The main event of the night was Jón Leifs’ Symphony #1, nicknamed the Saga Symphony because it evokes famous scenes from the Icelandic Sagas. Supporting were three Icelandic composers debuting similarly themed works, influenced by the man himself.
The first piece, Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson’s 48k was fantastic. Something I’d expect to hear at an experimental electronic noise show. I’m not sure which saga characters it revolved around, but the Jón Leifs influence was clear. Percussion heavy with rapid changes and a constant element of surprise. In fact I enjoyed it so much that I went on RÚV 1 to listen to the recording when I came home and I will, from now on, be on the lookout for his work. You should too.
I wasn’t as impressed by Yfir heiðan morgun by Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson. But there were noticeable highlights. The story conveyed was that of Bolungarvík-founder Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, as taken from Laxdæla Saga. It was cellist Bryndís Halla Gylfadóttir’s performance that sold me the piece in the end. There were times I thought she were possessed by the ghost of Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell as she furiously massacred her instrument in a most impressive fashion. The piece though? Meh! It lost me too often. A solid piece of work, but not a spectacular one.
The evening’s third and last debut, Orustan við Vínu by Hróðmar I. Sigurbjörnsson was a piano concerto about an Egils Saga battle. It featured a grand symphonic sound, with bluesy bits when Egill lamented the death of his brother in said battle. I liked it. A rhythm to nod your head to with fragmented bursts of different rhythms keeping me intrigued and interested throughout. It was, however, the massive finale that blew my mind and nailed me to my seat. A solid wall of sound mixed with the visual pleasure of seeing soloist Örn Magnússon go bunkers on the keyboard.
To me, the orchestra played the headline piece flawlessly, even if they were a little short on enthusiasm. They were too clearly bored on the job and as a result, so were the audience. The first Icelandic symphony ever composed was back in its day a daring work of art that has influenced and inspired a surge of composers that have all taken the idea further. We all love Jón Leifs’ work but after this particular performance, we applauded forcefully and politely out of respect for the orchestra rather than overwhelming gratitude for the music.
The stars of the evening were the still living, standing on the shoulders of a giant.