From Iceland — Breaking Glass: The Musical Journey of Víkingur Ólafsson

Breaking Glass: The Musical Journey of Víkingur Ólafsson

Published March 24, 2017

Breaking Glass: The Musical Journey of Víkingur Ólafsson
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson & Timothée Lambrecq

Deep inside of Harpa, past the glimmering facade, the bars, shops and concert halls, through the backstage doors and the bustling production area, lies a small locked room. The strip lights flicker on to reveal bare white walls, some metal tool shelves, and four pianos cosseted under thick protective coats. Víkingur Ólafsson, Iceland’s premier concert pianist, hangs his jacket on a plastic hanger and closes the door behind him, sealing out the hubbub of the cafeteria. He squeezes through the narrow walking space and carefully pulls the cover from the last piano of the four.

“It’s a Steinway model D concert grand,” he says, as he props up the piano top. “The stagehands here name it after me. I prefer to call it 589106—that’s the serial number. But they like to call it ‘Víkingur.’” He pauses and chuckles. “We have these fights about it.”

Víkingur peers down studiously, examining the instrument from behind his spectacles. “I like this room,” he says, tapping out a few notes. “We’ve had so many conversations about the room—where to have it, what humidity to keep it, all these things. And here we are.” He glances around, smiling. “It just looks like a garage.”

After gathering himself for moment, he starts to play. Three huge chords ring out, the sound reverberating almost deafeningly in the tiny space. His fingers dance lightly over the keys, producing a familiar cascade of notes—the opening lines of Philip Glass’s ‘Glassworks’. Víkingur tests the piano’s full range, flitting between crashing chords, quiet, eddying melodies, and bright, chiming cadenzas. It’s an astonishing burst of music that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

After a few minutes, he stops and looks up. “I love this piano,” he says, quietly. “It’s not every day, you know?”

Running in sand

Víkingur is no stranger to Harpa. He performed at the concert hall’s opening event in 2011, and has premiered several new works there, performing regularly with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. In 2012, Harpa started hosting his annual chamber music festival, Reykjavík Midsummer Music. Needless to say, he’s grown very fond of the place.

“I love to play here,” he says, as we walk back out into the corridors of Harpa. “The Eldborg hall is an instrument. It’s like if you’re playing amplified electronic music, you start to know your sound system, and your soundman. When you play again and again in a great venue, you get better at playing that instrument. I don’t think people think about how to project into a hall enough. I don’t like to play to the microphone—I try to side with audience, and play for the third balcony.”

Having decided on a few minor adjustments to the Steinway, he confers with Harpa’s piano technician, known by his nickname of Diddi. “I think I’m his worst nightmare,” Víkingur laughs. “But Diddi is an artist. I call him very often when I’m here, and he’s always driving to a remote church 500 kilometres from Reykjavík to tune a rarely played piano. I’m not sure people quite realise the level of service they’re getting.”

“A piano is like a horse—it’s so alive, and so ever-changing. And sometimes they’re unpredictable, with a will of their own.”

The two clearly have a deep mutual respect, based partially on their shared expert-level knowledge of the instrument. “A piano is like an animal,” Víkingur explains. “It’s so alive, and so ever-changing. It responds strongly to humidity. When I moved my Reykjavík Steinway to Berlin, it became a new instrument. People don’t realise that—they see a black thing that looks like every other piano. But you can tune the action so precisely. You can make them very heavy, like running in sand on the beach, or you can make them super responsive, like a racehorse. And sometimes they’re unpredictable, with a will of their own.”

Glass work

The preparations are for a concert celebrating the release of Víkingur’s album of Philip Glass piano compositions. Recorded in the Eldborg hall, the album was released earlier this year on Deutsche Grammophon—the label of “Horowitz and Argerich and Gilels and Richter,” that Víkingur dreamed of being signed to as a child.

He first met Philip Glass in 2014, when he was invited to play the piano etudes at Harpa, alongside Japanese pianist Maki Namekawa, and Glass himself. “I hadn’t played the music myself, but I’d listened to it a lot,” he recalls. “It does something to you—the repetition and romanticism, and at the same time, the coolness. So I got this invitation, and of course I said yes.”

At that time, some of the etudes were very new, so Víkingur was sent the scores pre-publication. He rehearsed constantly, and waited for the opportunity to play his work for Philip who, to Víkingur’s surprise, elected to meet him only at the last minute—at 5pm, on the day of the performance.

“I was quite nervous, because how I play them is quite different to how he plays them,” he recalls. “I started playing, and he stopped me, and said: ‘You got the wrong version.’ It turned I’d only been sent the early drafts. I had memorised all of it, to internalise it. Philip took a pencil and changed half of it, adding some sections, and removing others.” He grimaces. “I was determined to play from memory, and I had just three hours.”

Ultimately, the challenging experience led to a fruitful and open relationship between the two. “Philip has often said to me: ‘I don’t agree with the way you play this piece, but it’s compelling, so I don’t want you to change it,’” says Víkingur. “He’s a composer, but also a performer, so he understands the creativity that needs to happen onstage. Once, he said to me: ‘Someone should give you a speeding ticket for the way you play etude number six—but it’s not going to be me.’ And I love him for that.”

Play first talk later

It’s been a long road for Víkingur, who has just turned 33. His mother is a piano teacher, and his father a composer and architect. He started playing piano before he could speak. “Theoretically, you could say I was playing before I was born,” he says. “My mother played when I was in her womb. She was the soloist at a concert in Berlin when she was five months pregnant with me. I like the idea that I was very close to the keys from the beginning.”

As soon as he could reach the keys, he was playing. There are photographs of Víkingur playing piano when the keys were still above his head, at the age of one a half. “My mother tells me that I never played loud—I only played soft, which is unusual for a kid,” he says. “But I was playing one note, and listening to it. I think that contributed to me having perfect pitch.”

A slow developer in many departments, Víkingur was always fascinated by music. His mother taught piano in the family home, and he would listen in on the lessons. His formal training began later, at the age of five—at first with his mother, and then with local piano teacher Erla Stefansdóttir. Víkingur remembers meeting her. “Erla asked me: ‘Would you like to learn piano?’ and I said: “I already know piano,’” he laughs. “It was far from the truth. But I felt that I knew it, because I played more often than I spoke.”

In the following years, his mother exposed him to Bach and Chopin, and his father to Stockhausen, Brahms and Berio. “It’s very much part of me, to play the newest music, and also Beethoven and Bach,” he says. “I try to approach them in the same way, as if it’s contemporary music. Which it is—because it’s played in the present. It’s always being reborn. Getting both of those channels was the root of that thinking.”


By the age of eleven, Víkingur had decided he wanted to become a concert pianist. In secret, he’d started researching what history’s great pianists had played at his age, and throughout his early teens, he tried to match them in an ongoing private contest. “I didn’t dare tell anyone,” he chuckles, “because I was losing all the competitions.”

Nevertheless, at just sixteen years old, Víkingur was invited to choose a concerto to perform with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. He chose Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. “It’s the quintessential piano concerto that everyone wants to play as a teenager,” he says. “I knew for a year that I’d play on the 1st of February, 2001. I fantasised about the moment of walking onstage and becoming a soloist, like a metamorphosis. In reality it was something else, of course.”

“I fantasised about the moment of walking onstage and becoming a soloist, like a metamorphosis.”

On the eve of the performance, Víkingur woke up in a cold sweat from a nightmare in which the piano toppled from the edge of the stage as he started playing, crushing the first two rows of the audience. “It was horrific!” he exclaims. “I thought: ‘At least it won’t be that bad.’ I was extraordinarily excited and nervous.”

“I remember in the first cadenza, I completely messed up one of the scales that I’d nailed every time in rehearsal,” he continues. “I almost blanked, for the first time in my life. I remember blushing, and feeling I’d made a fool of myself. I remember thinking: ‘This is the reality of it.’ But the rest of it went well—maybe because of that scale, in retrospect. Without that, maybe I would have played it more safe. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s not about that one scale, but something different, and quite a lot bigger.”

New York, New York

After his Tchaikovsky nightmare, and the fruition of his concert pianist dream, Víkingur decided it was time to study abroad. In search of an experience as different from Iceland as possible, he applied and auditioned for the Juilliard School in New York City. He was one of only thirteen students to be accepted into his class, which has a 3% acceptance rate.

The other students were the cream of the crop from Russia, China and the US. “Many of them knew each other because they’d been playing in competitions all around the world,” says Víkingur. “They’d had a very strict upbringing where they’d had to practice a lot. I’d come from a very different background. I realised I wasn’t the best in world—far, far from it.”

His response was to become the hardest-working student at the school. While his fellows revelled in finally being given the freedom to escape their punishing childhood practice regimes, Víkingur went in the opposite direction, seeking to make up for lost time. In a calendar of student life at Juilliard, his photograph was captioned “practice room confinement.”

“The rich people left after the oysters and champagne, and we’d show up and ask these people in their mink fur coats if we could have their tickets.”

“I’d become famous as the kid who never left the practice room,” he laughs. “The practice rooms at Juilliard are notorious. They’re little cells where you fit a grand piano and a chair, surrounded by dusty curtains, and nothing else. There are maybe ten of them, so you can hear what everyone else is practicing. People tend to practice the things they’re really good at, and really nail it. It can become a kind of macho competition. In my first year I was thinking: ‘Shit, this guy sounds so good, I don’t sound that good.’ It was like cold water on my face. It was a wonderful wakeup call.”

But there was still time to enjoy the city. Víkingur and his actor roommate would call up the Metropolitan Opera, pretending to be a rich gentleman eager to find out when the first act would end. “The rich people left after the oysters and champagne, and we’d show up and ask these people in their mink fur coats if we could have their tickets,” he laughs. “Without exception, they said yes. The gentlemen were annoyed, but the ladies always loved this idea of a pair of Juilliard students sneaking in. We’d get $400 seats, and be sitting there in our jeans with the New York elite. I got to know the second half of the opera quite well.”

Demonic side

As well as the technical side of playing the piano, Víkingur was exposed to two contradictory approaches to performance. One of his teachers was Jerome Lowenthal, who encouraged an expressive method, with the pianist as the interpretive artist. The other was Robert McDonald, who saw absolute adhesion to the score as the only correct path.

“I have these two sides fighting in me… the super analytical side, and the spontaneous, demonic side that wants to let it all happen and do something not too nice.”

“Lowenthal was coming from 18th century romanticism, and believed in the nobility of the craft and freedom of expression—that you should put your stamp on the repertoire, and never play it the same as it’s been played before,” says Víkingur. “McDonald was an Austro-Germanic intellectual on the opposite side of the spectrum. He saw the score as sacred—like a crossword puzzle with an answer. I think that’s quite interesting, and I still have these two sides fighting in me, always. There’s the super analytical side, thinking about structure and proportion, and the other side—the spontaneous, demonic side that wants to let it all happen and do something not too nice.”

It’s a conflict that was later echoed in his conversations with Philip Glass, who related a similar experience while studying with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar in 1950s Paris. “In the afternoons, Boulanger had him doing strict counterpoint and all these things,” says Víkingur. “Then in the evenings, he would be with Ravi Shankar, taking in a completely different way of thinking about time, structure, music, colours, whatever—a different perception of life.”

Both Philip and Víkingur see this mixture as quintessential to their music. “That’s perhaps why I’m drawn to his work,” says Víkingur. “It represents the merging of these extraordinarily contrasting worlds. That’s what I look for in musicians and performers. Björk would be another example—taking in extraordinarily different elements, and making it into her own. Phillip said he was taught out of hatred in the morning and love in the evening. And we need both.”

Something happens

The last time I meet Víkingur, the backstage at Harpa is very different. The buzz of activity is gone, and Diddi sits on a sofa, passing time with two stagehands and waiting for Víkingur to finish. He gestures me through into the empty maroon expanse of the low-lit Eldborg hall. As the door silently swings shut behind me, Víkingur sits centre-stage, hunched over the keys, hammering out various compositions from the Philip Glass repertoire. Eventually, he stops playing and stands, startled to see me standing at the back of the stage. “I need some water!” he exclaims. “It’s a real workout.”

Víkingur stands still for a moment, steadying himself from the exertion. “Trying to be on top form requires some labour,” he says. “Some muscular work and repetition. You want to have it so ingrained in your muscle memory that you don’t have to think about the physicality of playing at all when you’re onstage. If you achieve that, you still have to go way beyond that level of preparation to be free onstage; to have new ideas occur on the stage, and to surprise yourself.”

He looks up the the top tier of the room, letting a single note ring out, and listening until the reverberating sound is gone. “It’s so easy to play to 95%, and not many people would know that it’s not my 100%,” he says. “But for the artist, the only interesting thing is that last five percent. If you allow yourself to stop at the 95%, you go home feeling a little bit sad and empty, even if it was a great concert in some ways, and everyone was nice. So it’s a constant torture that takes place.”

He pauses, and smiles, finishing: “It’s the mixture of planning in order to be able to forget on stage—planning insanely, then getting onstage and trying not to remember anything. And then, something happens.”

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