Eyjafjallajökull
Eyjafjallajökull
This summer, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra made their debut at the BBC Proms, but classical music audiences have been well aware of their work for many years, not least through its strong presence in recordings. Founded in 1940, a part-time ensemble of some 40 players, the orchestra has grown to full symphony status and is acclaimed as Iceland’s national orchestra.
Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

Vladimir Ashkenazy, an Icelandic citizen since 1972, has had a long association with the orchestra and is now its Conductor Laureate. Ilan Volkov has been the ISO’s Music Director since September 2011, a few months after the orchestra moved into its present home, the 1800-seat Harpa (Reykjavik Concert and Conference Centre). The exciting new season sees former music director Osmo Vänskä (1993-96) return as its new Principal Guest Conductor. Indeed, all ISO’s previous music directors going back to 1988 make appearances during the season (Petri Sakari, Rico Saccani and Rumon Gamba).

Alongside concert favourites, the 2014-15 season has a strong focus on new works and some unusual repertoire. Highlights include the return of Vladimir Ashkenazy, who conducts two concerts with the ISO – a repeated programme which pairs Brahms’ autumnal Symphony no. 3 in F major with the grand romantic sweep of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor. The star soloist is Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin. Andrew Litton is on the podium for the season opener, pairing Strauss and Beethoven, while Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski plays Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, programmed alongside Nielsen, another 150th anniversary composer. Victoria Postnikova is another famed pianist in the season, appearing in Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto with her husband, legendary Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

Sibelius 150

The ISO has a special affinity with the music of Jean Sibelius and there is a trio of concerts to mark the composer’s 150th anniversary in 2015. Vänskä (who has probably conducted more Sibelius repertoire than anyone else alive) leads the ISO in the amiable Symphony no. 3 in C major, which contains a haunting nocturne of a second movement. Anna-Maria Helsing programmes Sibelius’ Tchaikovskian Symphony no. 1 in E minor, the third movement of which includes an infectious timpani motto, taken up by the rest of the orchestra. It follows a concerto by Joaquin Rodrigo – for once, not the Concierto de Aranjuez, but his Concierto Pastoral, for flute. The largest Sibelius undertaking in the season is the choral epic Kullervo, conducted by Petri Sakari. Sometimes referred to as a ‘choral symphony’, Kullervo is more a series of five related tone poems, two of which use a male chorus. Two soloists are also required, the sung texts drawing on the sagas of the Finnish Kalevala.

Iceland Symphony Orchestra © Ari Magg
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
© Ari Magg

A canvas of rare works

Rarely programmed repertoire making a welcome appearance in the schedules include Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 4, Erich Korngold’s Symphony and Strauss’ red-blooded early tone poem Macbeth. A brace of painters are daubed into a single concert – Hans Graf pairs Respighi’s Trittico botticelliano with Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony. Hindemith reworked music from it into his opera Mathis der Maler, concerning the life of Matthias Grünewald and in particular the Isenheim altarpiece.

Iceland Symphony Orchestra © Ari Magg
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
© Ari Magg

Telling tales – new music

New repertoire taking centre-stage includes A Giant Love Story, which whisks us off to the world of Iceland’s trolls. Popular children’s author Guðrún Helgadóttir’s collection of Icelandic folk tales is turned into a new symphonic work by composer Guðni Franzson. More trolls – of the Norwegian variety – infest the second half of the concert, which features music by Grieg. Another literature-based work comes via Dimmalimm, a story written by Guðmundur Thorsteinsson (or Muggur) for his niece in 1921. Icelandic composer Atli Heimir Sveinsson has written a score based on the book and the performance will feature projections of the popular illustrations.

New concertos feature strongly. British-Icelandic composer John Speight’s Cello Concerto is premiered by Bryndís Halla Gylfadóttir, while Sveinn Lúðvík Björnsson’s Clarinet Concerto is performed by Einar Jóhannesson.

Subscriptions

Like many orchestras, the ISO offer several concert series to appeal to different tastes – colour-coded – but a Rainbow card allows subscribers to create their own series, at a discount. And if you’re a young listener, the best bit is that a Rainbow Card comes with a 50% discount! Oh to be young and in Iceland...