By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES — Of all the bold thrusts in programming that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has undertaken since moving into Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Reykjavík Festival might be the boldest. That nothing on this scale dealing with the music of Iceland has ever been attempted by a symphony orchestra in this country is one thing. That the LA Phil has chosen to deal with all of it, crossing every stylistic boundary without a care, is astounding.
Nevertheless, I suspect that the Phil knew exactly what it was doing. Previous festivals like “Shadow of Stalin,” both “Minimalist Jukeboxes,” and last October’s “From Noon to Midnight” proved that there are ways to attract new younger audiences other than film nights (although the Phil does that, too) or Symphonic Led Zeppelin nights and such. Indeed, the three main concerts in the Reykjavík Festival sold out months in advance – perhaps due partly to the presence of the Phil’s conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, but mainly because the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós was on the bill.
According to the festival’s curator, composer-conductor Daníel Bjarnason, professional music in Iceland is a relatively recent development. This was due in the main to the island’s remote location far from any continent. The first orchestral concert took place in 1921, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra dates back only to 1950, and Reykjavík didn’t have a real concert hall dedicated to music until 2011. Twentieth-century breakthroughs in transportation and communication were key factors in the awakening of Iceland’s music scene, bringing in foreign musicians and influences — not the least of which, I’m sure, was the worldwide impact of The Beatles.
Yet this festival was not very concerned with the history, however limited, of Icelandic music; rather, the idea was to present a snapshot of now, of what the musical scene of Reykjavík is like in 2017.
As a signal of how open the boundaries of this festival are going to be, the four-hour opening-night concert, “Made in Iceland – Live” at Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 7, was entirely devoted to Icelandic pop groups. Prior to going, I sampled several albums by the musicians and groups in the lineup and found, perhaps by luck of the draw, that the single word that describes a lot of their music is “remote” – mellow, minimalist-influenced, heavily electronic, trance-like soundscapes that suggest Iceland’s geographic isolation. But when I heard these bands live, that impression changed.
Following the model of “From Noon to Midnight,” admission was only $25, so the audience was accordingly – and predominantly – young. A beer garden on the roof provided complimentary samples of Icelandic beer before the music started. At 7 p.m., the people crowded into the BP Hall (usually a lecture hall), with smart phones snapping away, to watch a young quartet called amiina performing a live soundtrack of mostly rather pretty repetitive vamps to a silent black-and-white French film.
Inside Disney Hall’s main concert room, JFDR – fronted by the breathy vocals and understated electric guitar of singer-songwriter Jófridur Akadóttir – played a set of rather tuneless songs relying upon vamps, sometimes with barely whispering instrumental backings. Following this, the mini-skirted singer Steinunn Eldflaug Hardardóttir and a DJ who call themselves dj. flugvél og geimskip supplied some flamboyance with pulsating synthesizer lines, loops, and grooves accompanying an abstract light show, drawing upon pounding rapid beats heard at raves and the grooves of the B-52s, among other bands.
Of the bands that I heard, the septet led by guitarist Skúli Sverrisson and singer-guitarist Ólöf Arnalds provided the most haunting, appealing music in a set that grew more folk-like as it went on, with plush, somber underpinning from a viola and a cello and deft rhythm work from as many as three guitars. This music gently erased genre distinctions with its mixture of timbres to which classical, folk, rock, and to my ears at least, Brazilian music fans could relate.
The popular band Múm (pronounced “miooyyuujm”), which last played L.A. eight years ago, clearly had a stoked fan base in the hall, and they responded with an eclectic set ranging from real rock ‘n’ roll to mournful minor-key progressions and an opening trance instrumental that gradually added ingredients to build tension into the mix. The most interesting performer was the tall young singer Gyda Valtysdóttir, who, having appeared in a conventional seated position on cello in the Sverrisson-Arnalds band, found an unusual way to play cello standing up in Múm with the help of an instrument strap – and she did it well.
This was just the beginning of a portrait of present-day Reykjavík that will broaden and hopefully deepen as it unfolds through April 17 and even beyond. The locals get into the act April 11 when the LA Phil New Music Group and Schola Cantorum Reykjavík under the direction of Bjarnason perform U.S. premieres by Bjarnason, Páll Ragnar Pálsson and Atli Ingólfsson, and the world premiere of Thuridur Jónsdóttir’s Cylinder 49.
For three nights in a row April 13-15 – all sold out – Salonen and the LA Phil will collaborate with Sigur Rós and play on their own. On April 13, Salonen leads the U.S. premiere of Bjarnason’s Emergence; on April 14, they handle the U.S. premiere of Haukur Tömasson’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with fast-rising Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson. And April 15 contains the only major historical Icelandic piece on the festival, Jón Leifs’ spectacular Organ Concerto (1930) with organist James McVinnie. Rós will perform a list of Icelandic songs as orchestrated by various composers with Salonen and the Phil on each evening, followed by sets from the band on their own after intermission.
There’s more: a concert of music from electro-acoustic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, the string quintet ACME, and the Bedroom Community’s Whale Watching Tour, whose ranks include composer Nico Muhly, Apr. 17 on the Phil’s World Music series. And as a post-festival exclamation point, Björk, arguably Iceland’s most famous musician, makes her Disney Hall debut May 30 with an orchestra led by Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason. That show, too, is sold out.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.