Since its founding in 1997, the Reykholt Chamber Music Festival has become one of Iceland’s most treasured classical music events, and, in 2018, its reputation was cemented with a nod from the Icelandic Music Awards. This year, the festival runs from July 26th to 28th, and the programme is as diverse and intriguing as ever.
A special place
Now in its 22nd year, the Reykholt Chamber Music Festival is one of the oldest classical music festivals in Iceland, all the more impressive considering its relatively remote location—the tiny village of Reykholt, a hamlet situated an hour and a half drive outside the cultural hub of Reykjavík. But, as Artistic Director Sigurgeir Agnarsson explains, Reykholt is a better location than one might expect.
“In my experience, when you play or go to a concert the atmosphere tends to be different in the countryside than in downtown Reykjavík. It’s not better or worse, just different—and people like that.” But the small village of Reykholt itself has its own value. “It’s a really beautiful setting, for a start,” says Sigurgeir. “And it has a very strong historical background. Icelandic Saga poet Snorri Sturluson used to live here. So it’s a bit like a magnet—it’s a special place for a lot of Icelanders.”
Quality, not quantity
One of the most striking aspects of the festival is its brevity—it runs only two days. “In general, we strive for quality, not quantity,” says Sigurgeir. “We only have four concerts, but everything is done to a really high standard.”
One of the more intriguing pieces on the programme, entitled King Harald’s Saga, testifies to this sentiment perfectly—it is said to be the shortest opera in the world, clocking in at just over ten minutes. “It’s actually based on Snorri’s writing,” explains Sigurgeir. “Even though it’s written by an English composer (Judith Weir). And since Snorri lived in Reykholt, you could say the piece is coming home.”
Another connection to Iceland comes in the form of the Vox Feminae choir. “The choir is bringing a great selection of Icelandic folk music,” Sigurgeir explains. “Some of the songs are quite well known folk songs, others are less known. And some of the best know are actually in new arrangements. Many will be songs that people aren’t used to hearing performed by a female choir.”
While in some years the festival has had a theme, often there’s no overarching thread connecting the pieces. As such, I ask Sigurgeir how he plans for the future of the festival. “I could spend all day writing out pieces I would like to perform in the future,” he says. “But it often works out quite nicely to just talk to the players. Even though I’m the boss—sort of!—I talk to them and say: ‘Hey, what should we play?’ It’s a back and forth. It’s not like I present a master plan for the festival. It’s more of a dialogue.”
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