Sibelius shines, new works falter in Iceland Symphony’s Nordic Cool concert

Courtesy of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra - At the Kennedy Center, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra gave U.S. premieres of two works by young Icelandic composers.

Sibelius certainly rocks. That is the takeaway thus far after the third orchestral offering of the Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool festival. Monday night brought the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in the evergreen Grieg Piano Concerto, the very rarely heard complete “Lemminkainen Suite” of Sibelius, and U.S. premieres of two works by young Icelandic composers.

The two previous programs (by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and the National Symphony) also featured the Finnish master, but the ISO’s selection was a home run. Most music lovers know “The Swan of Tuonela” and “Lemminkainen’s Return,” but the suite comprises two more substantial pieces, of majesty and dark wonder. I’d never heard them before, and now I want to again.

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Of the two premieres, “bd” by Hlynur A. Vilmarsson left the better impression. It started unpromisingly, the composer attempting to make the orchestra imitate electronic music. Consisting largely of sound effects rather than notes, it evoked some titters from the audience at first. But gradually rhythmic patterns emerged, and the piece took on a sense of liveliness and even fun that is all too rare in this realm.

Earlier, “Aeriality” by Anna Thorvaldsdottirwas similar to last week’s turgid “Orion” by Kaija Saariaho— a morass of slowly shifting textures but little else. The strain on the listener was compounded by her use of quarter-tones. This sort of thing might be tolerable as a sound track to an IMAX documentary about a distant galaxy, but its viability in the concert repertoire is almost nil.

The ISO is a fairly strong group. The strings were slightly underpowered, but that was due more to numbers than quality of playing. The woodwinds had a loamy quality, but not unpleasantly so. The brass were mostly in tune and solid, if not always perfectly aligned in attack. Conductor Ilan Volkov offered clear, unfussy direction. I’ve heard more imaginative Sibelius performances, but he was on top of the music; the many transitions were well-controlled.

As for the Grieg concerto and soloist Garrick Ohlsson, what can one say? I do not know a professional musician who doesn’t consider him one of the finest pianists alive today, and he continues to give unalloyed pleasure in everything he plays.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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