Nordic Music Days in Iceland

25 September - 1 October 1996

Þessi grein birtist í Nordic Sounds No. 1/1996

Iceland has long been a port of call on the cultural highway of musicians travelling between Europe and America. Though perceived by some as "under the roof of the world", Reykjavík has, since the middle of this century, played host to many of the most respected musicians of the western world. The concerts of these artists, given on this beautiful island in the North Atlantic, have been a source of inspiration for Iceland's young and fertile musical life.

The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra was founded only 45 years ago, yet through its numerous recordings in recent years, the orchestra has earned its place in the European music world. This rapid development partly reflects the fact that it has become customary for Icelandic musicians, following training in Iceland, to proceed with their advanced studies in various parts of Europe and in America, thus coming into close contact with the different streams of culture before returning to their homeland. Today Iceland has its arts festivals, both national and international, and Icelandic performers and composers are heard far and wide.

More than a century has passed since the first "Great Nordic Music Festival" as it was then called, was held in 1888. These festivals continued every four years until they were interrupted by World War II. The Copenhagen festival in 1938 saw the first representation of Icelandic orchestral music. One of the participants in that festival, Jón Leifs, is currently being rediscovered as a composer . Interest in his music is booming at present, thanks to its originality, splendour and unique character - a musical language which reflects practically everything that the history and nature of Iceland signifies to many people. An excellent film has been made by Hilmar Oddsson about the composer, and the Swedish company BIS has undertaken a complete issue of his work on CD.

After the war the Nordic Composers' Council was founded in 1946 with the objective of promoting musical development and encouraging performances of new music in the Nordic countries. As one of its main tasks the Council initiated in 1948 the biannual Nordic Music Days in their present form. Ever since their aim has been to present the latest in Nordic musical composition. The music, of course, changes as time passes, influenced by developing attitudes and trends, both at home and abroad. The festival gives, in a sense, an overview of this process. Interest in Nordic arts - visual art, literature and music - is growing worldwide. In the past, all music from the Nordic countries was presented under the umbrella term "Scandinavian Music." But today people are gradually realizing that each country has its own identity - while they also seek the common character, that which is Nordic. On this occasion, seekers are invited to an Icelandic setting, where the roots of Nordic culture have been preserved, in the Icelandic language.

"The festival form is an established tradition, although the musical content varies, " says Árni Harðarson, chairman of the Society of Icelandic Composers responsible for the organizing of this year's festival. "A large selection of works is being presented in a period of seven days. Our hope is that those who are drawn to the music offered will experience something of value. Surely the music itself is the most important part of each concert , but the right packaging can create a strong image, and even a stronger impression of the festival as a whole. The programme will include traditional orchestral and chamber concerts. Other events, where light and images contribute to the overall effect are also planned. The environment per se is important; Iceland is beautiful and we know that visitors from abroad appreciate what it has to offer. We want to make Iceland itself a part of the festival, allow it to play its part. A festival in Iceland cannot be the same as anywhere else, although the music will always be Nordic at Nordic Music Days."

On this occasion no pre-selection took place within each country; instead a Nordic commitee made a selection from all the works submitted. "The committee´s brief," says Árni Harðarson, "was simply to select good works of music, which would comprise a good programme. There was no specific "line", nor any "extra-musical requirements".

Obviously, a festival of this kind is inevitably a more expensive proposition in Iceland than elsewhere in the Nordic countries, due to the location of the country. NOMUS contributes about 20% of the estimated costs of the Nordic Music Days. In addition, it is hoped that each Nordic country will meet the travel costs of its own performers. Funding is also provided from various public sources in Iceland, as well as finance from the business sector. "It goes without saying that the Nordic Music Days are a major undertaking for a small country, but we are optimistic, because the programme is very exciting."

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Anne Manson at two demanding concerts; at the former, Danish trumpet-player Martin Schuster will be the soloist in Bent Lorentzen´s (D) Regenbogen (1992). Works by Haukur Tómasson (I), John Speight (I), and Pär Lindgren (S) will also be performed. At the latter orchestral concert, the Swedish singer Lena Willemark will be soloist in Karin Rehnqvist´s (S) Sålsangen, and works by Jon Øivind Ness (N) and Jukka Tiensuu (F) will be played , as well as Bells of Earth by Þorsteinn Hauksson (I) for orchestra and computer sounds, a composition which attracted considerable attention at the ICMC festival in Århus in the autumn of 1994.

Chamber groups at the festival will include the Norwegian saxophone quartet Saxofon Concentus, whose musical coordination has been acclaimed by public and critics alike, to the point that one critic has said " .. one would think they had a common nervous system. " The Icelandic brass quintet Corretto will also appear at the same concert. The Icelandic Caput ensemble, which came into being at a fast-food restaurant in Reykjavík, began when young and ambitious musicians met up to play contemporary music. Well received in Iceland, they went to Europe in 1992, where critics reached an unanimous conclusion: wonderful performances. In a review of the ensemble´s performance of music by the Icelandic composer Haukur Tómasson, Anders Bayer, editor of Nordic Sounds, says:

The CAPUT ensemble performance is entirely in harmony with their reputation as one of the best instrumental groups in the Nordic region in interpretation and performance of contemporary music.

The Icelandic/Swedish Trio Nordica was founded in 1993. Each of its three members, Auður Hafsteinsdóttir (violin), Bryndís Halla Gylfadóttir (cello) and Mona Sandström (piano), has earned an individual reputation, and the trio has also been well received at music festivals, both in Europe and America. The cellist is indisputably one of the finest interpreters of contemporary music in Iceland, and will also give a solo performance of Karsten Fundal´s (D) "Figure and ground study I" during the festival.

Individual musicians at the festival include the Finnish accordion virtuoso Matti Rantanen, who has given concerts all over Europe, the USA and Canada. The notes to a CD of his music say:

It is clear, as you will hear from this recording, that in his hands the accordion is above all a wind instrument. The bellows are for Matti Rantanen what the bow is to Rostropovich and Juri Bashmet: a sensitive interpreter of inner voices.

Other events in the festival programme will include an interesting percussion concert, a choral concert, and an organ concert. Last but not least are two electro-acoustic music concerts, an indispensable feature of any contemporary music festival.

Thus it is clear that the Nordic Music Days are based upon the well-established tradition whose objective is to take the best of Nordic composition and to provide performances of the best possible standard. Yet the detail of each festival varies, reflecting the cultural character of each country and the priorities of the organizers. Hence the festival remains as variable as the northern lights themselves.


Bjarki Sveinbjörnsson

translated by Anna Yates.


20. janúar 1997

© Bjarki Sveinbjörnsson