From Iceland — The Troubled History Of The Harp

The Troubled History Of The Harp

Published May 18, 2011

The Troubled History Of The Harp

For many centuries Iceland was a country without music. There were no musical instruments; dancing was banned by the church, the only thing akin to music were the rímur—long and rather monotonous poems chanted to simple melodies. The rímur are quite dreary—and Iceland was a desolate place with bad weather, hunger, darkness, pestilence and poverty. There was very little fun to be had. Compared to this, it is a privilege to be born as an Icelander in the modern period.
This month will see great festivities in Reykjavík. A new concert hall called Harpan (“The Harp”) will open in the first weeks of May. Many concerts are on the schedule, the first one will see the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra playing for the first time at its future venue. The conductor is Vladimir Ashkenazy, adopted son of Iceland, and the soloist is the young piano virtuoso Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson. The program consists of a piece by Icelandic composer Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Grieg’s Piano Concerto and, to make it all very festive, Beethoven’s 9th symphony.
The plan to build a concert house dates back many decades. In the eighties, the designated site was Laugardalur, an area of sports venues and swimming pools, but later it was decided to build the house in the more spectacular location by the old harbour in Reykjavík. The house will dominate the harbour—and not everybody agrees on how beautiful it is. Some think it is built in the taste of the banksters, the modern day Vikings who are blamed for bankrupting the country, with lots of steel and glass. There was another idea that came second in the competition for the building. This was by the famous French architect Jean Nouvel and called for the house to be built like a grass hill—in harmony with Arnarhóll, a grassy hill which stands in the centre of town, right by the site of the concert house.
Perhaps this idea was thought to be too reminiscent of the time when most Icelanders lived in houses made of mud and grass, and so it didn’t have appeal at the time.    
In its final form, the house features a huge glass facade that covers the whole building, designed by the celebrated artist Ólafur Elíasson, who is of Icelandic origin. Many wonder how the glass will fare in the salty winds that blow in Reykjavík for most of the year. Local window cleaners need not worry about the future.
The concert house was originally going to be built by the city of Reykjavík and an organisation of music lovers, but eventually a company owned by financier Björgólfur Guðmundsson took over the project. This was during the banking boom in Iceland. The whole area around the house was going to be the stomping ground of Björgólfur and his son, billionaire Björgólfur Thor. Plans called for new and very futuristic headquarters for the now infamous Landsbanki, owned by the father and son. They bought up a lot of old houses downtown with the purpose of tearing them down and building new and bigger houses instead, malls and offices and even a University of the Arts, right in the middle of Laugavegur, the main shopping street.
Björgólfur was at this time seen as a patron of the arts. He funded theatre, concerts and galleries—but he also had a populist slant for he was the owner of the English football team West Ham United. Always well groomed and a bit of a dandy, Björgólfur, with his charming ways, was the man about town—and by far the most popular of the financiers who were revered by the nation at the time.
But after the crash of 2008, his fortunes changed. All his companies went bankrupt, and he himself suffered a personal bankruptcy of almost 100 billion ISK. Suddenly everything about the concert house seemed a total mess. No real capital had been put into the project; it was all on loan from Björgólfur’s now defunct bank. In October 2008, it seemed that the house would remain a big hole in the ground, a reminder of the folly of the boom years. Now there is speculation whether Björgólfur will be invited to the festivities for the opening of the house.
The city and the state eventually took over the project which of course has become much more expensive than intended. Originally, the cost was projected at about 12,5 billion Icelandic krónur, now it is more like 27 billion. In a time of crisis, when schools and healthcare are being cut, this is bound to be a hotly debated issue. But culture won out—many were afraid we might see a repeat of the National Theatre, just up the road from the concert house. That building was started in 1929 but then it took two decades to finish. During the war it was just a shell, used as a storage facility for the British and the American forces.
There is also the question of how to run the house. Will there be events enough to pay for its day-to-day use? Copenhagen, a much larger and wealthier city, is struggling under the weight of cultural houses built in the last years, an opera, a large theatre, a concert house. Programmes have had to be cut because it is in fact cheaper to have no activity at all in these houses. Time will tell whether Harpa with its 1800 seats is too big for Reykjavík, but presently the interest is great, most of the events planned in the house are sold out, including concerts of the Symphony Orchestra and events planned for the Reykjavík Art Festival. Later this year we will also see popular international artists playing there, such as Elvis Costello and Cindy Lauper.
The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra is used to a much more modest venue. The orchestra is sixty years old, and for most of its time it has played in Háskólabíó, originally built as a cinema on the grounds of the University. It is a nice house in itself, but sometimes the roof leaks and the acoustics are problematic. All the same, the orchestra has grown in strength and prowess—it is actually very good. Conductors who come here praise the orchestra, such as the great Russian Gennady Rosdetsvensky, who recently remarked it was one of the better orchestras in the world.
Moving into a new concert house will be a challenge for the orchestra—it will face this challenge with a new main conductor, young Israeli Ilan Volkov who seems to be a very exiting musician.
It is no coincidence that Vladimir Ashkenazy will conduct the first concert in the Harp. Ashkenazy was a piano prodigy in the Soviet Union in the time of Stalin and Khrushchev. He met and married Icelander Þórunn Jóhannsdóttir, who herself was a piano prodigy since an early age, giving concerts when she was a child, with ribbons in her hair and lace dresses. She gave up her musical career for his, and eventually he emigrated from the Soviet Union, becoming an Icelandic citizen. Ashkenazy started his conducting career with the ISO—since it has taken him to concert halls all over the world.
The Reykjavík Arts Festival is a special chapter in this story, inextricably linked to Ashkenazy. It was founded in 1970 and was a remarkable event from the start. Ashkenazy got his musical friends to come to Reykjavík and give concerts, some came more than once. Now this reads as a roster of twentieth century greats: André Previn, Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Mstislav Rostropovich were among those featured—and Led Zeppelin also played in the first festival!
So we have gone from almost no music to a blooming musical scene in little more than a century. Icelandic music is much more than Björk and Sigur Rós. Music education is quite strong. All kinds of music genres thrive side by side, often fertilising each other. It would be best if they all find shelter in the Harp. May will see concerts with the music of Gustav Mahler, but also sold out concerts where Icelandic star and showman, Páll Óskar, performs with the ISO. Just now we are waiting for the big moment, not only to see how the Harp looks but also hear how it sounds! 

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