The Iceland Symphony Orchestra made a huge impression when they visited Symphony Hall as part of their 70th anniversary tour just before the Covid lockdown, and are now set to make a welcome return on April 21. Their programme begins with Metacosmos by their composer-in-residence Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and ends with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.5. Between these two works comes Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with Sir Stephen Hough the distinguished soloist.


Conducting the evening is Eva Ollikainen, whose contract as Principal Conductor has recently been extended to 2026, soon after her initial appointment to the orchestra. She recalls how she felt an immediate bonding between herself and the players.   


"I still remember like yesterday our first encounter in 2005, in the old hall which was a university cinema (!). The musical and human chemistry was instantly there, I remember the joy of making music together and the twinkle in the eyes. It really felt like coming home, and eventually Reykjavík became my musical home and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra my musical family.


"Making music together is essentially about trust. How much do we dare to give here? How low a dynamic do we trust to carry us forward? How much or little expressive do we allow ourselves to be in any given moment? I believe the relationship grows through this kind of parameters. Also there is so much amazing repertoire still to be explored together!"


So many Nordic/Baltic conductors come from a performing background. Eva tells me about hers.


“I was a pianist before starting studying conducting, although I was quite young then (19) so even though I was performing regularly, one can't really speak of a career as such. A curious fact though - I did play the last movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 (that we also play on the tour) with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra when I was 17.”


How does Eva explain the plethora of remarkable conductors from her part of the world?


“Three words: Panula, Panula, Panula! He created the remarkable conducting class at the Sibelius Academy. He understood what is the essence of a conductor: personality. He has never tried to change anyone's personality but rather support everyone in their own path. Another quite interesting aspect is that young conductors in Finland are encouraged to find their own forte in repertoire, rather than being forced to a certain formula.


“Plus, what do you make out of a nation's mentality that becomes the happiest population on earth during the pandemic?!? Perhaps the enormous amounts of time spent alone studying and travelling fits very well the Finnish mindset.”

Given her position with this orchestra, does Eva feel a responsibility to programme Icelandic composers?


“It is a responsibility but as such one that gives me great pleasure! There are so many wonderful composers (and writers, visual artists, cinematographers!) in Iceland, it seems to me that we are talking about a very creative nation. Or more accurately - I believe there is a lot more creativity everywhere in the world than what we get to enjoy  right now. I think the advantage of being such a small country (372.000 currently) is that everyone knows someone (or at least someone's cousin) that has made a living as an artist. Then the threshold to dare trying that path is not as high as for someone who hasn't necessarily ever encountered an artist.”

The pandemic seems to have given Eva an opportunity really to bond with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, as she explains.


“It definitely made us instantly a very close team as would always happen in catastrophic circumstances. The necessity to react quickly to new restrictions didn't really leave any space for "let's get to know each other". When the ship is sinking, even a new captain would do everything to keep it floating. And to a certain extent we are still handling repercussions from the pandemic, as are most other orchestras in the world. As much as we would like to say that we are back to normal now, this isn't entirely true.

“It was an incredibly hard time for our administration, but one can only applaud the agility they showed in every new situation. When we were allowed to play, we played, even if it meant that we had done the decision on a Sunday and that new parts and scores were retrieved from our library and a completely new programme was on the music stands Monday morning, and our incredible musicians always maintained such a beautiful spirit in every new turn. There was a fight for survival feeling in Harpa, and this definitely brought us very close together in the very beginning of my tenure.”


Where is home, and how much travelling does Eva do?


“I live in Denmark with my husband and two kids, and according to them I travel way too much! I am trying to keep the summers calm though, so that we have at least once a year a longer chunk of time together where no one has to be stressed about when mommy is leaving next. “

Is there anything else Eva would like to tell me?


“A Finn will always answer ‘no’ to this question. :)”


*Eva Ollikainen conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, soloist Sir Stephen Hough, at Symphony Hall on April 21 (7.30pm)




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