Iceland Symphony Orchestra preview


by Christopher Morley
Celebrating its 70th anniversary year, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra is soon to be making its first-ever tour to the UK, and Birmingham's Symphony Hall is an obvious stop on the eight-concert, nine-day itinerary.
Yan Pascal Tortelier is on the podium, returning to the orchestra of which he was chief conductor between 2016 and 2019, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Both have fond memories of previous visits to Birmingham.
Jean-Efflam will be performing the Ravel, so demanding both technically and intellectually, several times on the tour. How does he feel about that?
"I hope my right hand will still be in shape to play afterwards!" he jokes.
"This concerto is one of my numerous favourites. As in all masterpieces, the message and the way it is conveyed are fascinating at every encounter and the marvels are renewed at every performance.
"Like the sunrise that is magical and different every day, performing the same piece several times in a short time-frame has the enthralment of familiarity and of the unique inspiration of the moment. This element of unpredictability gives daily excitement during a tour."
He then goes on to recount his previous memories of Birmingham.
"I remember vividly Bartók's 2nd Piano Concerto with Andris Nelsons, the perfect harmony between CBSO-conductor - soloist. The wonderful dedication and enthusiasm of the CBSO Youth Orchestra. Then again the CBSO with Kazushi Ono, performing Bartók's 1st Piano Concerto with only one rehearsal, which says a lot about the preparedness, high professionalism and the spirit of adventure of the orchestra."
Yan Pascal Tortelier begins by describing the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's programme for Birmingham (excerpts from Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suites, the Ravel concerto, Aeriality by the ISO's composer-in-residence Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Sibelius' First Symphony) as "an attractive mix".
When I comment that it is unusual for a French conductor to be offering Sibelius, he laughs "I hoped you wouldn't start with it.
"Sibelius has been adopted by British audiences, and there is something in his music which speaks to me, a powerful force of nature and poetry. In 30 years as a conductor you can be inventive at times, adding your own discoveries."
Describing Thorsvaldsdottir's Aeriality, Yan Pascal speaks of it as "impressionist. It's very beautiful, it's growing in me, it's music that translates so beautifully the mystery of the Nordic landscape. In its timbre and sonorities you get a vision of the Northern Lights!"
Anna Thorsvaldsdottir tells me of her relationship with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
" The Iceland Symphony Orchestra has played my music a lot over the last decade or so and they really do know my music, my techniques, aesthetics and atmosphere really well so they are always really quick to grasp my music and get to the core of it quickly, even when it is a brand new piece - it is always such a treat to work with them."
Cheekily I ask if there is a danger that Nordic composers become labelled as landscapists or saga-tellers?

"I think that this is probably somewhat true, but Nordic composers are of course really diverse in the way that they think about music, in their aesthetics, sounds and general output.," Anna replies.
"Some take inspiration from nature whereas others really make a strong point of not doing so. It is really difficult to label these things but perhaps the aura of the nature-connected Nordic mysticism has coloured the perception of the arts from the north quite strongly."
And she brings an exciting piece of news.
"I am currently writing a large piece for the Berlin Philharmonic which the Iceland Symphony is co-commissioning as well as part of my residency. That piece is also co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra."
So Symphony Hall will be hearing more of Anna Thorsvaldsdottir's music in the future.
I return to Yan Pascal Tortelier and his irresistible enthusiasm for Iceland and its Symphony Orchestra.
"This is an orchestra on the rise," he beams, "and their new home, the Harpa concert-hall itself is a great work of art, and its location, looking across Reykjavik's old harbour to a very special Icelandic landscape is a natural wonder and always an inspiration.
"It's maybe the most beautiful hall in the world, with prisms of glass. It's like a Stradivarius violin, wonderful even before you play."
But he also has huge enthusiams for Birmingham, too, as he recounts.
"I gave my first concert with the CBSO under Hugo Rignold (1963,64?) when I was 15, playing the Brahms Double Concerto with my Dad." For new readers, Dad was the great cellist Paul Tortelier, and in a previous existence Yan Pascal was a renowned violinist, and the recording of that performance is available on BBC Legends.
"In1974 I played the Shostakovich Violin Concerto with the CBSO conducted by the composer's son Maxim at the Birmingham Festival, and in the late 1970s I recorded the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole with the CBSO and Louis Fremaux..
"And I remember bringing the BBC Philharmonic to Symphony Hall for a live gramophone recording of Roussel's Evocations with the wonderful CBSO Chorus.
"Yes, Birmingham has a very, very special place!"
*The Iceland Symphony Orchestra plays at Symphony Hall on February 11 (7.30pm).

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