The sea and the musical mirror

From the Times Literary Supplement, 11 February

Harpa Concert Hall
Dark Music Days 2011
Reykjavik, Iceland

Halldór Laxness, a wry commentator on the self-image of his countrymen, once observed that his nation’s newly acquired wealth was invisible to the naked eye in all but one respect. This was back in 1968, when tworoom corrugated iron dwellings still housed the majority of Icelanders, and the diet of dried fish, salted lamb and home-distilled brennivin had remained unchanged for decades. But following a landmark trade agreement with Poland in 1955, imports of a chocolate wafer called Prince Polo began to flood the domestic market. By the 1960s, the Prince Polo had become the nation’s foremost culinary mascot, entirely satisfying – if Laxness is to be believed – the awakened desire for luxury sweeping across the island. Two years after the 2008 crash, there are many among Laxness’ compatriots who rue the day their society’s covetous gaze moved beyond the gold wrapping of chocolate biscuits. Today, visitors to Iceland barely notice the continued presence of Prince Polo on the confectionary shelves. The biscuits were originally distinctive because they were imported at a time when the Icelandic Krona barely figured on foreign exchanges, but now almost everything for sale in Reykjavik is imported. What you do notice on arrival in the capital, however, is the building site on the old harbour front, conspicuous as much by its size – the irregular structure dwarfs every thing else in the city – as by the constant activity which surrounds it in the rush to get it finished in time for the May opening. Reykjavik is a maze of building sites, but almost all of them have fallen silent since the crash.

The building in question, the Harpa concert hall, amplifies the national taste for luxury goods in shiny wrapping by an order of magnitude. Designed by the Danish architects Henning Larsen, and clad by the Danish- Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in glass panels variously angled so as to capture the sky’s changing colour and light, it contains three concert halls each engineered by Artec, the firm behind many of world’s best modern halls including those at Birmingham, Lucerne, Lahti and Budapest. Both the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and the national opera are due to move in soon after completion, with dedicated administrative offices for each and common rehearsal space. The main auditorium will seat 1,800, have a retractable orchestra pit for staged opera performances, and allow those playing in it – thanks to a system of remotely controlled echo chambers and damping fabrics – to specify a reverberation time of between one and three seconds. Bearing in mind the variety of intended uses, from spoken theatre and conference events, where a one-second delay is considered appropriate, to symphony and rock concerts, which require two or three times that amount, the acoustic engineering will be a key feature in making sure the building can meet the notably varied needs of a country which, with a little more than 300,000 inhabitants, has a population less than one third that of Birmingham’s, and one fifth of Budapest’s.

Though the opening concerts are set for the beginning of May, the building is still a long way from being finished. A major setback came last summer when the Chinese contractors discovered a structural fault in the support for Eliasson’s sculpted exterior, with the result that the whole outer layer had to be dismantled and rebuilt from scratch. Even so, amid the buzz of accelerated construction work, it is easy to be won over by the optimistic vision projected by the building’s management. Looking through the salt encrusted glass and down into the mud dyke which, in just a few months, will allow the Atlantic Ocean to lap benignly against the Northern façade, the hall’s music director Steinunn Ragnarsdóttir explained that she was not worried about moving into an unfinished building. “It’s quite usual in Iceland to move into your house before you’ve finished building it. And besides”, she added, guiding my gaze upwards from the rusty embankment to the peaks of Mount Esjan across the bay, “when the house in question has this view . . .”. Ragnarsdóttir’s enthusiasm aside, she and her colleagues will have their work cut out to convince Icelanders that a state-of-the-art concert hall is a genuine priority for the country. Harpa was initially planned as a publicprivate partnership, with the capital outlay provided by Björgólfur Guðmundsson. But Guðmundsson’s fortunes evaporated overnight in 2008, along with those of his bank, Landsbanki, and the city of Reykjavik was left with a multi-billion Krona tab and its natural focal point occupied by an unappetising tangle of mud, steel and unworn hardhats. Evidently, in Iceland, it is not only the banks which are deemed “too big to fail”, and the ownership of the project was eventually fully transferred to the state and city authorities. Nonetheless, there are many who feel that the estimated 23 billion Krona so far invested in the building could have been put to better use in a country now crippled by unemployment and personal and public debt.

Even those who stand most to benefit from the hall’s completion – namely the musicians – have their doubts, suggesting that the hall is too big and that the heavy loan-repayment schedule will tie the management’s hands when it comes to programming. Others point to the recent sudden decision by the cashstrapped Reykjavik city council to axe all subsidy for music education for pupils over the age of sixteen. “Forty years down the line”, one composer told me, “we might just have a world-class concert hall with nobody left who can play in it.”

That prospect is a near-perfect mirror image of the current situation. Iceland’s musical scene is flourishing – thanks, in large part, to hitherto generous levels of support for music students. In addition, the country has a world-class symphony orchestra, but has for 50 years lacked a proper place to put it. Resident since 1961 at the Háskólabiói – the University cinema – the Iceland Symphony Orchestra has been performing in a venue in which the sound does not so much reverberate as crawl to the edge of the stage before collapsing at the feet of the audience.

That this has been particularly hard on the strings was made clear by the first concert of the Dark Music Days contemporary music festival, which since 1980 has taken place in the capital at the end of January each year. The opening work was György Ligeti’s orchestral masterpiece, Atmosphères (1961), a work which relies on an accumulation of string presence; the surface-area of the sound is slowly variegated, generating the impression of an immense, shimmering continuum. Conducted with cool-headed precision by the young composer and conductor Daniel Bjarnason, one of a number of young stars in the Nordic musical firmament, Atmosphères received its first full performance in Iceland. Given how much better the piece will surely sound in the new hall, I hope it won’t be the last. The same goes for Bjarnason’s own Birting, the world premiere of which closed the opening concert. In four accomplished movements, Bjarnason’s shifting and colliding structures echoed Ligeti in the sense they gave of stretched temporality, but here, also, was more of a focus on contrasting musical characters and styles.

Dark Music Days is unusual among contemporary classical music festivals in its lack of an aesthetic agenda, other than that of representing the variety of Icelandic musics on offer. This easy-going approach wasn’t always in evidence. Like every other Western country in the post-War era, Icelandic composers heeded the various edicts of Darmstadt, hoping to compensate the absence of actual listeners and performances with ideological respectability. Some voices flourished: Jon Leifs, one of few Icelandic composers of the mid-century to have forged a genuinely international profile; Jón Nordal (born 1926), who spins intuitive variations on the serialism of his contemporaries; and Jórunn Vidar (born 1918), whose links with Iceland’s musical past are genetic as well as cultural (she is the great-granddaughter of Rejkyavik’s first cathedral organist, Pétur Gudjohnsen), best known for her craftsmanlike, confidently romantic songs.

The diversity of today’s scene is a different matter altogether, however. Often it is reflected in the tastes and spheres of activity of individuals, such as Bjarnason, who are as happy composing for orchestra as for a fivepiece rock band. It also inheres in the lack of suspicion with which composers and musicians from different environments view each other. Part of this has to do with the necessarily restricted size of professional musical circles in Iceland: everybody knows everybody else and, by and large, listens to everybody else, too. Which is to say, everybody knows Björk just as they know Sigur Ros and Jón Nordal. Criticism seems to flow just as freely, but the absence of malice and pointscoring is conspicuous.

Instead of being dispersed throughout the city, next year’s festival will take place in Harpa’s various auditoria. This is good news from the point of view of acoustic quality, but one has the impression that some of the smaller venues will be missed – Alvar Aalto’s beautifully subdued Nordic House pavilion, for instance, which merges with the rough grasses of upper Hljómskálagarður Park in the same way as Harpa's dynamic profile will draw on the surrounding mountains, the sea and sky. One concert here, for the always exquisite combination of soprano, clarinet and piano – performed by Ingibjörg Gudjonsdóttir, Einar Jóhannesson, and Valgedur Andrésdottir – was an exemplary blend of co-operating styles: the highly structured lyricism of British-born composer Oliver Kentish, Áskell Másson’s arabesque of extended techniques in “Leiftur”, and Haflidi Hallgrimsson’s magical sea airs. A final item from Tryggi Baldvinsson, with its clever part-writing and unapologetic nostalgia, had me wondering whether it belonged in the nineteenth-century salon or a TV variety show – whether it would have pleased Gabriel Fauré more than Elton John, say – but the clash of idioms didn’t seem to matter. They just caught the light of the moment.

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