Icelandic Airwaves

Hilary Finch travels to Reykjavík, where the Iceland Symphony Orchestra is has a new conductor

Icelandic Airwaves

At first I thought I’d arrived too early. The first snow flurries whirled through the streets of Reykjavík, and the aurora intermittently obliged tourists incessantly hunting down the Northern Lights. But the talk of the town was Iceland Airwaves, a week celebrating the ten years of Nico Muhly’s renowned Bedroom Community, and the funky Icelandic musicians who are his artistic bedfellows: among them Myrra Rós, Milkywhale, Ulfur Ulfur, Rökkva – and, of course, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. 

They were in Reykjavík to perform Muhly’s Mixed Messages, Daníel Bjarnason’s Emergence, and Valgeir Sigurdsson’s Struck the day after I had to leave. But, as Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics festival showed in the last couple of years, and as Reykjavík’s Dark Music Days reveal every winter, in Iceland, classical, indie, rock and rap have a way of melting together in one red-hot lava flow of music. There’s no such thing as 'crossover' in a land where even ice and fire coexist.

And now there is a new hot ticket. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra (ISO), still glorying in its new home, the Mies van der Rohe award-winning Harpa Concert Hall, finds itself with a new chief conductor in Yan Pascal Tortelier.

They first met in 1998 at the Reykjavík Arts Festival. In subsequent years, Tortelier was busy as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, and then as principal conductor at Sao Paolo. But the players were itching to ask him back. In 2012 they met again: the players of the ISO had spent a euphoric year, re-tuning themselves out of an old cinema which they’d inhabited for 50 years, and into the superb acoustic of Eldborg, the lava-red, state-of-the-art concert hall within Harpa. And Tortelier was keen to fly north. ‘I was lucky enough to be with the best orchestra in the South Atlantic; and now I have the best orchestra in the North Atlantic!’ he told me, beaming, when I met him in his dressing room with its view of Mount Esja and the glacial wildernesses beyond.

With the Icelandic financial crisis well behind them, and a sold-out Royal Albert Hall Prom in its portfolio, the ISO is ready to be propelled onto the wider international stage. Sharing recording contracts with Chandos, Tortelier is keen both to complete his prize-winning Roussel and Dutilleux with the BBC Philharmonic – and to start a new cycle of Gounod symphonies with his new orchestra.

There was more than a hint of Gallic fragrance in the concert I attended at the start of the ISO’s new season. The grand finale was a suite from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne – and it trumpeted the quality which already marks this partnership: a sense of the extrovert, impulsive, almost improvisatory within Tortelier’s baton-less conducting; and a sense of palpably gleeful receptivity among the players. The conductor admires this orchestra’s ability to be ‘disponible’ – available, open, flexible, without preconception. And Tortelier likes to stir things up.

In his opening concert, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe didn’t sound quite like what we’d expected. Nor, in this second concert, did L’Arlésienne or Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Tortelier had shaken up the movements to provide a subverted musical narrative rather than a conventionally linear one; and had left the ear refreshed and re-activated as a result. His rousing upbeat was the wedding music which begins the incidental section, but which is absent from the suites. Then suddenly we were deep in the poignant sorrows of Solveig, showcasing without further ado the ISO’s characterful woodwind. (And principal bassoon, Michael Kaulartz, was later to play a devilishly fast and furious Mozart Bassoon Concerto, with quite some attitude.) 

Back to Grieg, and Anitra’s heady Dance preceded the cool, clear air of Morning, cleansed of cliché. And the Hall of the Mountain King – a droll dance of leering masks – looked ahead to Peer’s homecoming and to the final dark Death of Ase. Unusually, there was no Icelandic music in this programme. What did Tortelier already know? What were his plans? Looking ahead I saw he’d be conducting a new piece called Aequora by Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (November 10); and Haukur Tómasson’s beautiful From Darkness Woven, in the company of Stravinsky, Strauss, and Icelandic pianist Vikingur Heidar Olafsson (November 17). I need to go back!

Tortelier is taking his cue in this aspect of his work from the orchestra’s eclectic and multi-talented artistic director, Arni Heimir Ingolfsson. And he wants to make his own introductions, too: Dutilleux, Messiaen, Lutoslawski – and, in particular, Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, a work about which Tortelier is passionate. There will be quite some challenges on both sides during the next three years.

Arna Kristin Einarsdottir, managing director of the ISO, realises that Tortelier has an exceptional ear – he hears every single note, every single player. And they all have to deliver. ‘But, at the moment, they’re eating out of his hands!’, she told me; and several players to whom I spoke said they’d never enjoyed rehearsals so much.

As for Tortelier, he is clearly already intoxicated by these high-spirited, characterful musicians. And by their island. Yan Pascal is very much his father’s son. Like the impassioned cellist, Paul Tortelier, nature is, for Yan Pascal, the driving force of his life. Here there are volcanoes, volcanic deserts, glacial wildernesses, vast waterfalls and geysirs to explore – ‘and space to get lost!’. The ISO’s new conductor is already planning to buy an Icelandic horse to graze his land in the Haute-Provence. After Osmo Vänskä’s memorable and transformative sojourn with the ISO in the 1990s, it looks as though the orchestra could well be heading towards a new bright gleam of glory days.


Hilary Finch has been writing about classical music in Iceland for 35 years, and is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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