Saturday, December 18, 2010

Iceland National Symphony

Let me just give a little kudos to the Sinfóníuhjlómsveit Íslands for a second, or the Iceland National Symphony. This is the little orchestra that does giant things. Iceland doesn't have a Philharmonic, so the options for playing orchestral music are limited to this one group, but when looking at their concert season, you wouldn't guess that these were all the same group.

SÍ is also in a unique place that they allot several slots for performances each year to local composers. There used to be a rule about playing a certain percentage of national works each year, though this may have relaxed a bit. It might seem strange to have this constraint in programming, but

Much due to the constructive and forward-thinking director of programming Árni Heimir Ingolfsson, and choosing a variety of conductors throughout the year, the symphony has several programming categories, from 'classics' to 'kids' to 'contemporary', usually varied from week to week. This fall I heard 'Porgy and Bess', Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, and Ravel's 'Tombeau de Couperin'. This spring I'm looking forward to a hugely diverse program including Pendereski's 'Threnody', Steve Reich's 'Drumming', Ligeti 'Atmospheres' and several concerts featuring mostly Icelandic composers. Having a tradition of performing local composers also seems to keep some fresh music mixed in with Classical and Romantic-era works. And for me on the Fulbright, it is a vital part of my listening to the 'sonic landscape' of the country. (Fancy, eh? Sonic landscape? I might have to use that one again.)

When playing several live (and videotaped) concerts with the chamber pop band Hjaltalín, the orchestra put down their instruments at one point to clap several rhythms in one piece. This sounds like no big deal, right? Try getting another major-city orchestra to even do something like a single hand-clap, or a foot-stomp. Getting the orchestra to whisper, shout, speak text an extended technique? NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE. I wouldn't be surprised to read that most orchestras in the US have written in their union contracts that a violinist must only play his violin and may only play it one way, and may be under no obligation to do things like lower himself to the point of a silly rhythmic clap. Col legno battuto, well, you're pushing it, mister.

My point is that SÍ doesn't seem to conform to anyone's conceptions of what they can and cannot do as a group. Thank goodness! Their sound really benefits from it. Here is an orchestra that is personal, a bit experimental, and yet also delivers solid interpretations of classics for my hungry ears.

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