Fiddling with Perfection

Hans Jóhannsson icelandic luthier

It was half past four on a Sunday afternoon inside the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre in Reykjavík.Three-hundred-and-sixty chairs, nearly all of them occupied, had been arranged in meticulous fashion within the Norðurljós auditorium. Twenty-five musicians, tickling four different kinds of stringed instruments, were performing Richard Strauss’ Metamorphoses on stage. And two people, who […]

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Iceland Symphony Orchestra Strike Narrowly Avoided

Iceland Symphony Orchestra in Eldborg Hall

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the state have settled their wage dispute. Agreements were signed at the state mediator’s office yesterday evening at 7:00 PM, just in time to call off a musicians’ strike that was set to begin today. The dispute was referred to the state mediator last June.

According to a government notice, the state mediator and the negotiation committee have placed great emphasis on the involvement of the Ministry of Culture to resolve the dispute. The Ministry of Culture and Trade has proposed that the Symphony Orchestra receive additional funding in the coming years to cover the costs of salary increases and strengthen workplace culture.

Operations have been challenging for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in recent years, not least due to the coronavirus pandemic. The notice also states that it was clear that a strike would impact the orchestra’s ability to meet its obligations and its possibilities of earning income.

When the Band Began to Play: 70 Years of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra

“The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra pays a key role in Icelandic musical life. It is therefore gratifying that an agreement has been reached,” stated Minister of Culture and Trade Lilja Alfreðsdóttir. “A strike could have had a significant negative impact on cultural life in the country.”

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1950 and has been a central figure of Iceland’s musical landscape since. The orchestra has received two Grammy nominations. Read more about the orchestra in Iceland Review Magazine.

Singers Criticise Management of Iceland’s Only Opera Company

Icelandic Opera

The Professional Association of Classical Singers in Iceland (Klassís) has issued a declaration of no confidence in Icelandic Opera’s board and director Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, RÚV reports. In a statement, Klassís criticises the opera’s management in recent years, accusing it of undermining solidarity among singers and suggesting soloists who seek their rights are denied work at the company as a result. The statement comes on the heels of a ruling by the Reykjavík District Court in the company’s favour.

Soprano Þóra Einarsdóttir sued the Icelandic Opera last year, claiming the company underpaid her and several other singers for their work in its 2019 Marriage of Figaro production. Several of the production’s soloists complained about an excessive workload and turned to the Icelandic Musicians Union (FÍH) for support. The union’s chairman Gunnar Hrafnsson says the singers’ combined wage demands were around ISK 4 million ($31,000/€26,000).

Court Acquits Opera Company

Last Friday, the Reykjavík District Court acquitted the Icelandic Opera in the case, though it also waived Þóra’s legal costs. Þóra declined to discuss the ruling in detail, but stated it raised many questions. No decision has been made on whether the ruling will be appealed.

The case centered on clarifying whether the Icelandic Opera had an obligation to pay singers according to union rates. The company argued that it did not, as the singers were hired as contract workers. FÍH claimed the Opera Company never officially terminated the permanent contracts it had with singers prior to the Marriage of Figaro production and must therefore pay them according to union rates.

Singers’ Salaries Have Fallen

Klassís asserts that singers’ salaries have fallen in real terms over the past several years and points to the Icelandic Opera’s management and policy as the cause. The group’s statement also accused the company’s board of deliberately barring eligible singers from taking a seat on the board, “for example by changing its bylaws in a closed meeting.”

The Icelandic Opera is Iceland’s only professional opera company. Iceland’s government has, however, appointed a working group to research the founding of a national opera company. In its statement, Klassís called the move a “turning point” stating that with the founding of a national opera company: “Singers hope that management practices such as those that Icelandic opera singers have had to accept on the part of the Icelandic Opera in recent years will thus be eradicated and professionalism resumed and respected.”

Hildur Guðnadóttir and Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson Honored at Opus Klassik

Hildur Guðnadóttir.

Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir and pianist Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson are both winners of the Opus Klassik, a new German prize for classical music, RÚV reports. Hildur won the Most Innovative Concert of the Year for her live performance of music composed for the TV show Chernobyl, and Víkingur won Best Solo Pianist for his album interpreting works by French composers Debussy and Rameau.

Over the last year, Hildur has received a stunning number of awards and commendations for her compositions for both Chernobyl and the film Joker, including an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Score (Joker), a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media (Chernobyl), and a World Soundtrack Award for Television Composer of the Year (Chernobyl).

Víkingur has had a similarly lauded rise to prominance in recent years, having been dubbed ‘Iceland’s Glenn Gould’ by The New York Times, named Gramophone magazine’s artist of the year in 2019, and won BBC Music Magazine’s Recording of the Year award in 2019 for his album Johann Sebastian Bach. He also won an Opus Klassik award for Best Piano Album of the Year last year.

Formerly the Echo Awards, the Opus Klassik has been awarded for two years and is meant to raise the profile of classical music composition and performance. The award is given in 25 categories.

Víkingur Wins Top BBC Music Prize

Pianist Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson.

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson snagged the top prize at this year’s BBC Music Magazine Awards, winning Recording of the Year for his album Johann Sebastian Bach. The album was also awarded Instrumental Recording of the Year at the prestigious awards.

“Víkingur Ólafsson’s beautifully crafted Bach programme is a balm for the ears,” wrote the awards jury. “His mix of original keyboard works and arrangements by a host of pianist-composers is played with such joy – his articulation is pin-sharp, his dynamic and tonal control constant delights. If ever there was an album to demonstrate Bach’s timelessness, this is it.”

“I am very touched to win this important award and to know that people enjoy listening to it,” says Ólafsson. “Playing and recording Bach is in many ways the most personal thing one can do in music, and I am very grateful for the incredibly kind and generous reactions.”

The album, Víkingur’s second with Deutsche Grammophon, has received accolades since its release in September 2018. Last December, Víkingur’s interpretation of Bach’s Fugue in A minor was named one of the top 25 classical music tracks of the year by the New York Times.

Víkingur Ólafsson Nominated for BBC Music Magazine Award

Pianist Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson.

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson has been nominated for the 2019 BBC Music Magazine Awards. RÚV reported first.

Víkingur’s album Johann Sebastian Bach has been nominated in the instrumental music category of the awards. The album has enjoyed a warm reception since its release last year, charting on NPR’s list of the top 50 albums of 2018, where Víkigur’s interpretations were praised as “personal, poetic, and precise.” One track on the recording made it on the New York Times’ list of Top 25 Classical Music Tracks of 2018, where Joshua Barone hailed Víkingur as “a master of finding and exploiting unexpected pockets of musicality.”

The BBC Music Magazine Awards nominees are selected from among some 200 albums that the magazine has awarded five stars over the preceding 12 months. The winners are decided by public vote, which is open to all until February 19.

Three Icelanders in New York Times’ Top 25 of Classical Music

Three Icelandic musicians have made the New York Times’ list of Top 25 Classical Music Tracks for 2018.

Joshua Barone, one of the list’s coauthors, celebrates Víkingur Ólafsson as “a master of finding and exploiting unexpected pockets of musicality.” Víkingur’s interpretation of Bach’s Fugue in A minor was his favourite track from Bach: Solo Piano Works, an album that “offers an array of ways to consider Bach, including through transcriptions by the likes of Busoni and Rachmaninoff.”

Composer Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s haunting Loom from the album He(a)r was selected by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, who describes it as beginning “with a thin thread of sound that is patiently roughed up and smoothed out in ways that seem both generous and brittle, with the light seeming to enter right where the texture appears most broken.” Corinna notes that the full album, both composed and performed by women, will reward “[l]isteners equally equipped with patience and openness.”

The album AEQUA by Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (who records as Anna Thorvaldsdottir), takes listeners on a “tour of vivid sound worlds,” says Joshua Barone, at the core of which is Aequilibria. The composition is “a piece with rich contrast and surprising balance between spaciousness – conveyed through airy fifths – and knotty smallness.”

See the full list and listen to each of the tracks above here.