Reykholt, population sixty, is a tiny village tucked away deep in a valley in Borgarfjörður. It has a long history, and was once a cultural centre of Iceland, but today it’s a very sleepy place, with a few buildings scattered around its tall, distinctive church.
The church’s ground floor holds a permanent exhibition about the town’s most famous inhabitant—Snorri Sturluson, a famous Icelandic author of the 1200s. Combined with some stunning nearby lava fields, caves and waterfalls, and a couple of attractions and institutions such as a medieval studies centre, a well-preserved old bathing pool—too hot to be used now, regrettably—and a library dedicated to Snorri’s work, it’s enough to keep a steady trickle of visitors dropping by to visit.
But once a year, people flock to Reykholt in greater numbers for Reykholtshátið—a three-day summer festival of chamber music and contemporary Icelandic composition, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2016.
Old and new
Sigurgeir Agnarsson is the director of the festival. “I’m the one who talks to the artists, and helps arrange the programme,” he says, standing in the library wing of the church, as musicians bustle around him. “So I’m responsible for the artistic side, but also for the financial side. You could say I’m artistic and general director.”
The festival’s location is a little remote, but Sigurgeir tells me about the variety of people it attracts. “We really get a mixture of locals or summer-house people, then some who drive up from Reykjavík, and a few accidental tourists who are passing by,” he explains.
As well as a focus on classical music of 18th and 19th century, the festival occasionally commissions new work. In 2016, the festival premiered a new work by Icelandic composer Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson, and featured a performance by Elmar Gilbertsson, an award-winning tenor and rising star in Iceland’s music world.
Appreciating the arts
“There’s a really calm and relaxed atmosphere here,” says Elmar, radiating confidence as he prepares for his big performance. “We tend to do this a lot here in the countryside here in Iceland. We have a lot of very beautiful churches. Many of them have good acoustics, like this one—this church is one of the best houses for acoustic music in the country. It’s fantastically rewarding to share this kind of music here. This place is very well known for appreciating the arts.”
Elmar has been to Reykholt once before, when he sang in a choir, and is happy to return for a solo performance. “The people here are so lovely—they lent me the church for practising,” he enthuses. “But this is the first time I’ll do a solo concert here.”
“I think it’s very fertile here in Iceland,” he finishes. “There are a lot of great composers, with new ones always coming up. As an Icelandic musician I think that’s very important—to get the chance to perform contemporary pieces in our own language. And festivals like this one help that to happen.”