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Nordic Music Under the Green Umbrella

February 8, 2020

Los Angeles Philharmonic

In April 2017, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Reykjavík Festival devoted 17 days to showcasing the evolving contemporary music and art scene in Iceland’s capital city. It was co-curated by composer/conductor Daníel Bjarnason who is the principal guest conductor of the Iceland Symphony. The range of expression was extensive and offered a unique perspective of an art scene that has a distinct signature, inspired by its stark landscape and endless Nordic nights.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4, the LA Phil’s Green Umbrella series continued the orchestra’s focus on Nordic compositions with Bjarnason as composer, conductor, and programmer in collaboration with pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson. The diverse program (which also included a free after-concert percussion set) featured Bjarnason’s Five Possibilities (for piano, cello, and clarinet); two works by Bent SørensenThe Weeping White Room and the U.S. premiere of Mignon – Papillons; Kaija Saariaho’s gossamer variations in Sept Papillions (for solo cello with soloist Eric Byers); and the world premiere of Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s The CV of a Butterfly, commissioned by the LA Phil.

It’s intriguing that the notion of Nordic gloom seems to go back at least as far as Shakespeare’s time, when he characterized Hamlet as “the moody Dane.” And if there is a psychological penumbra that pervaded Tuesday’s concert, it was a sense of moodiness and introspection.

Sørenson’s The Weeping White Room opened the program and set the stage for what was to come, beginning as glimmers in the darkness, high-pitched sonic tendrils that evoked images of a frozen landscape where instrumental particles of tone hang suspended in space. Then, for a splendid moment, a tonal shaft of sunlight breaks through only to disappear again into the frigid tonalities of the night.

There was also a biological theme in the program that seemed to defy the sense of frozen isolation. Three of the compositions were inspired, in very different ways, by the colorful fluttering and resilient strength of butterflies.

Kaija Saariaho (Photo by Heikki Saukkomaa)

This was particularly true, and most delicately expressed, in the seven postage-stamp-sized miniatures of Saariaho’s Sept Papillions (Seven butterflies). Related in theme and subtle in their differences, each of the seven depictions, which were performed with exquisite detailing by Eric Byers (founding member of the Calder Quartet), created an illusion of fluttering tones and overtones, occasionally coming to rest to reveal a form in its complete beauty.

Buoyant Italianate melodies, it’s safe to say, are not a mainstay of Icelandic contemporary music. But Sørenson’s piano concerto-like Mignon – Papillons (featuring Ólafsson’s light-fingered piano artistry) gave the impression of a man doing his best to brave the endless Nordic night (depicted with brooding sonorities in the strings) by sitting at the keyboard attempting to beat back the shadows by playing a Scarlatti sonata. The attempt is impressive, though too long. Andas it always will, the night wins out in the end.

Jónsdóttir’s The CV of a Butterfly presents an entirely different depiction inspired by that magical moment high in the mountains of Mexico when thousands of monarch butterflies rise with the heat of the spring sun, fill the air with the beating of their wings, and begin their 3,000-mile migration to Canada.

Rather than portraying butterfly flight through melody, Jónsdóttir (who studied flute and composition at Reykjavík College), blends recordings she made in the Cerro Pelón butterfly reserve in Mexico with a full array of live instruments (conducted by Bjarnason) to create a multidimensional, dreamlike soundscape.   

The most satisfying work on the program, for its tonal dimensionality and individual instrumental expression was Bjarnason’s Five Possibilities, in a superbly crafted and nuanced performance by Ólafsson (piano), Byers (cello), and the Philharmonic’s Boris Allakhverdyan (clarinet). Of the piece the composer says, “One way of thinking about the ‘possibilities’ of the title, is as ways to define or obscure C.”

From fast and fuzzy to spacious and luxurious, it’s a hare and hound race that eventually settles on its signature key. The composer also has the good sense to leave its audience wanting more rather than less.

More than half the audience had left Disney Hall by the time the members of USC’s percussion department, led by Joseph Pereira, took the stage. It was their loss. Qui Tollis (Who takes away) by Bjarnason proved to be a panoramic tour de force, from tintinnabulations as fragile as ice crystals to pounding bass-drum crescendos that rattled the rafters.

Trois Rivières (Three rivers) by Saariaho was like an avant-garde half time show at a football game for pounding drums and chanted text. No idea what they were saying, but they said it loudly.

The concert ended after 11 p.m. with six percussionists fanned out across the stage executing the complex rhythmic patterns of Rolf Wallin’s Stonewave. By then the audience had dwindled even further. But those who stayed certainly got their money’s worth.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).