In bleakest mid-winter, tradition bids musically inclined Icelanders to listen inwards and gather around the sparkling fire of stories told through music. For 24 years, the festival of Dark Music Days has fuelled imagination with contemporary music, thanks to the initiative of the Icelandic Composer’s Union. And with the advent of a glamorous concert hall in the midst of crisis and bankruptcy, the glittering Harpa (inaugurated in 2011), the crowds have grown in numbers every year and the median age has dropped gradually – 2014 being no exception. Standing as a beacon of Icelandic optimism, the hall appears to supercede expectations and live up to it’s hyperbolic name – Harpa being the Norse name for the month of april and equivalent of hope. 

On the opening night of this year’s Dark Music Days, the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra proved what a virtuoso instrument the main hall of Harpa – baptized Eldborg, after the flaming red interior – can be. Performing with youthful zest and precision under young conductor and composer Daníel Bjarnason, the orchestra demonstrates a very high level of musicianship. Staffed with an unusually high ratio of native musicians, the quality ensemble is proof of the emphasis made on solid musical training in this nation of a mere 300,000.

In the opening piece by Steve Reich, Three Movements (1986), the sound bounced between the walls, pulsating with contemporary, light energy, dancing with a jazzy beat provided the three superlative percussionists centerstage. The Reichian musical loops rippled through the orchestra, waves of sound travelling between the two groups of string players on each side and the two grand pianos in the back, seemingly increasing in speed as the harmonic changes accelerate. This opening movement provided a striking musical echo of the illusion of northern lights strumming across the Harpa façade in Oláfur Eliasson’s light installation. The lyrical middle movement of Reich’s piec e is dominated by wood winds – in Harpa, the players propelled the ascending phrases to spiral elegantly upwards. For the the third movement, the conductor hushed the orchestra to faint, high-pitched whispers which died away.

According to the promoters, the Dark Music Days presents one the highest ratio of works composed by natives, in comparison to other high profile contemporary music festivals. Literally sitting on the crack between the two tectonic plates, this nation of free spirits is less reverent of genres and definitions than the rest of the world.

Following intermission, a world première by Thuridur Jónsdottir was presented: Miss Reykjavik Rita – according to the programme notes, “a musical drag queen, disrespectful of the norms of the symphonic orchestra”. However Miss Reykjavik Rita struck the listener as slightly less daring than the imaginative title might suggest. Starting off ambiguously wavering between two neighbouring chords, the web of sound gradually thickened into a rhythmic romp punctuated by burst of percussion. The short piece erupted in a quick, thunderous climax in the brass section and snapped to an end with the sound of a whip and a low-pitched, electronic hum.

Thuridur Jónsdottir was recently nominated for the Nordic Council Music Prize. An apt contrast to her piece was presented by another winner of the same prize from the 70s generation – Haukur Tómasson. In Seventh Heaven (2011) is a more traditionally modernist take on symphonic music, and had the honor of inaugurating the Harpa main hall. Heavy chord clusters amass in the brass section, dragged into ominous darkness by the persistent rhythm of the bass drum. The title seems ironic, rather than supportive of the scenario one would expect, and might be a reflection of the Icelandic sense of humour necessitated by grim living conditions.

In the touching finale, the Hamrahlíd Choir filled the stage to perform the conductors’ settings of three excerpts from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, The Isle is Full of Noises (2012). Painting with broad, romantic strokes, Daniel Bjárnason created three musical tableaux which portrayed the three central characters – Miranda’s passion, Caliban’s restlessness and Prospero’s dreamy vision in the very last stanzas of the play. Although crowned with the poetic lightness of the voices of these young people, the evening’s programming lacked an intangible ingredient necessary to bring it to the level of vibrancy suggested by the volcanic red interior of the hall. On the other hand, the concert must be seen in the context of the festival:  to be followed by a number of high profile chamber concerts and events sure to ignite the hall over the next couple of days.