Iceland's IMMERSION Festival: part one

IAM assistant editor Andrew Anderson travels to Iceland to report on IMMERSION Festival, and finds a special city and music scene

One of the (many) good things about working for a performing arts magazine is that you learn about new places, artists and companies almost every day. Sometimes you’re lucky and they come to your town, so you can meet them in person and see them perform live.

And then there are times when you’re really fortunate and rather than waiting for the art to come to you, you get to go to the art. That’s exactly what I’m doing this week, with a trip to Iceland’s IMMERSION Festival, held at Reykjavik’s world famous Harpa Concert Hall. IMMERSION brings together five of Scandinavia’s finest new music makers for a day of extended ensemble performances.

But before you get too jealous, there is one small catch: it’s very cold. With the giant snowflakes and icy wind you might feel very Christmasy, but you can’t feel your fingers – or your face, for that matter.

Waterfront in Reykjavik

Waterfront in Reykjavik

Still, it’s a small price to pay for a classical music trip to Europe’s quirkiest capital. The narrow streets are crammed with colourful buildings, giving Reykjavik the appearance of a children’s toy town. Hallgrimskirkja Church, which stares down on the town from the top of a hill, feels very formal but is still thoroughly impressive.

Hallgrimskirkja Church

Hallgrimskirkja Church

It is Harpa though that steals the show. Opened in 2011, it almost didn’t happen after the original builders went bust during the 2008-09 financial crisis. ‘We could have left it half completed as a monument to our stupidity,’ laughs Harpa director Halldór Gudmundsson. ‘But luckily we did not – the town and the city came together and finished the project.’

The great glass building stands in one corner of the harbour, a focal point for the city’s culture. Its outer walls light up in a variety of colours, while inside it is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (ISO) and – unlike many concert halls – is full of people who have just come to enjoy the space.

On the first night of the trip I’m lucky enough to hear the ISO play a new piece by Daníel Bjarnason, a young Icelandic conductor and composer who has already built a big reputation on the island. Bjarnason conducts his own work, as well as Debussy’s La Mer and several other well-chosen pieces. Although the hall isn’t quite full a quick count tells me there must be at least 1,200 people here – or approximately one percent of Reykjavik’s entire population. How on earth does ISO get so many people to come to classical music?

‘Harpa belongs to the people of Reykjavik, so we want them to know this is their home,’ explains Gudmundsson, ‘and ISO does amazing work when it comes to engagement.’ It helps too that Harpa’s main hall sounds, and looks, amazing. Every note has a warm, rich tone, while the deep red walls make you feel you’re sat inside a Rothko painting.

Eldborg hall at Harpa

Eldborg hall at Harpa

IMMERSION itself came about because Icelandic new music groups were looking for a way to get together. ‘When we play together we often arrive, rehearse, play the concert and then leave,’ says IMMERSION organiser Pétur Jonasson. “There is no time to talk, to have fun, to share ideas.”

No one is quite willing to say who came up with the original idea (they each joke that it is the others who are to blame), but the atmosphere is great as the groups greet one another like old friends. The programme itself looks exciting too, with each of the five ensembles – Cikada (Norway), defunensemble (Finland), Esbjerg Ensemble (Denmark), Norbotten NEO (Sweden) and Caput (Iceland) – adding a different element. On Friday I get to sit in on rehearsals for a sneak preview which, with the players beautifully backlit by the low Icelandic sun, makes me feel very fortunate.

Guðni Franzson conducting Caput

Guðni Franzson conducting Caput

I’m not the only non-Scandinavian on this trip, and so have plenty of people to talk to when everyone else is making music. American composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum of the Riot Ensemble, Spanish pianist Vanesa Santanach, Canadian conductor Marie-France Mathieu have also come along for the trip (with Spanish composer Mateu Malondra Flaquer joining us a day later).

Composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum

Composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum

As well as being fun company they also give me great insight into each piece during the rehearsal (which means I can then pretend to be far more knowledgable than I really am when I interview the IMMERSION musicians later). ‘For us, we wanted to bring new music makers from outside Scandinavia,’ says Jonasson, ‘That way the conversation extends beyond a small group and can spread.’

You can read part two of the article here

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