From Stromness to Somerset

It’s been an exceptionally busy month for Nordic Viola which has seen me travel the length of the UK, with Nordic Viola’s most southerly concerts to date!

At the very end of September I renewed my partnership with Icelandic pianist, Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, with a programme of music entitled “A Journey Around the North Atlantic” for the Orkney Norway Friendship Association. At the heart of the programme were the two sonatas we performed in Seyđisfjörđur in the summer; Jón Thorarinsson’s Sonata and Adrian Vernon Fish’s Greenland-inspired Qaanaaq. We also included music closely connected to the heritage of Iceland and Orkney; Gemma McGregor’s Raven Banner and Heyr Himna Smiđur (“Hear, smith of the heavens”) a famous hymn tune by þorkell Sigurbjörnsson to words by Kolbeinn Tumason The programme opened with a March by Orkney resident Tom Deyell, which he wrote for the Shetland Folk Society Tune Competition.

We had a fabulous audience, which included travellers from Norway and Canada and we very much enjoyed swapping stories whilst being entertained by the fabulous young musicians from the Stromness Strathspey and Reel Society.

Arnhildur introduced us to some tales from the Sagas. What we forgot to talk about was her ancestral links to Orkney. She can trace her family line back to Rognvald Eysteinsson, also an ancestor of St. Magnus. Arnhildur’s family line traces back to Icelandic chieftain Hrollaug before branching off at Thordis (see below). Arnhildur was excited to visit Orkney and we enjoyed an afternoon exploring history in St. Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall.

We had some true Orcadian weather (read 70mph gusts and lashing rain!) so I spent the morning of the concert in Stromness Museum, learning more about Orkney’s exploration and trading in the Arctic – sure that will find its way into a project someday.

Northern Stories Festival- Lyth Arts

I’ve been following the great work done by Charlotte Mountford at Lyth Arts in Caithness for sometime now, so when the opportunity came to take Sagas and Seascapes to the Northern Stories Festival, which was exploring Caithness’ Norse heritage, I absolutely jumped at the chance.

On this occasion I was presenting a screening of the Sagas and Seascapes film as per the original version for Orkney International Science Festival in 2021, but also including live performances of William Heinesen’s Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune, Kári Bæk’s Wogen and The Drummer, the Scottish traditional tune that inspired the Danish Dromer. I also took Orla’s paintings with me.

Lyth Arts is a totally rejuvenating place for an artist to stay – at least for one who needs space around them! It is set in the flatlands of Caithness between Wick and Thurso, backing onto the peatlands of the Flow Country. Set up originally by local artist William Wilson, it has space for exhibitions and workshops as well as a small theatre. Artists are accommodated in the adjacent house and it’s a great place to meet and share ideas.

I was sharing with accordionist Neil Sutcliffe (coincidentally a friend of Orla’s) and Danish Storyteller Svend-Erik Engh as well as Svend’s partner, Alice, also a storyteller. I attended their workshop in the morning where I learned lots about how to tell a story engagingly before I joined the musicians in improvising along to the words.

Back in Thurso I had a couple of days to absorb myself in the landscapes that constantly inspire my music. I’m more used to seeing the Caithness coast from the Orkney boat but I think a new love affair has begun. The perilous coastline is riddled with hidden geos (rocky inlets), caves and blowholes. I also got to see an upwards waterfall (blown upwards by the wind)! You need your wits about you exploring those cliffs but the yield is a wealth of exciting colours, shapes and sounds. This was all topped off by the sight of a full moon reflecting on the water across Thurso Bay after an earlier golden sunset.

More museum time was had at the North Coast Visitor Centre. The expected displays on Norse and Pictish culture were there, but also absorbing panels on the ecology of the Flow Country. Every time I travel through that area it draws me in with its isolated peaks, saturated ground that now and again breaks out into a small lochan. On the surface of it, it looks barren, but it’s teeming with birdlife and, at ground level, the delicate sphagnum mosses are full of colour with their intricate little leaves. Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to see it with the russet-red dying bracken set against gunmetal skies, laden with heavy downpours.

Somerset

Into late October and a change of pianist on the stool as I joined Kevin Duggan for three concerts down in the south-west of England. We started with two concerts in Glastonbury and Midsomer Norton performing much of the programme I’d played with Arnhildur, but adding in Rebecca Clarke’s characterful and varied Shorter Pieces and a new piece by Kevin based on Icelandic hymn tune, Almáttigur Guð.

Kevin is a native of Somerset and proved a wonderful guide, taking us out into the Mendips and introducing us to some of the prehistoric archaeological sites of Wiltshire. There is a connection to Orkney here, as it has been mooted that the ancient Orcadians may have travelled south and passed on their architectural skills gleaned from building edifices such as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae to those constructing the likes of Stonehenge and West Kennet Longbarrow. In the dark warmth out of a hefty downpour, it felt right to get the viola out for a quick improvisation to these ancient peoples.

Dunsden, Reading

Our final performance was at Dunsden Church  near Reading at the behest of composer Adrian Vernon Fish, who wrote Qaanaaq.

Being with people who know, love and have connections in Greenland is always a special experience for me as there are not so many people in this country that I can talk to and who I know have experienced what it is to spend time there living and working with Greenlanders. I felt a real responsibility to communicate the emotions and tell the stories that Adrian crafted so well in his Qaanaaq Sonata: the intense outpouring of the Aria and the helter-skelter chaos of the dogsled ride, Qimmusseq before the final Piseq or drum dance, which for me exemplifies the slower pace of life and patience of Greenlanders.

Before Qaanaaq and as a tribute both to Greenland and to Adrian who shares a love of that country with me, I played a short improvisation on an East Greenland Entertaining Song.

It was a wonderful, moving occasion and a concert that’ll stay in my mind for a long time.

Summer Concert in the Blue Church, Seyðisfjörður, Iceland.

I have two exciting performances to tell you about this summer. Today’s news is that I’ll be performing in the Bláakirkjan, Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland with Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir on 6th July. Next week I’ll tell you much more about our Edinburgh performances after the press launch on 31st May.

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.

Katherine Wren and Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir

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!