© Igoldste, Ira Goldstein | Wikicommons
© Igoldste, Ira Goldstein | Wikicommons

It’s not just football that’s making people take an interest in Iceland at the moment. An impressive outing in the Euro 2016 tournament has shown the Icelanders living up to their plucky underdogs tag wonderfully, but their musical pedigree – and commitment to new music – is even more impressive. Since 2012, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra has presented its Tectonics Festival celebrating contemporary music. For his first season as Chief Conductor of the ISO, Yan Pascal Tortelier has programmed a number of new works by Nordic composers, rubbing shoulders with classical favourites.

Organist-composer Páll Ísólfsson was among Iceland’s leading musicians in the early 20th century. His Lyric Suite is paired with the Symphony no.2 “The Four Temperaments” in one of Osmo Vänskä's programmes. Vänskä was the ISO’s Chief Conductor from 1993-96 and is very much a specialist in Nordic music. In his other concert, Vänskä conducts music by fellow Finn Kalevi Aho. Minea is a 20-minute work commissioned by Vänskä for the Minnesota Orchestra in 2008 (Minea is an abbreviated form of Minneapolis). Like many contemporary composers from Finland, Aho’s musical language draws on the heritage of Jean Sibelius, but Aho’s orchestration in this work blazes. Hear Aho's Minea below (Spotify link only works if you're signed into a Spotify account.)

Tortelier conducts Aequora by young composer and violinist María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, preceding a programme of Dvořák and Sibelius, while Haukur Tómasson’s From Darkness Woven, composed for orchestra without brass, gets its world première in November.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir © Kristinn Ingvarsson
Anna Thorvaldsdottir
© Kristinn Ingvarsson

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has had several orchestral works premiered by the ISO and was chosen as the New York Philharmonic's Kravis Emerging Composer last year. Aeriality, according to the composer, “refers to the state of gliding through the air with nothing or little to hold on to – as if flying”. This large scale symphonic work opens ‘Nordic Music Days’, which also features Esa-Pekka Salonen’s fantastic Violin Concerto, performed in Reykjavik by Akiko Suwanai.

‘Dark Music Days’ focuses on the contemporary Icelandic scene, with Daníel Bjarnason showcasing a number of new works, including Haukur Tómasson’s viola concerto Echo Chamber and Atli Heimir Sveinsson’s Doloroso, which draws on an old Icelandic funeral hymn. The concert concludes with Polaris, a terrific tone poem by Britlish composer Thomas Adès, which takes us on a sonic journey through the heavens. Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s Flow and Fusion, a work for orchestra and electronics, received its first performance at the 2004 ‘Dark Music Days’ and returns this season. The composer describes how she had the images of “streams of glowing hot magma” in mind, “coming together in one surging lava-flow which cools down, becomes a rock…and echoes.” It precedes a performance by Jack Liebeck of Magnus Lindberg’s First Violin Concerto, a work which the Boston Globe described as demonstrating that “it is possible to wed lyricism and virtuosic display with bracingly fresh sounds and musical ideas of substance”.

Kaija Saariaho, one of Finland’s leading composers, has two works in the ISO’s new season. Her clarinet concerto D'Om Le Vrai Sens was inspired by six medieval tapestries The Lady and the Unicorn that Saariaho had seen in Paris’ Musée national du Moyen Age while seeking material for her opera L’amour de loin. Each tapestry symbolically depicts the five senses along with a mysterious ‘sixth sense’ which the composer suggests could be love itself. Kari Kriikku, recipient of the concerto, performs it in Iceland after Sibelius’ tone poem Rakastava (The Lover). Saariaho’s work is again paired with Sibelius when her Sept Papillons (Seven Butterflies) is performed by cellist Sæunn Þorsteinsdóttir before Sibelius’ nationalistic Second Symphony.

Yan Pascal Tortelier © IMG Artists
Yan Pascal Tortelier
© IMG Artists

New Chief Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier is the son of the great cellist Paul Tortelier. He began his career as a violinist, but studied conducting with Franco Ferrara at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, and from 1974 to 1983 he was Associate Conductor of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. Since then, he was most prominent in the UK as the Principal Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 1992-2003, where his energetic style harnessed the orchestra in fine performances, particularly of French repertoire. Among the French works Tortelier has chosen for his first season in Reykjavik are Ravel’s two suites from Daphnis et Chloé, a shimmering symphonie chorégraphique ballet score that plunges listeners into the heady Mediterranaean heat. The opening of the Second Suite features one of the most gorgeous depictions of sunrise in all music. Ravel is paired with Rachmaninov in Tortelier’s season opener.

During his first season, Tortelier also programmes Bizet’s incidental music to Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlésienne, which incorporates Provençal tunes into the score, while Bizet’s Carmen is celebrated in a delightful penultimate concert which includes Pablo de Sarasate’s fiery violin fantasy on the opera – a little Spanish fire to join the ice and magma also in the ISO’s exciting new season.


This article was sponsored by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.