A Mezza Voce


From the outside, Helsinki’s new concert hall, Musiikkitalo, seems unpretentious. Inside, it houses six concert halls to suit different requirements, a school of music and a library.

The discussions about the new concert hall started in the early 1990s when the Sibelius Academy signalled the need for new premises in the centre of Helsinki, closer to the other Sibelius Academy buildings. It was not until resources were pooled that the plans could be realized. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy formed an operator consortium, meeting the construction costs of €188 million.

The idea of a new concert hall for Helsinki was pressing since Finlandia Hall, designed by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1971, although impressive, is quite an inappropriate structure for symphonic music concerts in terms of acoustics. The new concert hall had to have outstanding acoustics.

A two-phased international architectural competition was held in 1999–2000 and received 243 entries during the first phase and 68 during the second. The competition was won by Arkkitehtitoimisto LPR-Arkkitehdit with their work “a mezza voce”. Yasuhisa Toyota was chosen to design the acoustics.

From an architectural perspective, “a mezza voce” (with a moderate voice) meant to tread lightly without disturbing the surrounding landscape.

The site for Musiikkitalo is located between three of the city’s architectural monuments – Parliament House, in neoclassical style, across Mannerheinintie, Aalto’s Finlandia Hall to the north, and Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art to the south.

The winners had to comply with building height restrictions and some conformity of the venue’s overall countenance with the Parliament House across the street. Also important was the fact that the building was to be located on the same line of landscape, on the shore of Töölö Bay, as Finlandia Hall and the Opera. And most importantly, the architects had to cooperate with acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the world’s most prominent experts in his field. His collaboration with Frank Gehry to engineer Walt Disney Concert Hall’s famed acoustics brought in commissions from around the world for acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. For acoustics designers like Yasuhisa Toyota, success arrives when an audience is rapt in the music, oblivious to the complicated physics it takes to project a Beethoven symphony with warmth and clarity. Walt Disney Concert Hall was an outstanding success!

Master acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota’s designs are now found in many classical music concert halls famous throughout the world apart from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall in St. Petersburg, the Danish Radio Concert Hall in Copenhagen, the New World Center in Miami, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, ElbPhilharmonie in Hamburg, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, the Radio France Concert Hall in Paris, Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain) Concert Hall/Auditorium, the Shanghai Symphony Concert Hall and the Helsinki Music Center Concert Hall.

His primary focus can be reduced to just two key elements – space, or the shape of the room, and material – but there is a staggering amount of options to consider and decisions to be made at the detail level of both elements. Overall, Toyota is a consummate collaborator: For Toyota, the success of any one building is ultimately the result of his ears, the architect’s eyes and the collective interpretative force of a conductor and orchestra combining to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

In the world of classical music, acoustics are important and the design might come before even the architectural design. In a hall that doesn’t program classical music, but only pop music and rock & roll, then sound systems, microphones and loudspeakers are more important than room acoustics itself.

Talking about the room shape of a classical music concert hall, details include the seating height and width and shape. When it comes to the material, it’s not just the surface material that is important but the structure behind that. Even with the same acoustic surface material, the thickness is important. The structure behind the panels is not visible, but is important to the sound. The room shape and material are also the issues which the architect is working with. The room shape and material are important visually and acoustically. The architect and the acoustician work in different fields, but designing with the same items, and collaboration is the answer.

Toyota has used wood in some form in all the halls he has designed. In the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles he used Douglas-fir, in Sapporo and Kawasaki he used Japanese wood, in the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg he used Finnish wood components and at Musiikkitalo in Helsinki he used pine and birch.

Wood is a good material in concert halls, acoustically and visually. And Toyota finds that natural materials also offer the audience a comfortable atmosphere. He considers the stage floor part of an instrument, with sound, and he designs is out of soft local wood.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium stage

In Helsinki the stage is made of Finnish pine and the boards have no knots. The density of the wood has been precisely calculated, as the stage is the largest and most important instrument resonating in the space. Above the stage, a special concrete object weighing 27 tonnes is hung from 40 steel cables. Four of these cables would have been sufficient to hold the weight, but the builders of the hall wanted to make completely sure, so that the orchestra would not have to steal occasional nervous glances at the threatening object above their heads. The block of concrete is part of the acoustics design for the hall, as is the ceiling of the concert hall. The ceiling of the main hall was named “Sound Canopy” (Finnish: Sointilatvus) following a public competition arranged to come up with a name for it. It goes without saying, sound quality does not depend on the number of people in the hall.

Musiikkitalo sound canopy

Most of Toyota’s best halls resemble Suntory – Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Philharmonie de Paris, Shanghai Symphony Hall, Bamberg Symphony Hall, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall and Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium

The vineyard style is Toyota’s favourite audience layout, a visual representation of his philosophy that the enjoyment of music should be shared – the vineyard design allows viewers to feel a spirit of community in the perception of sonic information. Another of Toyota’s enthusiasms is striving for the presence of the national identity of the respective country. Forest and wood have given the Helsinki Music Centre not only its visual aspect, but also character and atmosphere. The pail-like main hall has been dubbed “smoke sauna”, owing to the tone of its warm, dark birch panels, while the seats in the vineyard-like audience have been described as a “logjam” and the wooden stairs are like creeks. Strips of glass allow daylight to stream in and make for visual reference points between the auditorium and the foyer.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium
Musiikkitalo main auditorium

In case you are wondering, he doesn’t have a favourite hall. He responds to the question with a story.

A few years ago, on January 1, my phone rang. It was Valery Gergiev, the conductor and artistic director of the Russian Mariinsky Theatre. He was with the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons at the time, and there had probably been some drinking going on. The two had been having a discussion: Gergiev was of the opinion that the acoustics in the Sapporo Concert Hall were the best, while Jansons, on the other hand, preferred the Kawasaki Symphony Hall. I designed the acoustics in both and the gentlemen wanted to know: “Yasuhisa, which is better?” So I simply asked: “Valery, tell me: How many children do you have?” He understood what I was saying straight away.

Suntory, Toyota’s, and Japan’s, first vineyard-style hall, opened in 1987 in Tokyo. Conservative Japanese audiences were quick to complain. A hall layout where neither the listener nor the musician has any place to hide visually or audibly was a bit too in your face. But Suntory had the blessing of the conductor the Japanese most admired. The Berlin Philharmonic’s music director, Herbert von Karajan, had overseen the construction of his own early vineyard-style concert hall, the celebrated 1963 Philharmonie.

Suntory, 30 years later, remains far and away the most prestigious concert address in the East, no matter the architecturally stunning opera houses and concert halls popping up in China, Indonesia, the Emirates and the Southern Caucasus. The Vienna Philharmonic is an annual visitor at Suntory and sounds remarkably comfortable here despite the radical difference between modern Suntory and the orchestra’s heavenly 19th century home, the Musikverein. That comfort hasn’t translated into their acceptance of eastern musicians in their midst however.

The large auditorium at Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo boasts 1,704 seats and is located in the main building, through which the concert house is also accessed. In addition to the Concert Hall, there are five smaller halls for roughly 140-400 people. The acoustics in each hall have been designed to serve the function or purpose of each hall, such as electronically amplified music performances, or chamber music performances or lectures. Owing to height restrictions, the building features a large underground area. Ultimately, an eight-storey building was created, with two-thirds of it located underground. The many underground storeys are also filled with light, thanks to the large glassed atrium, which allows the generous Northern daylight to be manifested to the fullest.

Musiikkitalo Camerata hall – suitable for small music ensembles
Musiikkitalo – Black Box hall – suitable for amplified music and lectures

The Main Foyer is located on the third floor, which is the entry floor for visitors arriving from the Kansalaistori Square.

Musiikkitalo Foyer Level
Musiikkitalo Foyer Level – view from outside
Musiikkitalo Main Foyer with Gaia, by Kirsi Kaulanen, suspended from the Music Centre ceiling

The sculpture by Kirsi Kaulanen was named Gaia after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth. At 14 metres in length, 10 metres in height, and 2,200 kg in weight, the sculpture in polished stainless steel is visible both inside the Helsinki Music Centre and from outside, in the direction of Mannerheimintie.

Constructed from organic forms, Gaia resembles a saxophone, a horn, a landscape, or a winding shape. It is linked to nature by its flowing form and by the fact that it includes 28 of the 150 currently-endangered Finnish plant species.

Musiikkitalo Main Foyer’s café – the cakes were very good, the salmon quiche is best never mentioned again!

As the architects report, what they were aiming for is a “quiet kind of architecture”. The concert hall does not attempt to outclass its prominent neighbors with extravagant façade designs. Instead, it looks as if it is trying to crouch down in the depression between the busy Mannerheim Street and Töölö Bay. Verdigris copper façades form the transition to the greenery of the nearby park and to the Parliament Building. Generous, seaweed-colored glass fronts face the Kiasma Museum and the Baltic Sea.

The patinated copper roof is also characteristic of Helsinki’s oldest architecture while the large-scale glass façades fit in well with the more modern buildings of Finland’s capital, including the neighbouring temple of contemporary art, Kiasma.

In music circles the biggest expectations were focused on the acoustics. Users of the Main Hall have responded with both praise and excitement. The acoustics of Helsinki Music Centre yield a clear sound, with a long echo and tone beautifully carried everywhere in the hall, to every single seat. Including the seats we had for the Laulu-Miehet Finland 100 concert of Sibelius music.

Musiikkitalo – Laulu-Miehet Sibelius concert as part of the Finland 100 celebrations

A Beary Winter Wonderland


Well, that was exhausting…

…waiting for mummy to build all the Lego… 🙂

Look, there’s us with mummy buying a ticket for the Polar Express. Mummeeee! We need a macro lens!

And there’s the Polar Express…

And us at Santa’s Workshop. All the elves were busy with presents!

We sent our Christmas cards from the post office there!

We met Santa!

We stayed in a winter cabin…

We went skiing, and snowboarding, with the snowmobile and the sleigh with reindeer!

And there’s us going round and round in the carousel

And walking around the Christmas markets…

We had lots of snowy adventures!

It’s play time!

On A Sugar Plum High

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads….

And speaking of Sugar Plums …

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without shed-loads of sugar. And maybe that’s one of the reasons behind The Nutcracker‘s enduring festive popularity. The ballet’s candied cornucopia of sugar-frosted fancies makes it the sweetest work in the repertory.

Before attending a performance of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House, little Puffles and Honey topped up their sugar levels 🙂 They didn’t find any sugar plums at Selfridges, so they had to settle for macaroons… Sugar is a crucial ingredient in macaroons as well!

Dolly’s Cafe, Selfridges

Apparently it’s not done to eat Rudolf or Mr Snowman (they were delicious 🙂 ), so they got some macaroons from Pierre Hermé, the King of Macaroon. There were some odd flavour combinations, but little Puffles and Honey went for the classics.

Pierre Hermé, Selfridges
At the Royal Opera House
Checking out the Royal Opera House Christmas tree

Yup, the conductor has the right score 🙂

It all starts with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King). Though the story itself is not exactly little bear-friendly (including a fearsome seven-headed mouse that attacks the heroine), Hoffmann pays tribute to the great sweet-making tradition of his Nuremberg setting, in a magnificent sugar fantasia. The protagonists travel along a path of nougat by a lemonade river that winds past the glistening Bonbonville, and cross Rosewater Lake to reach the capital Confiturembourg, itself topped by the Marzipan Castle. And we do love marzipan…

The ballet reins it in a little – but not much. The original scenario was developed by choreographer Marius Petipa and Mariinsky director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who used a somewhat more palatable translation of Hoffmann’s story by Alexandre Dumas père (fewer heads on the rat, just as much sugar).

Presiding over the display are the regal Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Coqueluche. Though sugar plum today doesn’t mean anything more than the character in the ballet (and it is the Christmas role), to the original audience it was a fittingly sophisticated treat: a cardamom or caraway seed cast in spun sugar, a virtuoso test of the confectioner’s craft. Her prince is rather less glamorous: ‘coqueluche’ means ‘whooping cough’, making him the equivalent of a dancing cough drop, albeit a very elegant one 🙂

Sarah Lamb as The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker
The Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince Coqueluche

Of the divertissements, there are three national-inspired dances that feature in most traditional productions – of which Peter Wright’s 1984 production for The Royal Ballet is an exemplar. First there’s the Spanish Dance, for chocolate; then the Arabian Dance, for coffee; and the Chinese Dance, for tea. These might seem humdrum treats now, but for the ballet’s creators more than a century ago, and Hoffmann before them, these were luxuries that carried an aromatic whiff of exoticism, masterfully expressed in Tchaikovsky’s music.

The Spanish Dance, The Nutcracker
The Arabian Dance, The Nutcracker

The Chinese Dance, The Nutcracker

The Story…

Drosselmeyer, a timeless magician and creator of mechanical toys and clocks, was once employed in a royal palace where he invented a trap that killed off half the mouse population. In revenge, the wicked Queen of the Mice cast a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, which transformed him into an ugly Nutcracker Doll. The only way to break the spell was for the Nutcracker to slay the Mouse King, thereby committing an act of great bravery, and for a young girl to love and care for him in spite of his awful appearance.

When Drosselmeyer is invited to entertain the guests at a Christmas party that his friends, the Stahlbaums, are giving, he decides that this could well be the opportunity he has been looking for.

Their daughter, Clara, is a little younger than Hans-Peter imprisoned in the Nutcracker, and what better time than Christmas, when the mice are busy stealing the leftovers, for a confrontation between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker? Drosselmeyer decides to put the Nutcracker in the tender care of Clara and makes a special Christmas Angel to guide her through her task.

When all the guests have departed and the house is asleep, Clara, in search of the Nutcracker, creeps downstairs and discovers Drosselmeyer waiting for her. He draws her into his own special world of fantasy, where time is suspended, exerts all his power to transform the living room into a great battlefield and summons the Mouse King.

In the ensuing fight between the mice and the toy soldiers, the Nutcracker slays the Mouse King, but only through the intervention of Clara, who, out of compassion, saves the Nutcracker’s life.

Transformed into his real self, he dances with Clara and they find themselves in the Land of Snow. Drosselmeyer then sends them on a magic journey to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.

Freed at last from his imprisonment inside the Nutcracker, Hans-Peter recounts to the Sugar Plum Fairy his great adventure and how Clara saved his life. They then join in a magnificent entertainment put on by Drosselmeyer to honour them for their bravery.

Returning to reality Clara runs out into the street in search of Drosselmeyer and encounters a strangely familiar young man, while back in his workshop, Drosselmeyer prays that his efforts will be rewarded. His nephew returns; the spell has indeed been broken.

It was another outstanding performance by the Royal Ballet. Two hours have never passed so fast.

Peter Wright’s exquisite 1984 Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet recalls the lavishly traditional air of the original production, with some changes to the scenario to bring it closer to Hoffmann’s original story. With magnificent designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman, including a gorgeously decorated tree that magically grows, and beautifully coloured imaginings of the fantastical Sugar Garden, this festive production has become a much-loved staple of the Royal Ballet’s repertory.

Wright’s adaptation of the choreography for The Nutcracker is characterized by buoyant footwork and lyrical freedom in the arms and upper body. Perhaps the best-loved number from the ballet is the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act II. Comprising sharp, filigree choreography and lasting for ten minutes, it is one of the longest and most technically challenging solos in the repertory, and a role that many ballerinas long to dance.

It seems hardly credible that The Nutcracker, a staple of the ballet repertory today, was the product of a troubled collaboration, roundly condemned by critics and infrequently performed at the time it was first mounted in 1892. Tchaikovsky, who had agreed to compose the ballet out of gratitude to the Director of Imperial Theatres, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, and on the basis of the great success The Sleeping Beauty had enjoyed a year earlier, was unhappy with the scenario of The Nutcracker when he finally saw it. The esteemed choreographer Marius Petipa, who drafted instructions for the composer and a detailed plan of dances and mimed scenes of the new ballet, fell ill soon after rehearsals began, leaving much of the actual composition of the choreography to Lev Ivanov, the second ballet master. The meagre roster of early performances is striking to us now in light of what the work has become: in the third season of its existence (after an initial run of 14 performances), the ballet was not given at all; this was followed by a three-year period without performances, between 1897 and 1900; and The Nutcracker was not produced at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow before the October Revolution, the first performance there coming in 1919, almost 27 years after the premiere. Even its seasonal topicality was disregarded, for it was scheduled throughout the theatre year from September to May, with rarely more than one showing in December.

What was the problem with The Nutcracker, then? Judging from the critical response, it was not its innovation but the fact that conventional devices were carried too far. In an age when audiences accepted extraordinary liberties of logic and motivation in stories used for ballet, the scenario of The Nutcracker was found wanting. “The authors of the ballet librettos never weary the intellect of the lovers of choreography”, wrote one critic, “but in The Nutcracker the author of the libretto, balletmaster Mr Petipa, in the extreme took advantage of his right as regards simplicity and non-complexity of subject matter. In The Nutcracker there is no subject whatever.” This criticism, though encountered elsewhere in early reviews, is not wholly accurate. In fact, there was no connection between the Christmas party in the first act and the Land of Sweets in the second that would make both acts part of the same ballet. In the printed libretto of 1892 the fantastic events were unexplained and the story, as a result, was divided into largely unrelated halves.

If imperial period audiences tolerated some relaxation of dramatic propriety in their ballet stories, luxurious staging was essential. “In this respect”, the same critic continued, “the direction of the Petersburg theatres… long since set the tone and prescribed the rules for all Europe. Even Paris and London bow before Petersburg… Beauty, magnificence and taste, not stopping at any venture and expense, brilliantly rival one another.” But here too the producers of The Nutcracker exceeded the norm. Tchaikovsky was overwhelmed by the staging and wrote to his brother Anatole the day after the first performance that “the production of both [The Nutcracker and its companion piece, the opera Iolanta] was magnificent, the ballet even too magnificent. The eyes weary from this luxury.” Vladimir Telyakovsky, who was to become Director of Imperial Theatres in 1901, recalled that the production was unimaginable in its bad taste, some of the artists representing confections in the second act being “dressed like fancy brioches from Fillipov’s patisserie”, a famous Petersburg establishment.

Assessments of The Nutcracker, based on these and other complaints, were thus unflattering or worse. Ennui was among the gentler verdicts: “They say that at the first performance only the balletomanes were bored; on this occasion [the second performance]… The Nutcracker provided nothing other than boredom to the public, and many left the theatre before the end of the performance.” Elsewhere we read: “For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic destiny of our ballet – one more step downward.” Wrote a third critic: “The production of such ballets as The Nutcracker can quickly and easily lead the ballet troupe to its downfall.” Through the scorn another defect comes to light, which audiences of the present day consider a virtue: the ballet was for children. “All this children’s ballet is made in the manner of a child”, wrote a critic known as Old Balletomane, “the program is pure child’s prattle! In vain do they suppose that one may substitute luxuriance of production for lack of imagination and thought in this programme.” Twenty years later Serge Diaghilev, defending his company’s repertory in The Times, shrugged off The Nutcracker as no more than a ballet performed by a hundred children.

The modern producer who would take inspiration from the first Nutcracker is left all the same with much that is worthy of revival. The lavish staging of magical effects, such as the miraculous growth of the Christmas tree, the spectacular tableau in the second act, Confiturembourg, The Kingdom of Sweets (such ‘kingdom’ scenes were especially beloved of Petipa), and the participation of children in the dances and the battle scene are all components of the first Nutcracker which drew on well-established traditions of the late imperial ballet.

The choreography of the Waltz of the Snowflakes is a special feature of the first production that his contemporaries ranked as one of Lev Ivanov’s great creations. But Ivanov’s steps and patterns for this dance have been lost passing from one staging to the next and have been re-created by Wright. He has also re-created the floor patterns from choreographic notations of The Nutcracker made in St Petersburg before World War I, now in the Harvard Theatre Collection. As a result, we see again Ivanov’s danced allegory of a snowstorm, “the hachures and patterns of snow crystals, the monograms and arabesques of the plastique of frost [gathered] into one well-proportioned, artistically finished vision” – as it was described by a balletomane who recalled the original.

Recent considerations of The Nutcracker, especially since the end of the Soviet era, have raised new possibilities about the meaning of the work. These tend to attribute Tchaikovsky’s reservations about composing music of Confiturembourg to some passing irritation, while allowing that the imagery and design of the work, with its patent disjunctions, were intended. One possibility, from the composer’s perspective, was his love of Dickens, whose vivid setting of A Christmas Tree veers much closer to that of The Nutcracker than anything in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the libretto’s ostensible source. In one passage Dickens’ narrator, like Clara, the only person in the house awake, describes the Christmas tree of his childhood, surrounded by toys, including “a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown”, dolls, drummers and a regiment of soldiers in a box. For a moment, “the very tree itself changes, and becomes a beanstalk – the marvellous beanstalk up which Jack climbed to the Giant’s house!”, and presently, “all common things become uncommon and enchanted.”

These shadings may have aligned with images Tchaikovsky liked, but the principal disjunction of the libretto – between the everyday world and Confiturembourg – was taken from Hoffmann without Hoffmann’s return to reality at the end. Clara simply wakes up from her dream, resolving the fantasy of the story, a device adopted by many modern producers of the ballet. And yet the problem of incoherence, so stridently critiqued in early reviews, raises a reasonable question: would a theatre director as erudite as Vsevolozhsky, a ballet master as experience as Petipa and a composer as astute as Tchaikovsky, allow such a lapse in narrative, a beginning and a middle without an ending? The balletomanes’ complaint that The Nutcracker overreached conventions of ballet lax enough to permit such liberties seems dismissive and unsatisfactory, given the stature of the collaborators.

Could flaws so obvious be pointing to a new type of drama? Folklorists remind us that the motifs of the growing Christmas tree and the winter forest, missing in Hoffmann, echo ancient representations of the underworld, regular world and heavenly realm as joined by a tree, whereas winter symbolizes not just a demise before rebirth but also, joined with the forest, a path to another world, possibly the realm of the dead. We do not know if the collaborators on The Nutcracker wished to express such themes, but the possibility that they were motivated by something other than carelessness casts them in a more complimentary light than shed by early reception. The importance of Tchaikovsky to such a scheme would be central, in that his theatre works, beginning with The Oprichnik, passing through Eugene Onegin and ending with The Sleeping Beauty, The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, all display symbolic or novel approaches to drama that elicited criticism when they were new for being imperfectly conventional. They also share an element of experimentation manifest as early as Tchaikovsky’s student compositions, a quality that might be affirmed in The Nutcracker if we knew more about his part in the early stages of collaboration. In short, the composer may have been formulating new approaches to the lyric stage, appreciated more by the avant garde of the early 20th century than by his contemporaries. If so, his complaint about excessive luxury in the mise-en-scène may have been perfectly sincere, but unrelated to the ballet’s message.

‘The Nutcracker Then and Now’ written by Roland John Wiley, Professor of Musicology Emeritus at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour.

A Day at Harpa


The name of the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre was made public on 11 December 2009. The name Harpa was the winning name out of 4,156 proposals entered by 1,200 citizens. The rules stated that the name should be in Icelandic but easily articulated in most languages. The name Harpa has more than one meaning. It is the Icelandic name for the musical instrument harp. It is also an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year and the name of a month in the old Nordic calendar. The first day of that month is celebrated as the first day of summer and marks the beginning of a brighter time where nature comes to live and the colours of the environment sharpen.

Harpa’s history goes way back. Icelanders started dreaming about building a good music house as early as in 1881, but other projects had a higher priority, such as the national theatre and the founding of Iceland’s symphony orchestra. The music house didn’t become a serious proposition until much later.

Music enthusiasts agreed on the construction of the concert hall in 1983, but had to wait until the 1990s before the state of Iceland and the city of Reykjavik decided to take part in the project. An empty plot for the new building was found by the harbour in Reykjavik city centre. The concert hall was to be part of an extensive harbour development project in Reykjavik, the East Harbour Project, with the aim of expanding and revitalising Reykjavik’s eastern harbour with a new downtown plaza, a shopping street, a hotel, residential buildings, educational institutions and mixed industry.

Harpa’s conception took place in 2004, in Iceland’s age of financial hallucination, when consortia of banks, architects and others were invited to bid for the privilege of building the home, long wished-for in this music-loving country, of concerts and opera. The winning group was led by Landsbanki, which would be a leading player in Iceland’s Gatsby moment.


Entering or leaving Harpa on foot, the piazza over which the upper floors loom is all that separates it from Reykjanesbraut (Route 41), which travels north-east from Keflavík directly into Reykjavík. Along with Route 49, these two arteries wrap around and loosely define the city’s older centre – bisected by the bustling Laugavegur – and effectively cut off the coast and harbour, leaving it as a sliver of land that bends up into the township of Seltjarnarnes.

Reykjavík’s harbour has long ceased any industrial activity that would demand a close connection to the city centre. Accompanying Harpa and the docks along this strip of land are small museums, cafés and shops selling Icelandic knick-knacks, united by the walk past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager. Here you can look back at Reykjavík or take advantage of unhindered views of the Engey and Viðey islands and perhaps even the Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano. It is by no means a neglected or unpleasant area, rather one of disconnection. By Icelandic standards Route 41 is relatively busy – four lanes of traffic traversed via nondescript pedestrian crossings – and this post-industrial edge land, while not short on attractions, feels at times little more than an extension of the roadside that risks drifting off into Faxa Bay.

Sun Voyager, by Jón Gunnar Árnason

Location plan

An international competition in 2004 called for masterplans of the area, to reunite the waterfront and the city centre, with only four partnerships invited to tender due to the scale and complexity of the project.

The winner, selected in 2005, was the Danish-Icelandic collective Portus Group, picked from a star-studded crop including Schmidt Hammer Lassen, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel. Portus Group comprised the Icelandic Batteriíð Architects, Danish concert hall veterans Henning Larsen and Artec acoustic consultants et al, backed by the private investor Landsbanki. Portus’s masterplan was bold: a concert hall, conference centre, wellness centre, academy of fine arts, bank, cinema, shopping street, residential/commercial units and what would have been Iceland’s first five-star hotel. This was Iceland’s boom-time: it was a hugely zealous proposal around a major artery, one that would not just connect with Reykjavík’s centre but create an entirely new piece of city.

It was the proposed concert hall in particular – which would become Harpa – that would satisfy a longstanding desire for a dedicated performance space in Reykjavík. The Icelandic phrase ad ganga med bok I maganum (everyone gives birth to a book) extends too, it would seem, to music, with an incredible output from Icelanders Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós and Samaris to name but a few. Early in the 20th century the only concert hall was the minuscule Hljómskálinn, built to house the city’s brass band and itself the subject of controversy over its position in the lakeside park it would eventually give its name to, Hljómskálagarðurinn. This 7.5 meter wide structure had the advantage of being central, but could not house the growing Iceland Symphony Orchestra, who decades later occupied the University of Iceland’s Cinema, itself under pressure for conferences and other events. Similarly, the now world-famous Iceland Airwaves festival used a hangar at Reykjavík airport for its first one-off event in 1999 – trendy, but acoustically not ideal. A building with the facilities of Harpa was long overdue.

The construction of Harpa started in 2007, but stopped in October 2008 when Iceland’s financial crisis hit. Harpa was the only part of the masterplan under construction, and was around 40 per cent complete. Fulfilling the rest of the redevelopment’s aims was out of the question. Harpa’s unfinished state became visual shorthand for economic irresponsibility, and with still-raw hindsight many questioned the collective madness that prompted a city of fewer than 200,000 to plan for such a large venue in the first place. (Rule No 2 of being Icelandic: Think BIG)

How To Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes

The Icelandic financial crisis was a major economic and political event in Iceland that involved the default of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks (including Landsbanki), representing 85% of the country’s financial system, in the same week in late 2008. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s systemic banking collapse was the largest experienced by any country in economic history. The crisis led to a severe economic depression in 2008–2010 and significant political unrest.

Iceland’s response was controversial and represented a two-fingered salute to the polite society of academics and policy-makers who normally lay down the laws on economic disaster management. First, it let the banks go under: foreign financiers who had lent to Reykjavik institutions at their own risk didn’t get a single krona back. Second, officials imposed strict capital controls, making it harder for hot-money merchants to pull their cash out of the country.

While all the other countries started bailing out their greedy and irresponsible bankers, following the old free-market tradition that rules governments should never break faith with financiers, Iceland was the one country that defied the global consensus and did not. More than that, Iceland allowed those responsible for the crisis — its bankers — to be prosecuted as criminals.

There was shock to the system, but it was relatively short, and once the pain was dealt with, the country has bounced back stronger than ever. By refusing to allow its currency, the krona, to suffer ultra-low inflation to protect the assets of the rich — as in the rest of the West did — Iceland let the krona tumble. The resulting inflation and higher prices helped its export industries, unlike what happened in many European Union countries, which are contending with ongoing deflation. By 2011 Iceland had come through the crisis in better condition than anyone in 2008 dared hope.

When asked why Iceland was enjoying such a strong recovery while everyone else is still mired in debt, President Olafur Ragnar Grimmson said in 2013:

“Why are the banks considered to be the holy churches of the modern economy? Why are private banks not like airlines and telecommunication companies and allowed to go bankrupt if they have been run in an irresponsible way? The theory that you have to bail out banks is a theory that you allow bankers enjoy for their own profit, their success, and then let ordinary people bear their failure through taxes and austerity. People in enlightened democracies are not going to accept that in the long run.”

Grimmson’s “famous” reply to the controversial question, “What is the reason for Iceland’s recovery?” is most remarkable.

“We were wise enough not to follow the traditional prevailing orthodoxies of the Western financial world in the last 30 years. We introduced currency controls, we let the banks fail, we provided support for the poor, and we didn’t introduce austerity measures like you’re seeing in Europe.”

By paying off loans for consumers, forgiving homeowner debt (up to 110% of the property value), and throwing the offenders in prison (under the remarkable notion that choices and actions have consequences), Iceland was able to bounce back. There you have it. Instead of conceding to the crooks who made the mess, Iceland listened to its people. And the data speaks for itself.

In March 2015, the International Monetary Fund announced that Iceland had achieved economic recovery “without compromising its welfare model” of universal health care and education. And in March this year, Iceland ended capital controls (which had been winding down over the last few years), finally returning its economy to normal after the catastrophic banking collapse of 2008 and 2009. There is an interesting article on the subject in the Telegraph.

During the financial crisis, many, perhaps most, Icelanders took the obvious view, which was that with people losing homes and jobs, an expensive, oversized concert hall was not their priority. But the building structure was four storeys out of the ground and, faced with the alternative of abandoning it as an instant ruin and all-too-eloquent symbol of failure, the government pressed on. They took over the project and “with the help of very clever financing”, as one of those responsible for running the place put it, they “made it light for the taxpayers”.

With criticism mounting, the decision was made to pump government money into completing Harpa, and construction started again in March 2009. Harpa was the only construction project in Iceland for several years after the financial crisis.

Harpa opened in May 2011, with a concert conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The opening took place a few months before the IMF’s bailout support programme ended. Rather than owing its existence to Landsbanki oligarch Björgólfur Guðmundsson, Harpa now stands as an adopted architectural child of the city and state.

Harpa became the sole jewel in Reykjavík’s ambitious East Harbour Project crown, with the rest of the masterplan postponed. Some visitors criticise Harpa for lacking connection with the city, but such criticism forgets, or is ignorant of the fact, that it was not initially conceived as, and will not always be, such a disconnected structure. Already another part of the masterplan, the first five star hotel in Iceland, Marriott Edition, with 250 rooms, is under construction next to Harpa. It is likely to open in 2019-2020.

It was Iceland’s decision to doggedly continue construction that won over the 2013 Mies van der Rohe Award jury. Chair Wiel Arets described how Harpa ‘captured the myth of a nation that has consciously acted in favour of a hybrid cultural building during the middle of the ongoing Great Recession’.

While waiting for the rest of the East Harbour masterplan to come to life, Harpa is anything but a reluctant icon: the façade has its own accompanying range of jewellery. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson produced not merely an artwork or ‘wallpaper’ to accompany the building but its entire external wrapping. The south façade, modelled on basalt columns, is formed from more than 1,000 quasi-bricks in a double skin (a 3D geometrical form), while the north, east and west façades mirror this geometry with a dragonfly-wing pattern in two dimensions (a cost cutting measure that quite possibly improved the design – 3D all around might have been a bit too much!). Externally it walks the tightrope between bling and artistry, and certainly does not reference anything close by.

The main idea behind the façade is to rethink the building as a static unit, and instead to allow it to respond dynamically to the changing colours of the surroundings. During the day, the geometrical figures create a crystalline structure which captures and reflects the light and initiates dialog between the building, the city and the countryside. In Iceland, light runs from endless translucent days in summer to the brief crawl of the sun above the horizon in winter, with many shades of black, blue and grey in between. Eliasson’s crystals filter, reflect and fragment light. They catch it, play with it, animate it and make it mobile. Sunshine lights up the foyers with a refulgence that is almost nuclear. In dim light the building gleams. The quasi-bricks of the south façade have glass at the back as well as the front, which gives depth. It means that light inhabits the façade rather than just bouncing off it.

In the evening, the façades are illuminated by LED lighting, which is built into each quasi-brick. The colour and light intensity can be adjusted, to bring the entire colour spectrum into play, forming patterns, letters or symbols.

The south façade in particular is rewarding once inside. The welded steel prisms are beautiful objects in their own right, each containing an integrated LED light whose colour and intensity can be individually programmed.

Being in Iceland, nature metaphors abound. Built in a black mixture of concrete and ash, the interior stands in soft contrast to the hard glass and mirrored edges of the main atrium. The main halls represent Fire (Eldborg), Air (Norðurljós), Earth (Silfurberg) and Water (Kaldalón), with Silfurberg and Norðurljós on the second floor linked by two soundproofed portals, allowing the two halls to be connected for larger events, and the smaller Kaldalón hall – named after an Icelandic bay – sitting below Norðurljós. Each hall derives its character from its namesake, Eldborg clad in deep red wood and Norðurljós housing mysterious programmable lights behind acoustic slats.

Harpa main auditorium, Eldborg

The largest auditorium, Eldborg, is named for a famous volcanic crater in Iceland (what else?!?).

Eldborg means Fire Mountain, and the auditorium, which can seat audiences of up to 1,800, is the vibrant red-hot powerhouse in Harpa’s inner core. The auditorium is built in concrete and surfaced with red-varnished birch veneer. Adjustable sound chambers around the auditorium add up to 30 percent more volume, giving a unique opportunity to adjust the reverberation time. With its characteristic shoe box form, Eldborg’s intense expression is a striking contrast to the more everyday atmosphere in the foyer.

The reverberation chamber – its space can add 30% to the size of Eldborg hall by opening the large concrete doors.

Sound, not light, is the main business of a concert hall, and the world is littered with auditoria where acoustics have been sacrificed to spectacle. At Harpa the two are kept apart. If the façade is Eliasson’s, the halls are the domain of acoustic consultants Artec, who have guided some of the most successful modern auditoria in the world (Esplanade in Singapore; Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York; Bartók Béla National Concert Hall in Budapest; Sala São Paulo in Brazil; the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne, Switzerland), and at Harpa have produced a clarity of acoustic that has reportedly moved some performers to tears of joy.

Harpa – Norðurljós recitall hall

Between Eliasson’s light and Artec’s sound comes the architecture of Henning Larsen Architects, and a core of dark concrete the colour of Iceland’s lava fields, that acts as a foil for one and a container for the other. This stands inside the glass box, forming the inner walls, balconies and stairs of the foyer. It is an admirably self-effacing role that the architects have chosen, and a collaborative one: Eliasson’s art was not simply attached to their frame, but created by artist and architect working together. The result is not a perfect integration of looking and hearing but a happy coexistence.

The interior is intentionally spare, suggesting to visitors that they look out at the surrounding sea, mountains, and city — an especially pleasant activity from the multitiered bar descending along the south façade.

Elevenses at Smurstöðin, Harpa

Formally, Harpa is roughly split into two: the southern side housing the majority of the public space and facing towards the city, and the northern ‘backstage’ side housing the green rooms and offices, facing out to sea. Harpa’s shape is determined by the positioning of the main Eldborg hall along the north-south axis, with the Norðurljós (Northern Lights) and Silfurberg (a calcite crystal) halls sitting alongside at a slight angle.

Throughout the design process, emphasis was placed on giving Harpa enough versatility to host large and intimate events simultaneously and without interference with one another. Harpa’s facilities, which offer some of the most technologically advanced equipment available, are capable of accommodating everything from large conventions, concerts, and exhibitions to smaller banquets and meetings.

While the ‘conference’, ‘rehearsal’ or ‘concert’ halls are flexible, it is clear that the best reason to visit Harpa is to hear music. Kaldalón is booked for 90 per cent of the year. Here, steep raked seating with a screen suits film screenings or lectures, but the space has also been used as a black box for performances or recording electronic music, built with the same ‘box in a box’ soundproofing as the other halls. The fiery Eldborg, with its dramatic built-in seating, is less formally flexible, but still has changeable acoustics, seating that can be lowered to create an orchestra pit, and extra seating behind the stage. Each room has this flexibility in a slightly different way, with rotating panels or acoustic curtains.

Iceland’s position between the UK and US is Harpa’s main selling point as a conference hub, and its ample space means conferences can spill out of the halls with exhibitions, trade shows or buffets. They have bookings to 2025! Perhaps it is due in part to a lack of other venues, but Harpa’s programme is packed with everything from the EVE Fanfest – a celebration of the hugely popular Icelandic spaceship MMORPG – to the Arctic Circle Assembly. Björk’s Biophilia educational project – a large-scale pilot that draws together scientists, artists, academics and children in an exploration of music – is based here. Occasionally at weekends, markets flood the atrium and the piazza with local foods.

Harpa is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, the Icelandic Opera and the Reykjavik Big Band.

Little Puffles and Honey attended a concert in the Norðurljós recitall hall, Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert in the Eldborg hall and the comedy show How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes in the Kaldalón hall.

Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson with Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Norðurljós recitall hall
Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert in Harpa’s main auditorium, Eldborg
How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes – Kaldalón hall, Harpa

While How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes is a bit hit and miss when it comes to the jokes, having to rely on generalisations and stereotypes, it is actually very accurate when it comes to describing Iceland’s national character, and it does live up to its name. All the obvious stuff is in the show. They eat sheep’s balls (although this is actually rarely done these days), and they drink a lot of Brennivín. While the latter is true, the show also points out that if you’re spotted having a glass of wine on a Tuesday, you will generally be assumed to have a drinking problem, while a bottle or two of vodka on weekends is fine. One of the defining traits of Icelanders is their boundless optimism, even in the face of facts or reason. While this does give the country a certain dynamism, it has also been known to lead to trouble. Why does winter, while being an annual occurrence, still manage to come as a surprise every year? No one ever seems to remember to switch to winter tyres or get their warm clothes out, as if magically somehow this year winter won’t come. Then again, thanks to climate change, they may finally won’t need to.

Karl Ágúst Úlfsson in How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes – Kaldalón hall, Harpa

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

Is mostly an amusement park with lots and lots of rides. Even the Christmas tree is a ride!

We had to go on it…

And see the park from the tree 🙂

This looked interesting…

Bavarian Village

The Bavarian Village was one of several food areas in Hyde Park. Little bears chose Almhütte, apparently a traditional Bavarian restaurant with delicious food.

The pretzel was great, the sausage significantly less so 😦

The mulled wine was a poor distant cousin to the glögg from Tivoli…

There is a Christmas market as well.

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland doesn’t have an entry fee, but it does have the completely useless bag search at the entrance.

Beary Christmas From Tivoli Wonderland

Time for a crazy Christmas show 🙂

In a galaxy far too close for comfort, the president of the orange planet threatens the galaxy with blah, blah, blah…

And now a super bomb!

Crazy Christmas Cabaret’s 35th performance is a parody of the Star Wars universe, as a background for the chaos and confusion of the current political environment. The president of the Orange Planet, Ronald Rump, is causing no end of chaos and confusion and placing the galaxy in grave danger. The other political leaders (Angela Mærkelig, Emanuel Macaroon of Planet Camembert and Kim Pong Pu) are not able to negotiate with him, so the hero, Luke Skystalker, must protect the galaxy from Ronald Rump’s superb bomb, with various degrees of help from Princess Liar, Master Yoghurt, Onli Won Karaoke, C-Through Keyhole, 2B or not 2B, and even Daft Vizor!

Princess Liar
Ronald Rump and daughter
Ronald Rump and Princess Liar
Kim Pong Pu with assistant droid
Daft Vizor
Crazy Christmas Cabaret 2017

It was a funny performance, possibly a bit too long. The hero wins in the end, of course, the galaxy is saved and Ronald Rump and family take refuge on Kim Pong Pu’s planet. One for the Christmas wish list…

A Finnish Institution

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure

Olaf’s hilarious sauna adventure reminded me of our sauna adventure in Finland.

Saunas and other types of heated bathing rooms are found in many cultures, but nowhere else is it as large a part of the national identity and culture as it is in Finland.

For Finns, the sauna is a part of life that they become familiar with very early in childhood. Finns use the sauna for spiritual relaxation with family and friends, after sports and exercise, as part of an evening spent with friends or co-workers or even for no particular reason at all. The warmth of the sauna also helps them through the cold and dark winters. The sauna is a place for celebration, negotiation, discussion and deep deliberation. Finnish policymakers and influential business figures have probably negotiated some of their best contracts in a sauna. For a Finnish host, the sauna is a source of pride and a gesture of hospitality. If your somewhat taciturn Finnish host invites you to join him, stark naked, in a small wooden room heated to nearly one hundred degrees Celsius, try not to run for the hills!

Says she, who arrived in Finland determined not to experience this Finnish cultural aspect since most saunas have a no-clothes policy, although they will allow you to keep your towel on.

When we arrived at Levin Iglut – Golden Crown in the Finnish Lapland, one of the experiences available was a private sauna and spa session in the Northern Lights House. After checking with reception that ‘private’ meant what I expected it meant, off I went on my sauna adventure.

Following the directions given, I found a house with a door that was opened by the key I had been given, went in and I found this room.

In quick succession my thoughts were, I am in the wrong place, how odd that the key opens all the houses, and finally, it must be the right place because there is no other place around.

After opening every door in the house, I finally found the sauna. It was behind the last door, of course!

But before the sauna experience, I went to get little Puffles and Honey, and the camera…

While I experienced the sauna, little Puffles and Honey relaxed under the starry ceiling, since the starry sky was thoroughly covered by clouds!

That settled, I remembered that the spa was outside on the terrace. I opened the door, stuck my head out, thought to myself, no way, and firmly closed the door. Another tour of the house, and two minutes later I was back at the terrace door, this time venturing outside to check that the spa had indeed been prepared for me. Still thinking no way, I went back inside and finally entered the sauna room.

The sauna was heated by a special sauna stove with rocks that are heated to very high temperatures by burning wood (or by electricity in other places). The hot rocks heat up the sauna to approximately 80-90 degrees Celsius (there was a temperature gauge on display). Bathers can throw water on the hot rocks; the water vaporises, heating up the room and increasing the humidity in the air. I threw water on the hot rocks once, was essentially chased out of the room by the vapour 🙂 , and after going back inside I stuck to the dry heat experience only.

The room had elevated wooden benches, it smelled of clean wood (no aromatherapy or other essential oils) and it was very relaxing lying down on the bench. And in the 90 degree heat, I finally felt like I was beginning to warm up! That day, the maximum temperature had been -25 degrees Celsius.

The traditional sauna experience also includes a vasta, a bunch of small fresh birch branches with leaves on, used by the bathers to swat themselves and their fellow bathers briskly to open up the skin’s pores and further boost blood circulation. I didn’t notice one, and it is highly unlikely I would have used one if provided. A tip I picked up from the locals is to have a shower first and head to the sauna before towelling off so you aren’t going in dry and dehydrating your body too much.

With the relaxation came a willingness to reconsider the outdoor spa experience. That willingness eventually saw me outside, bare foot in the snow, wrapped up in a towel in what must have been -30 degrees, trying to work out how to turn on the water jets! Luckily one of the buttons worked and as I was relaxing in the spa, I was thinking of the irony that in the sauna, a completely enclosed indoor room, I had kept on my underwear, and now I was outside in a spa with no underwear on!

There aren’t many things better than the sauna in Finland, but nature is one of them. Finland is a sparsely populated country with plenty of clean nature. Most of Finland is covered by forests and over 100,000 lakes, most of which have very clean and even potable water. A Finn is perhaps happiest when he or she can combine the two pleasures of the sauna and Finnish nature. With the sun setting on the horizon late on a summer evening, casting a shiny bridge across the glassy calm surface of a lake, a Finn can spend hours bathing in the sauna, taking breaks to swim and just sit on the porch enjoying the peace and quiet. Sounds blissful…

The Finnish Sauna Society sums it all up in the words of the Finnish writer Maila Talvio: “There is nothing that Finns have been so unanimous about as their sauna. This unanimity has remained unbroken for centuries and is sure to continue as long as there are children born in their native land, as long as the invitation still comes from the porch threshold in the evening twilight: ‘The sauna is ready.’ ”

A link to some real saunas, not the pampered one I experienced 🙂