Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson sees classical music as having too much high brow and not enough high voltage. That’s why he is launching the Reykjavík Midsummer Music Festival at Harpa this June 17-19.
“This time of year is dynamic in Iceland,” the artistic director says. “I think that was the original core idea, to make dynamic and colourful music.”
The festival will span three days and mesh modern and classical pieces from international and Icelandic artists. There’s Johannes Brahms (“a heavy autumnal German composer,” Víkingur says), Joseph-Maurice Ravel (“glittering, like Harpa’s glass exterior,” he adds), and Icelandic composers Jón Nordal and Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson.
Víkingur, a classically trained pianist, is Iceland’s own chamber music savant, but the 28-year-old wants to be more like a rock star, a rock star who organises a chamber music festival to show off the imperfections behind his refined arpeggio.
“Musicians, especially in the classical world, are trying to be perfect, of course. They want to hit the perfect notes and make beautiful music, but people should realise that it’s exhausting. People are nervous. People are excited. There’s a range of emotions,” he says. “That’s not projected when you do traditional photographs of people with their fiddles.”
Classical goes ‘radioactive’
French horn player Stefán Bernharðsson says the horn trio he plays in the final show is so complicated that performing it is “like climbing Everest”. “You see these pieces and you’re afraid when you look at them,” he says. “It’s like you have nitro-glycerine and it’s unstable, and it’s going to explode. It’s radioactive almost. You think, ‘Oooh, this is going to be something that can catch fire,’” he says about the piece written by twentieth century Austrian composer György Ligeti.
Víkingur calls that final number “the most diabolical”—a strong superlative in a line-up that also includes a song written in a Nazi prison camp. The piece, by French composer Olivier Messiaen, is called “Quatuor pour la fin du temps,” or “Quartet For The End of Time.” “It was written with only the instruments available to him in the prison,” Víkingur says. “So the piece was written in the worst circumstances.”
Megas, a 67-year-old Icelandic folk singer who was once banned on national radio, will also perform with Víkingur, accompanying him on the piano for the festival’s grand finale. “This song is so weird because it’s all happy and strange. But it’s about this rape that took place in a party in Reykjavík. The song is all sweet, and if you didn’t know the lyrics, you’d never believe what it was about,” Víkingur says. “Megas is a guy doing outrageous, unexpected things. He’s a genius I think.”
Coming home to Harpa
Víkingur earned the ‘Performer of the Year’ prize at February’s Icelandic Music Awards, and has long had a knack for the limelight. He debuted in the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra when he was 16 before going on to study at Juilliard. He toured the world over after his 2009 album featured works by Brahms and Beethoven, and of course he’s also played with Björk.
He lives mostly in Berlin, but his roots remain in Reykjavík. Last year, he spoke out loudly against further government cuts in funding for the city’s music schools. He’s also working on a television series for Icelandic National Television on showing all sides of musicians. “I don’t want it to be so private,” he says. “I want you to have a hidden window into our music so it’s always present.”
There’s also the festival, which he’s funding with the first grant from the SUT/Ruth Hermann’s Cultural Fund handed down to an Icelandic musician. “I realised that this was the time to do this kind of thing. Now that Harpa is here, we have the greatest facilities around more or less. I decided last year that this has to happen right now, before someone else takes the idea,” Víkingur says.
“People are very instinctive in Iceland. They make decisions very fast. If they see something has potential, it can become something special.”