Við Djúpið, Fortissimo!

Intermezzo in Ísafjörður
10.8.2012
Words by Sari Peltonen
A fishing community of 2,600 inhabitants may seem an unlikely hub for music, but as it turns out, the inhabitants of Ísafjörður can handle the violin bow just as well as the net. We visited during Við Djúpið, the annual chamber music festival, which celebrates its ten year anniversary this year.

“Play it as if it was the richest, creamiest double cream chocolate!” says concertmaster and star violinist Jorja Fleezanis. Eyes closed, short gray hair pointing up in an Einsteinesque tuft, she listens, hums and sways, hands up in the air as she leads an invisible orchestra. She opens her eyes, scrunches her eyebrows, and the spell is broken, “Thank you, let’s stop right there for a moment.”

This one-woman show is giving a violin master class at the Við Djúpið festival. One student, one note at a time, Jorja goes through everything from Brahms’ love life to correct positioning of the bow. “Tame it, do it, teach it, control it!” she roars. The drama at the front of the classroom spans joyous victories and sheer torture. The apprentice’s cheeks burn red, eyes tired and neck bruised blue from hours pressed against the violin—a mark of honour shared by every member of the class—she tries again, again, and once more. Each time interrupted by a firm “thank you” from Jorja. “It is a bit liquid, let’s hear it again, please,” she interjects. I’m not sure what she means, but I believe her.

Verdi at the fish factory

A world-class chamber music festival in a remote fishing village hardly resonates as sure-fire recipe for success, but Við Djúpið proves otherwise. Already celebrating its tenth anniversary, the festival’s first decade has attracted an impressive list of notables. Alongside the aforementioned Fleezanis, Pekka Kuusisto, Vovka Ashkenazy and Alessio Bax have all attended—and many return year after year.

The festival’s success surely lies in the pairing of concept and unique locale. Ísafjörður has long been more than a regular fishing village. Besides the traditional trade, the town is known throughout Iceland for its thriving music scene. The children of the village attend the esteemed local music school, established in 1911, whilst the concert hall Hamrar (Austurvegur 11) is excellent and the locals keen concertgoers. For globetrotting musicians, a week-long creative retreat in the peace and quiet of an Icelandic countryside, with a built-in music-savvy audience, is surely an alluring option to wind down after the spring season. That the festival is run by people (creative director Dagný Arnalds and festival manager Greipur Gíslason) with a knack for quality and sincere passion for great music cannot hurt either.

Ultimately, there is a magic to the gathering of talented people under a never-setting sun, says Sæunn Þorsteinsdóttir, the New York-based cellist who is attending for the third time. I meet her at Húsið, where the festival crowd gathers to meet and mingle after the concerts, with musical backing provided by local singer-songwriters and the festival house band. “The thing about Við Djúpið is that you travel all the way here, and you give and give, and in the end you get back twice as much,” Sæunn says.

Sæunn is a member of The Declassified, a New York-based collective of Carnegie Hall alumni who have taken it upon themselves to venture out from oak-panelled concert halls to play for children, teenagers, prisoners or the elderly.

The ideology comes straight from Carnegie Hall and its explicit aim to reach out and educate those often ignored by classical music aficionados. As Sæunn puts it, “We are rescuing our art!”

In practical terms, this rescue mission means squeezing ensemble and enormous cello case in a tiny passenger car at 9.15 AM. Aside from the official festival programme, The Declassified perform to children of the local kindergarten, teenagers and the staff of the local fish factory, “one of the strangest places I have ever performed at,” says violinist Owen Dalby. The performances are cleverly tailored to engage and educate each audience: for the toddlers, they introduce the instruments and the sounds they make; for the teenagers, it’s a piece inspired by gumboot, a dance created by the slaves in the South-African mines.

Roll Over Beethoven

From South Africa to Bulgaria, the UK-based Balcanics serve Balkan folk to a packed lunchtime concert audience at the local grammar school. Within 24 hours in Ísafjörður, I have heard everything from folk to blues to Mozart to Mugison (on the radio, but he is from Ísafjörður and good, so check him out). Now, though, my focus is more on “lunch” than “concert,” and not even the very cool hurdy-gurdy that Paul Sherwood pulls out can change that.

After a sandwich at Húsið (Hrannargata 2) and coffee and raw cake worth returning to Ísafjörður for at Bræðraborg (Aðalstræti 22b), I head back to the music school, where one more treat awaits. Við Djúpið’s New Composers’ Project, under the guidance of conductor, composer Daníel Bjarnason, sees three young composers, Árni Freyr Gunnarsson, Ellis Ludwig-Leone and Máté Szigeti create entirely new pieces for The Declassified, to be performed at the festival climax—but before performing it needs practice.

The air is heavy in the basement room, the melody on clarinet mixes with the rustle of a bag of crisps—I am not the only hungry one here—as the quartet works in the lead by the young Árni Freyr Gunnarsson. It is seamless team work, as they suggest different solutions, test them out, flick their iPads, and try again. “Oops, sorry!” says violinist Meena Bhasin, while clarinettist Sarah Beaty grimaces to relax her cheek muscles. The mix of experience and young talent work well for both parties: For The Declassified, it is a challenge that shakes things up a little, for the composers, it is an invaluable opportunity to work closely with great musicians. It’s time for a break before the next composer and piece, Árni Freyr closes his notes, “We’ve made excellent progress,” he says, “It’s going to be a hit!”

To listen to the pieces by the young composers and to learn more on Við Djúpið, visit viddjupid.is. Við Djúpið takes place 18-23.6.2013, so reserve the dates!

Accommodation was kindly provided by Koddinn (Hrannargata 2, Tel.+354 859 7855), a spick-and-span guesthouse in the top floor of the cafe Húsið, right in the centre of town.


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