Back in 2016, Seyđisfjörđur in East Iceland was the first stop on my sabbatical. Chosen on the suggestion of friend and Iceland expert, Cathy Harlow because of it’s rich and varied cultural life, (and also for its direct services to the Faroe Islands, which I visited on the same trip) the people in the village welcomed me into their community. I gave short performances in the schools, masterclasses in nearby Egilsstađir and also performed in the magnificent Bláakirkjan (blue church) with local violist, Charles Ross. Bláakirkjan is the most iconic building in Seyđisfjörđur, its colourful blue and white facade standing at the end of the rainbow road. Inside, it is a bright and intimate space, built of wood and gently resonant.
I therefore can’t wait to return to Seyđisfjörđur to perform in the Bláakirkjan summer concert series on 6th July. The series has become one of the major cultural events in East Iceland. It offers a varied programme of music where you can see many of the country’s most interesting musicians as well as international artists. I’ll be performing with Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, who I also met in 2016 in Reykjavik. Adda trained in Scotland and currently works as a highly respected pianist, organist and choirmaster in Reykjavik. In fact, if you live in Central Scotland, you’ll be able to catch her on tour with her choir this August.
We’ll be taking our audience on a journey round the North Atlantic, starting in Orkney with Gemma McGregor’s Hardanger-fiddle-inspired “Joy” and Peter Maxwell Davies’ much-loved “Farewell to Stromness.”
After a reflective pause on our journey with Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”, we visit our host country with Jón Thorarinsson’s short viola sonata. Thorarinsson studied music at the Reykjavík Music School and with Paul Hindemith at Yale University. He was head teacher from 1947 to 1968 at the Reykjavík Music School, head of Sjónvarpi’s art and entertainment department from 1968 to 1979, as well as numerous other projects in the field of music. Full of character, this sonata shows off the singing tone of the viola with long, cantabile lines, a passionate, at times bleak second movement and a final Rondo with lively jazz rhythms.
Adrian Vernon Fish’s Qaanaaq Sonata is a much more substantial piece. It’s inspired by the main town of that name in the northern part of the Avannaata municipality in northwestern Greenland. Adrian and I share a love of Greenland and Adrian’s music depicts so much about life there: the beauty, but also the barrenness and harshness of the landscape, the warmth and humour of the people and the rollicking energy of a dogsled ride that Adrian was lucky enough to experience there.
That’ll be the end of our official programme, but we might just have a little treat from Shetland to throw in at the end, too.
Once the concert is over, I’m looking forward to exploring the hills around Seyđisfjörđur: the high mountain lakes and the streams of waterfalls tumbling down the valleys. The eerie green murk of the Lagarfljót up at Egilsstađir and the unique woodland along the lochside at Hallormsstaðaskógur Doubtless there’ll be more inspiration to be gathered there for future projects!
I was introduced to “Sofðu Unga Ástin Min” by my friend and pianist Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir when we played together in Reykjavik last year. In pre-Christian times, before the year 1000, children from large families struggling to feed many mouths would be left outside to die in the cold. This sad yet beautiful melody may have been sung by a mother as she bade farewell to her child. If you want to know more, Arnhildur talks about this song in this radio programme, part of Linda Buckley’s award-winning “Mother’s Blood, Sister Songs” series for Athena Media.
Looking around the internet for a version of “Sofðu Unga Ástin Min” I came across a beautiful version by Jocelyn Hagen, which you can hear here.
This was commissioned by the North Dakota State University Challey School of Music for the NDSU Concert Choir and their conductor, Dr. Jo Ann Miller, who has Icelandic roots. I’m very grateful to Jocelyn for allowing me to arrange this version of “Sofðu Unga” for string quartet.
Jocelyn Hagen composes music that has been described as “simply magical” (Fanfare Magazine) and “dramatic and deeply moving” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis/St. Paul). She is a pioneer in the field of composition, pushing the expectations of musicians and audiences with large-scale multimedia works, electro-acoustic music, dance, opera, and publishing. Her first forays into composition were via songwriting, still very evident in her work. Most of her compositions are for the voice: solo, chamber and choral. Her melodic music is rhythmically driven and texturally complex, rich in colour and deeply heartfelt.
In 2019, choirs and orchestras across the country are premiering her multimedia symphony The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci that includes video projections created by a team of visual artists, highlighting da Vinci’s spectacular drawings, inventions, and texts. Hagen describes her process of composing for choir, orchestra and film simultaneously in a Tedx Talk given at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, now available on YouTube. Her dance opera collaboration with choreographer Penelope Freeh, Test Pilot, received the 2017 American Prize in the musical theatre/opera division as well as a Sage Award for “Outstanding Design.” The panel declared the work “a tour de force of originality.”
In 2013 Hagen released an EP entitled MASHUP, in which she performs Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” while singing Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team.” She is also one half of the band Nation, an a cappella duo with composer/performer Timothy C. Takach, and together they perform and serve as clinicians for choirs from all over the world.
Hagen’s commissions include Conspirare, the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Choral Directors Associations of Minnesota, Georgia, Connecticut and Texas, the North Dakota Music Teachers Association, Cantus, the Boston Brass, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and the St. Olaf Band, among many others. Her work is independently published through JH Music, as well as through Graphite Publishing, G. Schirmer, Fred Bock Music Publishing, Santa Barbara Music Publishing, and Boosey and Hawkes.
You can find out much more about Jocelyn and her music here. If you would like to buy a copy of her wonderfully haunting choral version of “Sofðu Unga”, you can purchase it from this page. For the string quartet version, contact me directly or get in touch with Jocelyn from her website.
2019 has been the busiest year yet for Nordic Viola as the project continues to grow and make new connections around the North Atlantic. This year has seen an increasing number of collaborations with other artists working in the region and Nordic Viola is increasingly becoming a point of information and liaison for other musicians and composers.
The first event of the year was a week in Iceland in March/April working with two musicians I met back in 2016 and who I’ve been desperate to work with again.
Firstly, Charles Ross, fellow viola player, composer and improviser. Charles has an incredible way of looking at the viola not as a traditional string instrument but as a source of sound to be exploited in any number of different ways. He has a very acute sense of timbre in music and is a very skilled improviser. There is a naivety and joyousness in much of his music, perhaps born of his interest in improvisation in world music.
We performed together in Mengi, Reykjavik and at Slátarhusið, Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. Somewhat nerve-wrackingly, the weather conspired against us in Reykjavik, meaning that we were on stage live with no rehearsal. It made for a very exciting and intense performance, though. We had much more time in Egilsstaðir, allowing us to perform with pre-recorded electronic tracks, introduce more sound effects and instruments and to better structure our work.
Whilst in Egilsstaðir I visited the music school again to give a masterclass to senior pupils, meeting old and new friends alike. It was also a great pleasure to hear Kristófer Gauti Thórhallsson, who I coached back in 2016, playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Austerlands Symphony Orchestra. Music is really thriving in East Iceland, thanks in part to the leadership of Soley Thrastardóttir, head of the music school.
Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir has been a great friend to me whenever I’ve visited Reykjavik and a performance together was long overdue. We performed a viola/piano tour of the North Atlantic with music by Gemma McGregor, Peter Maxwell Davies (both Orkney), Adrian Vernon Fish (Qaanaaq, a sonata inspired by Greenland) and Oliver Kentish (Iceland).
In June I repeated this programme with Kevin Duggan in Dunblane Cathedral and I hope to be able to tour this popular programme with both Adda and Kevin in the next couple of years.
The Dunblane concert was a particularly joyous occasion for me as I finally got to welcome Adrian Vernon Fish to one of our concerts. Adrian and I have been in touch since Nordic Viola began as we share a deep love for Greenland and he has been a source of inspiration and advice to me from the start. Apart from Qaanaaq, a viola sonata that really deserves to be out there in the wider world, his “Uyeasound” Nocturne has become one of our favourite pieces.
I also welcomed Gemma McGregor to Dunblane to hear her piece, “Joy” for solo viola. We had worked together in Orkney in 2018 and this was a chance to catch up and discuss a new commission (more on that later) as well as trawling through my now extensive collection of Far North CDs.
Scotland New Music Awards
In May I was honoured to be shortlisted for the New Music Scotland “Making it Happen Award” alongside eventual winners the Nevis Ensemble and Glasgow Experimental Music Series. It was incredibly inspiring to share an evening with a full house of inspirational musicians – the contemporary music scene in Scotland is thriving at the moment. Stories were shared with old friends and new alliances were formed.
Out of the Box
July saw my first concert of the year guesting on another project. Fiona Driver’s “Out of the Box” concert in Inverness Cathedral featured a group of musicians inspired in various ways by traditional music of the north. Fiona and husband Trevor Hunter are two of the driving forces in fiddle music from Orkney and Shetland and are now practising their art in Inverness. We were joined by Lea MacLeod on pipes and flute, Anya Johnston on fiddle and Dave Chadwick on the incredible Swedish Nyckelharpa. David Martin and I played some folk tunes from Iceland and then joined in a trio with Fiona to play her “Hoy’s Dark and Lonely Isle” and my “Mjørkaflókar”, inspired by Orkney and the Faroes respectively.
I hope to invite Fiona down to Dunblane sometime on a new and similar collaboration.
Flitting around the islands
September proved to be an incredibly busy month for Nordic Viola. First up was the “Shoormal Conference” on rural creativity at the University of the Highlands and Islands in the beautiful Mareel Centre in Lerwick, Shetland. I teamed up with Orkney composer and flautist Gemma McGregor for this project to talk about our work in Orkney last year. We gave a presentation entitled From the Northern Isles to Greenland: Exploring environment and culture through improvisation and sonic art, reflecting on our work with school children in Kirkwall and Stromness last year.
One of the aims of my Orkney residency last year was to commission Gemma and our concert at the conference, Nordic Viola: A Journey Around the North Atlantic in Words and Music, saw the premiere of her new piece for viola and flute based on the St. Magnus Way, “Carry His Relics”. The focus of the concert was on showcasing how a rich palette of sound can be generated from limited resources when travelling in remote rural areas.
Putting theory into practice, Nordic Viola’s next outing was to the Isle of Coll Music Group with flautist Helen Brew, fellow violist David Martin and bassoonist David Hubbard. Coll is an island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland and we were blessed with some surprisingly mediterranean weather! Music included a new arrangement of the Unst Boat Song by the Danish String Quartet and Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds From Whales at Night” which has proved a big hit in my concerts this year.
AlongsideAutumn – A Composer’s Walk
October saw another new collaboration with composer Matilda Brown in Durness on the north coast of Scotland. Matilda had journeyed right through Scotland from Annan in Dumfriesshire to Durness entirely on foot, performing and composing as she went. We share a lot of the same inspirations in our music and I found sharing in the end of Matilda’s journey an incredibly moving and inspiring experience. We’re both looking forward to working together in the future.
2020 and beyond!
The rest of the autumn has been about planning ahead for 2020 and beyond and we have some very exciting plans, many growing out of new connections made this year.
Histories and Herstories
The Shoormal Conference proved to be especially profitable in building new partnerships, not least with the University of the Highlands and Islands themselves and my first project will be a programme of female composers writing about island life as part of the Histories and Herstories Conference in April. I am delighted that pupils from Anderson High School will be joining us in performance.
Year of Coasts and Waters
Event Scotland’s theme for 2020 is tailor-made for us and we will be touring a programme entitled “Sagas and Seascapes” to the Orkney Science Festival, Shetland and Dunblane. The programme looks at the many cultural links around the North Atlantic and especially shared stories such as the Icelandic “Njál’s Saga” and the “Orkneyinga Saga”. We’re also very excited about performing the rarely heard Septet version of Sibelius’ “En Saga” in Dunblane and about a new commission – more will be revealed as the year progresses! We will also be enjoying depictions of landscapes from the sea cliffs of the Faroes and the ancient monuments of Orkney to name but two.
Shoormal opened new opportunities for me to work with Nordic Viola in tandem with other art forms. At the moment these are in a developmental stage but I’m looking forward to preventing some new and innovative performance formats in the 2020/21 season. Together with composer Renzo Spiteri (now resident in Shetland) and visual artist Orla Stevens I am developing a project inspired by the Northern and Western Isles and beyond looking at the transitions from darkness to light at northern latitudes.
I have always been fascinated by words and am therefore excited to be working with Lesley Harrison. One of her publications, “Beyond the Map” charts an imaginary journey following the early whalers up the east coast of Scotland to the Northern Isles and up to Greenland. The parallels with my own project are obvious and I look forward to developing an event with Lesley and other musicians such as Alex South and Emily Doolittle who are interested in whale song.
Nordic Viola seems to be developing at a rapid rate at the moment and I look forward to sharing the journey with you as these new projects and partnerships develop.
From Orkney to Greenland via Iceland. It’s a journey that Dunblane resident and RSNO viola player Katherine Wren has become very familiar with. In fact, she has recently returned from a tour in Iceland where she performed with pianist Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir, herself trained at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now RCS).
On Sunday 2nd June at 12:30, Katherine will join with Dunblane Cathedral organist, Kevin Duggan, to perform the programme she played in Iceland. The two musicians share a love and fascination with the music of the north and their programme is rich in melodies inspired by traditional music and cultures of the Far North.
Their programme opens with music from Orkney: Gemma McGregor’s “Joy,” influenced by the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and Peter Maxwell Davies’ ever popular “Farewell to Stromness.” Arvo Pärt’s simple and meditative “Spiegel im Spiegel” is followed by British composer Adrian Vernon Fish’s viola sonata “Qaanaaq,” which depicts a settlement in the far north of Greenland. By turns richly romantic and boisterous, this piece paints a picture of the vast landscapes in Greenland as well as a rather energetic sleddog team and went down a storm in Iceland! Click on the hyperlinks above to hear some excerpts!
The concert ends with a set of variations on an Icelandic folk melody, “Kvinnan Fróma,” by English-Icelandic composer Oliver Kentish.
The concert will last approx
50 mins and admission is free with a retiring collection.
Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir, who comes from Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland, is a freelance organist, choirmaster and pianist working in Reykavik. She studied at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now RCS) alongside a mutual friend of ours, Paul Medd, who works with me in the RSNO. We first met in Reykjavik in September 2016 and we’re really excited about performing together for the first time.
The centre-piece of our programme will be the sonata for viola and piano “Qaanaaq” by Adrian Vernon Fish, composed in 2000. Adrian describes his sonata as follows:
“The sonata was composed in late 1999 and early 2000 for Sarah-Jane Bradley and Jonathan Ayerst. The inspiration for the work is drawn from the immense vastnesses of the Qaanaaq area of Northwest Greenland, a municipality as large as Texas, yet sustaining a population of just 650.
Looking out from the hills behind the village of Qaanaaq, the vistas open up to Inglefield Sound, an enormous geological gash in the coastline. Numerous glaciers tumble down to the sea, and the location gives one a feeling of utter insignificance.”
It is a work brimming with melody, drama and a jaunty scherzo. I’m really excited about performing this piece live for the first time.
We will also play two works connected with Orkney, the previous stop on Nordic Viola’s journey. First of all, “Joy”, a piece for solo viola by Gemma McGregor and then Peter Maxwell Davies’ famous piece “Farewell to Stromness”. These are followed by “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt. Whilst Pärt is a Baltic composer, his music is reminiscent for me of the space and stillness of the Far North.
Our final piece celebrates the heritage of Iceland, our host country on this stop. It is “Kvinnan Fróma” by Oliver Kentish. Oliver Kentish was born in London and studied the cello at The Royal Academy of Music where his teacher was Vivian Joseph. In 1977 he came to Iceland to play in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. From 1978-1986 he taught at the Akureyri Music School and so he forms a nice link between my home country and Arnhildur’s home town! He now teaches at Nyja Tónlistarskólinn in Reykjavík and is also active as a choral and orchestral conductor. “Kvinnan Fróma” is based on an Icelandic folk melody and is a theme and variations by turn reflective, wistful and vivacious.