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!
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.
A big thanks to all who came to our Dunblane Cathedral concert on Sunday. We had a great turnout of all ages.
It was a particular pleasure to welcome Gemma McGregor, composer of “Joy” and Adrian Vernon Fish, composer of “Qaanaaq”. Gemma and I worked together in Orkney last November, but I’ve waited a long time to meet Adrian. I was first in contact with him before I travelled to Greenland in 2017 and, as well as his beautiful music, he also gave me some valued advice and connections to friends over in Greenland. It was therefore wonderful to finally meet him.
We also performed works by Peter Maxwell Davies, Arvo Pärt and Oliver Kentish on our journey through Orkney, Iceland, and Greenland via Estonia!
I really enjoyed working with Kevin Duggan, not least because he shares my fascination with the Far North, having worked in Denmark for several years.
I have plans to work with all 3 musicians again, so watch this space!
Thanks, too, to Dunblane Cathedral for allowing us to play in this beautiful building.
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.
When it comes to music, the North speaks its own language. Led by Katherine Wren, 4 players from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra take an extraordinary journey: contemporary tales of the Faroes, Shetland, Iceland and the Arctic sit side by side with music from the father of Faroese classical music (Heinesen) and new reflections by Katherine Wren and Composers’ Hub alumni Lillie Harris. Folk roots, personal testimonies, melodies shaped by the elements and new sounds from vast landscapes: it all adds up to something that’s simultaneously timeless, modern and utterly compelling.
Sun 21 Jan 2018, 2.30PM
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Friday night and our week in Unst is almost over. Lillie and I are both feeling a little sad to leave. This is really a special island. Before I even start talking about how beautiful it is, I have to say what a fantastic community it is. We didn’t feel like visitors, we felt like part of Baltasound, albeit for just one week. Everyone pulled together to make our concert special and everyone had time to talk to us. We learned a lot about island life and people passed on links to other friends, pieces of music I might be interested in and many other things.
It was also good to see that other composers I have met and been in contact with, such as Kristian Blak and Adrian Vernon Fish are affectionately known here.
Lots of people at home asked me whether it wouldn’t just be dark here. There may only be 7 hours of daylight, but the quality of light needs to be seen to be believed. It is incredibly special.
Every morning had me mesmerised as I watched the pale sun colour the hills and fields in pastel shades of purple, light blue and pale green.
The big skies have the most amazing towering cloud formations as the moon sets
and the occasional rainbow lights the sky.
Sometimes the low angle of the sun seems to highlight every blade of grass in 3D.
Of course the sea is ever present, whether it’s pounding dramatic cliffs or gently washing on the picturesque beaches and I love watching the seabirds and ravens playing in the wind currents. I still haven’t seen a whale though!
We ended our week with a school workshop and concert. Baltasound Junior High School had prepared a Bjork song for us. We then worked on an improvisation with them. It was wonderful to see how they created music in such an uninhibited way. Once they were in the flow of it, we didn’t need to issue any instructions beyond the scale we’d picked. They were so inventive, finding some amazing timbres on their instruments and listening and interacting with their colleagues. They were a delight to work with and a very welcome addition to our concert programme.
My programme has evolved a lot since the first Nordic Viola concert in Kinbuck. I’m now halfway through my sabbatical and places and situations that were only imagined before have become part of my experience and so very, very special to me. This concert also saw the premiere of Lillie Harris new piece “AND”. It’s the first time I’ve worked so closely with a composer. I loved being able to discuss and develop the work together. I won’t pretend it’s an easy thing to do. I felt a real responsibility to present the work well. It captures the feeling of being in a Shetland storm so perfectly and I want to transmit that. It’s a great piece with an enormous amount of atmosphere and energy and will most definitely be staying in my repertoire beyond Nordic Viola!
Tomorrow we’ll be crossing Bluemull Sound for the last time as we head south to Lerwick. And Unst? We’ll be back!
Saturday 20th August was Nordic Viola’s first concert. I wanted to play first here at home so that I could share my journey with my friends who have offered me so much support in preparation for my journey. We may have been playing in a small village, but we packed the hall!
As you can see from the picture, this wasn’t your usual quartet combination and lots of people asked me how I arrived at this particular grouping. One of the pieces on the programme was Kari Bæk’s Vár Trio for flute, viola and bassoon. As often happens in smaller communities, I decided to build the concert round this instrument combination with my RSNO colleagues Helen Brew on flute and David Hubbard on bassoon. My husband, David Martin, shares my love of Greenland and I wasn’t about to leave him out, so that added in another viola. I have to say, I think we all enjoyed working with this palette. There were some interesting colours to exploit and we all felt that each voice came across clearly in the texture.
My aim for the evening was to share my forthcoming journey with the audience and to do my best to transport them northwards! I wanted to include a range of styles from across the region. The first half focused on Shetland, Orkney and the Faroes, and also included a piece by me, “Winter Melancholy”, written on a dark stormy day in Dunblane. The set of tunes by Tom Anderson (“Maas” etc.) and Kristian Blak’s “Drrrunnn” offered two contrasting views of birdlife and the sea: “Maas” (about the fulmar petrel) is written in the Shetland fiddle tradition and “Drrrunnn” is a semi-improvisational piece where the viola plays alongside recorded bird sound from the Faroese island of “Mykines”.
In the second half, we travelled ever northwards. We all loved playing the Fiðlufræankur. These Icelandic folk tunes are a wonderful mix of the proud, the melancholy and childlike tunes where we could play with the tunes and try to catch each other out!
I’ve known about Danish composer Poul Ruders’ work for many years after hearing his viola concerto and “Autumn Collection” demonstrates yet again how well he writes for the instrument.
One of the highlights of the concert for me was improvising on an Inuit song with David Martin. You never really quite know how a free impro will pan out on the night, but this one gelled and I think it was a special moment for both of us.
It wasn’t all about the music. I wanted people to have a clear image of where I’m going and what lies behind the music, so I included some readings from the books that inspired me. Gretel Ehrlich’s book “This Cold Heaven” (Greenland) is quite simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Gavin Francis’ book “True North” gave me the framework for my journey. Also pictured are “Arctic Cycle” about Iceland by Andy Shackleton and “The Missing Son: A Faroe Island Saga” by Jennifer Henke.
Before I close this post, I have to say thank you to all my fabulous friends who helped make the evening a success, especially Lisa Rourke, ticket seller and stage manager, Hugh Hogben for taking most of these photos and putting my slide show together, as well as picking up any jobs that needed doing alongside his wife, Chris. All I had to do was enjoy playing with my inspiring colleagues, Helen, David and Dave who just made the night such a joy for me. Thanks all of you for sharing the music with me.