin star restaurant borrows from Chef Dahlgrenâ€™s childhood, mixing Scandanavian comfort food recipes with his signature, adventurous flair.
The Vasa Museum
Djurgarden island to ride bikes
Skansen, a folk museum
Photo from the Polar Music Prize, Emma Svensson, copyright 2008
Globe trotting Becca Hensley can’t resist a good sale, a mysterious side street or a full glass of champagne in a local bar. Austin-based, widely published, she is Senior Travel Writer for Austin Monthly and writes for myriad magazines, such as National Geographic Traveler, Forbes, and Self. An expert in all things luxe, she knows how to ask “how much” in ten languages, revels in the inspired hotel room, and doesn’t bat an eyelash when she sits by a baby on a plane.