theartsdesk in Reykjavik: A New Musical Landscape for Iceland | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk in Reykjavik: A New Musical Landscape for Iceland
A festival of contemporary music sending shockwaves through Iceland
It’s 11pm on a Thursday night. The kind of weather that makes balloon animals of umbrellas, that raises a tsunami in a bird-bath, is raging outside. Inside the Harpa concert hall some 300 people are gathered in attentive silence while five musicians, each sat at a brightly-coloured piano barely two feet tall, play hairdryers, flippers, and drop small change from boxes onto the floor, in a solemn performance of John Cage’s Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Only in Reykjavik; only under Ilan Volkov; only as part of the Tectonics festival.
When youthful maverick Volkov was appointed Music Director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in January 2011 it sent out a signal to the world. After the solid tenure of Rumon Gamba, distinguished chiefly by recordings of Vincent d’Indy’s complete orchestral works, this was a change of pace – a statement of intent.
It would be impossible to conceive Tectonics without Harpa. The festival flows freely through the building
Announcing his arrival in a scream of avant-garde electronica and the impassive minimalist shruggings of Cage, Volkov’s inaugural Tectonics festival – three days of concerts curated by the conductor himself, devoted to contemporary music in all its diverse forms – made it clear that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Between the extraordinary programming and the extraordinary space of Reykjavik’s new Harpa concert hall (with even more unexpected angles and sharp edges than the music), flying monkeys would struggle for attention here.
Gamba’s time with the ISO may have been the boom years for the Icelandic economy, but little of this wealth was devoted to the orchestra, who were exiled to an ex-cinema with all the ambience of a commuter train and about as much acoustic potential. An ambitious redevelopment project for the city’s eastern harbour put plans in motion for a new purpose-built concert hall, sound-designed by the mighty Artec – creators of some of the best classical venues in the world. Then came the crash.
In a decision that has divided Iceland’s citizens, the government decided to go ahead with the £90 million project, and the result is a space that shares something of Volkov’s unconventionality, as well as his energy. Designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson, Harpa is unquestionably contemporary – a twisting, geometric maze of a space. But most striking is the sense of visual fluidity; the glass walls are made up of cell-like, organic shapes, as though a single architectural cell had spontaneously multiplied and generated the building.
It would be impossible to conceive Tectonics without Harpa. The festival flows freely through the building over its long weekend, inhabiting not only the two recital halls but also the cavernous foyer. Tourists strolling in for coffee and a browse in the gift shop are liable to find themselves suspended in the sonic embrace of Berio’s Accordo for four brass bands, or John Cage’s Fifty-Eight, its many solo players distributed sentinel-like among Harpa’s galleried central hall.
With film-screenings blurring into chamber recitals, and each evening divided into a series of of episodic concerts-in-miniature, Tectonics is a festival at its most free-form, inviting audiences to graze and sample at will. Those who commit to the full experience however (15 concerts, and around 150 performers), find a carefully structured programme that this year developed through days devoted to the music of John Cage and Iceland’s own Magnus Blöndal, to culminate in a final day of living composers – bringing the festival completely up to date.
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