For its second season under the leadership of principal conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra offers a wonderfully balanced programme, which features a lot of French and Russian repertoire along with a celebration of the city of Los Angeles. As well as featuring some of the world’s leading soloists, Icelandic composers and performers are also championed.  

Yan Pascal Tortelier © Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier
© Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Tortelier studied with Nadia Boulanger and is widely recognised for his outstanding work promoting French music, so it’s natural than he leads the ISO in plenty of French repertoire this season. Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel provide more familiar fare, but Tortelier also programmes rarer French flavours. Charles Gounod is mostly known now as a composer of choral music and operas (Faust was one of the 19th century’s most popular operas), but he also composed two symphonies which hardly get a look-in these days. Tortelier includes them both this season. Both were composed in 1855 and fizz with wit joie de vivre, a sort of French Mendelssohn. Poulenc’s racy Concerto for Two Pianos is even more high-spirited, although the central Larghetto has a Mozartean simplicity and innocence. This work has been a favourite of the Labèque sisters over the years. In Reykjavik, another pair of siblings – young Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen – take on the work. Like Poulenc, Jacques Ibert doesn’t always show his serious side. His Flute Concerto was composed in 1934 for Marcel Moyse, one of the great flautists of the 20th century, and the finale positively bursts with fun. Icelandic flautist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, formerly with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and now principal of the Chicago Symphony, returns to Reykjavik as soloist.

Another Icelandic soloist this season is pianist Víkingur Ólafsson who has shot to international fame recently due to his playing of Philip Glass. Bachtrack has reviewed this young pianist four times in recent months, praising the way Ólafsson “kept Glass’ multi-layered textures crystal clear and immediate, with a bright, brilliant tone.” His Bach in Istanbul contained “intricate and tasteful ornaments and millisecond perfect trills”. With the ISO next season, Ólafsson plays Mozart (the C minor concerto K491) and Haukur Tómasson's Second Piano Concerto, first performed earlier this year at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and described as “glittering” by the LA Times shortly afterwards.

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

Other Icelandic composers represented in the season include Páll Ragnar Pálsson, whose new Cello Concerto (also premiered in Hamburg earlier this year) is performed by Sæunn Þorsteinsdóttir. The Airwaves concert features works by four Icelandic composers, which have attracted recognition in recent years, further demonstrating the ISO’s commitment to new music.

Jón Leifs can be considered the grandfather of Icelandic classical composition. Born in 1899 under the name Jón Þorleifsson, Leifs studied at the Leipzig Conservatory and conducted a number of orchestras in Germany before turning to composition. His music has a rugged, epic quality, such as Hekla, which depicts a volcanic eruption, or other works drawing on Icelandic sagas. Leifs wrote three oratorios based on episodes from the Icelandic Edda, a medieval manuscript which chronicles old Norse mythology. They were originally designed to be played on three successive evenings, an Icelandic counterpart to Wagner’s Ring – indeed, the final part is titled Ragnarok (The Twilight of the Gods)! Next season, the ISO plays the second part, subtitled “The Lives of the Gods” which should resound impressively in the famed acoustic of Harpa Concert Hall.

This spring, the LA Philharmonic hosted a festival dedicated to Icelandic musicians and performers. The Iceland Symphony returns the compliment by running a festival celebrating Los Angeles. “LA/Reykjavík” opens with the music of John Adams, his Scheherazade.2, a dramatic symphony for solo violin and orchestra, a contemporary take on The Arabian Nights and Scheherazade who saved her life by telling stories. The piece was written for Leila Josefowicz, who has performed it many times ever since – Bachtrack has already reviewed the work eight times! Adams is also included in Josefowicz’s recital in the Northern Light recital hall. The LA-based Calder Quartet includes Andrew Norman’s Stop Motion in its programme, along with Homunculus by Esa-Pekka Salonen, former music director of the LA Phil. The ISO pays tribute to Hollywood in a concert of films score from Miklós Rózsa’s music for the epic Ben Hur to the music of John Williams.

Iceland Symphony Orchestra playing in Harpa Concert Hall © Baldur Kristjans
Iceland Symphony Orchestra playing in Harpa Concert Hall
© Baldur Kristjans

Among the star soloists next season, Paul Lewis continues his residency which sees him perform all five Beethoven piano concertos. He also performs a solo recital where Beethoven also features, alongside Haydn and Brahms. Janine Jansen plays Sibelius’ evergreen Violin Concerto and Alban Gerhardt performs Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Andreas Ottensamer, prinicpal clarinettist from the Berlin Philharmonic, performs Stamitz, while Radek Baborák, a former Berlin Phil principal, plays Reinhold Glière’s rarely heard Horn Concerto. Among the vocal soloists, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila’s appearance will be the most keenly anticipated, where she sings Wagner’s highly perfumed Wesendonck Lieder.

This season, the Iceland Symphony visited Gothenburg (a concert we reviewed). Next season, the Gothenburg Symphony makes the return journey under new chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, with Sibelius’ First Symphony concluding a popular programme.

Yan Pascal Tortelier has talked about the ISO having “matured into a full-blooded symphony orchestra” in recent years. This diverse new season certainly offers something for all tastes.

Click here for a complete season listing. 

Article sponsored by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra