Category Archives: Iceland

Ásgeir @ Melbourne Recital Centre

Little bears are at the Melbourne Recital Centre for the Ásgeir concert.

Ásgeir was 20 years old in 2014 when he became an overnight sensation with the release of his first all-English album In the Silence. The album became the fastest selling debut from a home-grown artist in Iceland, breaking all previous records and outselling Björk and Sigur Ros. Last year, Ásgeir released his second album, Afterglow, with a more melancholic electronica sound, and a departure from the folk-tinged acoustics of In the Silence. On both albums, Ásgeir collaborated with producer Guðmundur Kristinn Jónsson and his father, renowned poet Einar Georg Einarsson who is credited with writing the lyrics for Afterglow, alongside long-time musical collaborators Thorsteinn (Ásgeir’s brother) and Julius Robertsson.

When he was seventeen, Ásgeir held his nation’s record for the longest javelin throw. A future as an athlete seemed fairly secure. But a back injury threw a wrench into that dream, and he focused on his second love, music. By 2012, he had the bestselling album in Iceland, Dyrd í dauðathogn, a record of ethereal melody and melancholic meditation. An estimated 10 per cent of Iceland’s population of 323,002 bought his 2012 debut album. Two years later he recorded his vocals in English and rereleased the album as In The Silence, under the name Ásgeir. The album re-release in English made him one of Iceland’s major exports, along with raw aluminium and fish fillets. His indie-folk hipster vibe ensured a cult following in the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Denmark and it’s easy to hear why – its mix of organic instrumentation, lilting electronics and Ásgeir’s otherworldly voice hits a sweet spot between emotion and mystique. It’s a chemistry he’s kept bubbling on his follow-up album, Afterglow, which sounds a little livelier than his first album. It’s on the cusp of being positively cheery!, with elements of electronic music and a whiff of pop.

One of the most remarkable things about Ásgeir’s album In The Silence is the fact that his father, the poet Einar Georg Einarsson, wrote the lyrics. He’s also contributed words to Afterglow, as has Ásgeir’s brother Steini. It’s an odd choice for a young, international pop star, yet it makes sense considering Ásgeir’s childhood in a village of only forty people. There’s a tight-knit intimacy and soulfulness to the album that feels familial and warm, even as the music itself carries a glacial chill. There’s nothing conventional or expected about Afterglow, an album that submerges all ego and blissfully loses itself in oceanic imagery and crystalline soundscapes. At the same time, the songs are instantly familiar, like old friends, departed loves, or bittersweet remembrances. Ásgeir may no longer be hurling record-setting javelins, but in a gentler way, his songs soar even farther.

Afterglow album cover

Ásgeir struggled with his sudden success, at home and abroad. He won album of the year at the Iceland Music Awards and outsold the first offerings of Bjork and Sigur Ros. But the prospect of having to replicate that success froze him up. There was a big period where he didn’t feel inspired at all and was questioning why he was forcing himself to make music. To find inspiration, he went back where he grew up, wandering about the fiords and mountains, planting trees and tossing javelins. Where he grew up listening to Nirvana in his garage and composing music and recording songs with haunting melodies and gibberish English lyrics.

In the village near the sea that Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson calls home, there are six streets, 40 people and more sheep than anyone cares to count. The Icelandic ocean in springtime is inky blue and frigid. He would sit on the black sand, watching people run from the water screaming.

The 39 other residents of Laugarbakki, a remote dot in the country’s northwest, are mostly aged farmers and retirees. It is isolated, quiet and a little like living in a nursing home requiring low-level care. Ásgeir loves it.

Yay, the concert is about to start!

Photo by Anne-Laure Marie

The music is melancholic, contemplative and eerily beautiful, like a beach in bad weather. Ásgeir is not much of a performer, he doesn’t get the crowd going, he doesn’t say much at all to the audience. They don’t seem to care.

Photo by Anne-Laure Marie
Photo by Anne-Laure Marie

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

On the Concert Hall Trail in Northern Europe

The in-depth stories about each concert hall will come later, but little Puffles and Honey want to give a preview of their beary exciting musical adventures now 🙂

Northern Europe is the location of no less than four cultural venues with crystal-clear acoustics and breathtaking architecture. Little bears, of course, checked out all the locations for themselves 🙂

First Harpa in Reykjavik. The venue is unusually defined by its facade. It’s a powerful statement created by fusing the creative visions of Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and internationally acclaimed artist, Olafur Eliasson. The sparkling glazed fenestrations transform the public areas, which are now often seen as being almost as important as the performing spaces themselves.


It is probably no coincidence that although Eliasson is Danish, his parents are Icelandic, allowing the citizens of Iceland to have at least part ownership in this world-class success at a difficult time in their history.


Seen from the foyer, the halls form a mountain-like massif that similar to basalt rock on the coast forms a stark contrast to the expressive and open facade. At the core of the rock, the largest hall of the building, the main concert hall, reveals its interior as a red-hot centre of force.

Harpa main auditorium

Little bears attended Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert, a festive program also including Dísella Lárusdóttir, Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson and Margrét Eiríksdóttir performing opera favorites and classic christmas songs with the Reykjavík Opera Choir and Kópavogur Men’s Choir, accompanied by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason.


Little bears attended another two shows at Harpa, Arvo Pärt and Mozart and How to Become Icelandic in 60 minutes, a hilarious comedy that taught them how to say Eyjafjallajökull!

Elevenses at Harpa

Next on the list was Musiikkitalo in Helsinki.


Musiikkitalo deliberately reveals its treasures only after one actually enters the building. In the lobby huge panoramic windows look into the dark stained concert hall. Not only does the rather understated building have an auditorium with 1700 seats and five smaller halls – there are also three saunas!

Elevenses at Musiikkitalo – the cakes were very good, the salmon quiche is best never mentioned again!

Musiikkitalo was the least fun place to visit.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium

The stairs and stand of the auditorium are dazzling; the asymmetrical seats remind one of jammed rafts. The big hall resonates richly, but at the same time transparently; acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota was involved in the planning process from the start and did a great job here, where it is all about communication and not worship.

Musiikkitalo – Sibelius concert as part of the Finland 100 celebrations

Wozzeck at Oslo Opera House was also not fun. Not the most cheerful of operas! Just between us, we can say we were present at Wozzeck but not that we have really seen Wozzeck.

Oslo Opera House

The location, Oslo’s Bjørvika neighbourhood, was chosen because it was in need of urban renewal. The building had a subsidiary role in spearheading dockland redevelopment. Snøhetta opted for a roofline that rose from up from the waterline and the structure has been likened both to an iceberg and a stealth bomber that crashed into Oslofjord. The edges of the building can be used as a diving platform where they meet the water, and visitors can also walk up its sloping walls to the very top to admire the view. Passers-by often find themselves wandering into this fun structure without realising they have entered a concert hall.

In common with Harpa at present, the Oslo Opera House is surrounded by construction sites as the area continues to be renewed.

Oslo Opera House

Wondering around the opera house was a bit more fun 🙂

Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House

The Oslo Opera House has proved a remarkably successful building, although the general view remains that there is a lot of bloom to the sound and that the overall building is more visually stunning than its auditorium.

Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House

Little bears found Stage 2 where Jingle Horse! was playing, a Christmas collage of well-known stories with a new twist, sometimes funny, sometimes less so. The show was in English, none of the stories escaped parody and not much was off-limits! Not even Mary Mother of God or the refugee crisis.

One of the reviews said the ensemble acting was so strong that it could carry any kind of text you could imagine. That was certainly true!

Jingle Horse!
Jingle Horse!

But the main character was very cute indeed! And an excellent actor 🙂

Jingle Horse!
Jingle Horse

And yet at the end, everybody left the stage and left him all alone…

Jingle Horse!

Little Puffles and Honey went to the rescue… 🙂

Oslo Opera House – Stage 2
Big hug from Jingle Horse

Danish Broadcasting’s new concert hall in Copenhagen, DR Koncerthuset, is sultry, curvaceous and clothed in aromatic reds and oranges. It is also spatially deceptive.

DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset

The performance of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fabio Luisi was outstanding. It received a standing ovation and rightly so.

DR Koncerthuset

The Verdict on the Northern Lights Locations

Many moons ago, we selected a number of locations for the best chance of seeing the northern lights.

We have now visited all the locations and we have selected our favourite location for the northern lights: Tromsø. And not just because we were very lucky indeed to see the northern lights three nights in a row. As we have now discovered, there is a fundamental difference between the northern lights tours in Tromsø and the ones in Iceland, Sweden and Finland.

Given a clear and dark sky, suitable solar activity and a bit of luck, you can see the northern lights in each of these locations. You can choose to sit there and wait for the lights to come to you (it does happen!), or you can go find them! You might need a bit of help from the locals to find them.

The lights came to us both in Tromsø and in Abisko. It was playtime with little bears 🙂

Aurora display at Lyngen Lodge west of Tromsø
Aurora display at STF Abisko Touriststation

The tours from Tromsø essentially come under the category of chasing the northern lights, which means that the tour operators have a single focus, finding a location to see the lights. They will drive 150-200km if that is what it takes to find a spot with a clear sky and aurora activity. I did find it odd that in the small print of the tour from Tromsø with AuroraPhotoGuide it said to bring my passport, but now I know that they will go all the way to Finland if that is what it takes!

By comparison, the tours from Abisko, Sweden, and Rovaniemi and Levi, Finland, have a set location, and seeing the northern lights would be a nice experience while they are filling in the time with other activities. At least in Abisko we had a photography focus and took some interesting photos.

During the first “northern lights tour” in Rovaniemi I got quite cranky. I could imagine Geir (the aurora guide from Tromsø) saying, “did you come here to see the aurora or did you come here to cook sausages?” And worse, there were children everywhere! Needless to say, we didn’t see the northern lights. The cloud cover was thick and covered the sky as far as the eye could see. At the end of the night, the tour guide made so many cheesy comments about the failure of the tour that if I rolled my eyes any harder, they would have got stuck permanently backwards!

All the tours were pre-booked and paid for, so sausages or not, I went on a second tour in Rovaniemi the following night. There was an improvement, no children in sight! I mean, late nights, cold nights and children. What could possibly go wrong? The sky was perfectly clear but the aurora did not show up at that location. And we had to survive -25C while waiting for it! It took so long to cook the sausage that I gave up and ate it half cold!

I also scheduled two “northern lights night tours” in Levi, but cancelled the tour on the first night. It was cloudy with no chance of a clear sky, -25C was the maximum temperature that day!!! so I abandoned the tour, which was essentially snowshoeing. I went out on the second night for the experience of driving the snow mobile. I didn’t think we had any chance of seeing the lights, but I took my camera and tripod just in case. The snow mobile experience was a lot of fun, but we didn’t see any lights.

As for Iceland, we joined a tour called Northern Lights Escape. Yeah, right! Zero effort was made towards the northern lights aspect. Adding the ‘northern lights’ to the names of the tours has become a nifty marketing ploy. And if you get really lucky and see the lights, they will happily take the credit.

There are plenty of fun activities in all these places, but if you want to maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights, and getting some good photographs of them, you need to look for a tour like the ones in Tromsø where the focus is only the northern lights and nothing else. And stay off boats. They are not suitable for photographing the northern lights. If the ‘northern lights’ tour includes snow shoes, snow mobiles, huskies, reindeer or some other similar thing, then the focus is on the snow shoes, snow mobiles, etc. etc., and not on the northern lights. But a warning, a real northern lights night tour can take 6-7 hours to 2am. With no toilet break! Remember, you are not at an established location. Like Geir would say, did you come to see the northern lights or did you come to sleep?

Aurora display near Tromsø

Good luck!

Icelandic Yule Lads

Icelandic children get to enjoy the favors on not one but 13 Father Christmases. Called the Yule Lads, these merry but mischievous fellows take turns visiting kids on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. On each of those nights, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill. For good boys and girls, the Yule Lad will leave candy. If not, the Yule Lads are not subtle in expressing their disapproval: they fill the shoe with rotting potatoes.

Don’t think well-behaved Icelandic kids have a sweet deal all around, however. They may enjoy 13 Santa Claus-like visits, but they also have to contend with a creature called Grýla who comes down from the mountains on Christmas and boils naughty children alive, and a giant, blood-thirsty black kitty called the Christmas Cat that prowls around the country on Christmas Eve and eats anyone who’s not wearing at least one new piece of clothing!

The harshness of the winters and the poor and simple living conditions of the Icelanders over the centuries did not hinder the development of a fine literary imagination. As a result, Icelandic folktales are richly endowed with ogres, elemental beings, monsters and their like.

The most loathsome and hideous ogress of all is the giant troll, Grýla. She first appeared in a 13th century manuscript, has made regular appearances since then and is now an infamous figure familiar to all Icelandic children. There have been many different descriptions given of her over the years, each one more horrible than the last.


As mother to the Yule Lads, Grýla plays an important part in Icelandic Christmas tradition. Apart from looking hideous, she has, it seems, a real craving for stewed child. But not for little bears! 🙂 Not just any child though – it has to be a naughty, lazy or rude one. Over the years she became quite handy to parents as a threat, and was regularly used as a warning to badly behaved children.

Grýla sets off as Christmas approaches, a sack over her shoulder, ravenous for naughty boys and girls! Whether she’ll enjoy a feast or go hungry will depend on how good the little ones’ behaviour has been over the past year. One story has her dying of starvation because the children have behaved so well. But she is born again, at least in stories, each and every Christmas, and will no doubt continue to be for many centuries to come.


Over the many centuries of Grýla’s existence she has had any number of romantic dalliances, including an affair with Lucifer. But only three permanent relationships have been recorded. Her first spouse was known as Boli. Grýla, it is said, had many children with him. He lived to a ripe old age, and since he was a troll this means we are talking thousands of years. He was bedridden long before he eventually expired.

About the second, very little is known. All we can be sure of is that his name was Gustur and that when he died, Grýla ate him!

The third is the most famous. The father of the Yule Lads, he is still around, turns up every Christmas, and goes by the name of Leppalúði. He is almost amiable compared to Grýla but shares with his spouse a liking for stewed child. A lazy, slobbish, uncouth layabout, he allows Grýla to do all the scavenging for wayward children while he puts his feet up and keeps the pot bubbling in anticipation of her return.

Leppalúði and Grýla

The mother of the Yule Lads, Grýla, was not one for letting the grass grow under her hooves, and there are over eighty recorded offspring attributed to this lady.

Whereas the character of the malicious, grumpy Grýla has changed little over the centuries, the nature of the Yule Lads has undergone quite a transformation. When first mentioned in the 17th century, they were described as evil ogres, like their parents, and were used for threatening or motivating lazy children. So much so, that the authorities in 1746 felt it necessary to issue the following decree:

The foolish custom, which has been practised here and there about the country, of scaring children with Yuletide lads or ghosts, shall be abolished.

The 19th century saw them reduced to the thirteen rascally, petty pilferers that are recognised today. Their act has softened up considerably and they have even stopped eating children altogether!

In 1932 a small book of charming verses by Jóhannes úr Kötlum was published, called Yuletide is Coming (Jólin koma). The verses told the story of Grýla and her family and were an instant success, remaining popular to this day. With the accompanying illustrations by Tryggvi Magnússon, they have gone a long way towards establishing the appearance and character of the Icelandic Yule family as they are known today.

With their traditional, shabby farm clothes, and beards of various shades and sizes, the brothers have largely managed to fight off the foreign influence of chubby, jovial Santa. However, during the course of the last century, and much to the delight of children, the Yule Lads took up the custom of leaving small gifts. Obviously, Mr Claus must take some of the credit for this trend.

Instead of stockings on bedposts, Icelandic children leave shoes on their window sills. One wonders what it is with Christmas gifts and footwear?

Each of the Yule Lads sets off from the family home in the Highlands and travels on foot over the mountains, making their individual appearances one after the other, on the thirteen nights before Christmas. Like Santa, they manage to cover the whole country, as well as delivering gifts to all the Icelandic children living abroad, in a single night. (No wonder they are hungry.)

The first to arrive in city, town and farmhouse is Stekkjarstaur, the Sheep Worrier. His chief characteristic is a gangly walk due to the stiffness in his legs. He is probably one of the older brothers and may suffer from a touch of rheumatism. He gets his name from his old habit of sneaking into the sheep cot where, feeling rather thirsty after his long trek from the mountains, he would try to suckle from the ewes but fail because he was too stiff to bend down. Now, it is doubtful whether sheep would yield any milk in the middle of December, which suggests his IQ could be somewhat less than three figures.

Fortunately, in modern townhouses these days there is no bending required, and he is quite happy to help himself to a glass of milk from the fridge!

Stekkjarstaur, aka the Sheep Worrier

Second on the list of benevolent hit men, another thirsty lad, is Giljaguar, the Gully Gawk. In days gone by, this decidedly elusive character would travel under the cover of deep gullies and dark ravines, furtively skulking along until he reached a farmhouse. There he would sneak stealthily into the animal quarters and seclude himself until the milkmaid was distracted. Then he’d pounce upon the milk pail, first savouring the creamy froth on top, his favourite treat, before quenching his thirst with the fresh warm milk.

These days he has no taste for the skimmed milks and sterilised stuff that he finds in modern kitchens, but it is a case of make do or do without!

Giljagaur, aka Gully Gawk

The runt of the litter, Stúfur, or Stubby, is the third to arrive, though he is actually the first to set off. His little legs are so short and the snow is so deep that it takes him considerably more time and effort than his brothers to travel over the mountains. He is rather sensitive about his height, or lack of it, as it is a cruel fate to be the shortest member of a family of trolls.

You may not catch a glimpse of him on this particular night, as his size makes him adept at hiding, but the appearance of gifts the following morning is proof that he was there.

He’s another of the scroungers and hangs around the kitchen to scrape whatever he can off pans that the occupants, for whatever reason, haven’t managed to get around to washing.

Stúfur, aka Stubby

While the rich are said to be born with a silver spoon in their mouths, this character definitely got the wooden spoon. His lot in life is to loiter around dark kitchens waiting for spoons to be set aside so that he can grab them and scurry back to his hiding place to enjoy them in peace.

Anyone who has done any baking with children around will realise that the wooden spoons don’t stay sticky for long, and Þvörusleikir is a handy character to dump the blame on. But on 15th December, do him a favour and don’t wash up the spoons, as he is awfully grateful for any sticky-spoon-connected morsel that will help nourish his emaciated frame.

Þvörusleikir, aka Spoon Licker

It’s a good job these lads arrive at daily intervals, otherwise there would be a calamitous free-for-all, as they each head straight for the kitchens, suggesting that Icelanders might not be that prompt at doing the washing up! This suits Pottasleikir or Pot Licker, as his preference is for licking the leftovers off the sides and bottoms of pans, and especially for nibbling at the crunchy hardened bits that collect around the rim.

However, if he does come across a partly full pot, he won’t hesitate to gorge himself greedily until he is stuffed.

Pottasleikir, aka Pot Licker

Askasleikir, Bowl Licker, is the last of the lickers. His personal liking is for an askur, or traditional wooden bowl with a hinged lid. In the old turf houses, members of the household would each have their own personal askur. The lid helped to keep the food warm and presumably protected it from any household pets. But is was no protection against Bowl Licker. He would hide under a bed (the bedroom doubling as a dining room in the small turf houses), waiting for the time when the dishes were set aside on the floor. Then, when the owners were distracted, he would sneakily snatch the dishes and lick them clean. How he manages these days, when the old-style askur sits unused in museums, is not recorded.

Askasleikir, aka Bowl Licker

Hurðaskellir, or Door Slammer, is a frustrated percussionist, loud and boisterous. He likes to creep in under cover of darkness, as quiet as a mouse, and then bang on a door as loudly as he can, just for the fun of it. He often rushes from door to door, slamming each in turn, pausing only to enjoy the squeaks and creaks of old, unoiled hinges. This, as you can imagine, is not altogether welcome when he arrives in the middle of the night and wakes the whole household.

He is one of only two brothers who are not totally obsessed with their stomachs.

Hurðaskellir, aka Door Slammer

First it should be explained that skyr is a dairy product, similar to yoghurt, but made from separated milk. In the past it consisted of straightforward curds, but these days it is available in various tasty fruit flavours.

In general, Skyr Gobbler has had a better time of it than most of his brothers, as there was almost always plenty of skyr to be found in the farmhouse in the past and these days most household fridges will contain a pot or two of strawberry, peach or some other delicious skyr concoction.

Skyrgámur is renowned for being a glutton and will stuff himself until he is bursting at the seams.

Skyrgámur, aka Skyr Gobbler

In olden times, bjúgu (large sausages, approximately six times the size of a hot dog) were hung in strings from the rafters out of reach of cats, dogs and children. Although Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage Stealer, is advanced in years, he is still nimble enough to climb stealthily up to the highest rafters. But these days the chances are as slim as himself of finding any food hanging up there. He is more likely to find what he’s looking for vacuum packed in the fridge.

Bjúgu are still available in the shops but the popular American hot dog is rapidly taking their place. Who knows, in years to come Bjúgnakrækir might even be re-christened “Hot Dog”.

Bjúgnakrækir, aka Sausage Stealer

The Peeper, as tradition has it, is a very shifty character. He loiters around windows, peeping in when nobody is about. He is always on the lookout for little knick-knacks that he can pilfer later on when everybody is ticked up in bed, fast asleep. If a child catches him looking in, Gluggangægir has a reputation for pulling funny faces to make himself look scary.

This Yule Lad believes that fair exchange is no robbery, and, as he always leaves presents in shoes, he considers a little pilfering perfectly acceptable. You can be sure he often gets the blame for ANY small objects that go missing at this time of year.

Gluggangægir, aka Window Peeper

From far away over the mountains. Gáttaþefur, or Door Sniffer, gets his first whiff of the sweet-smelling “leaf bread” being cooked. Even with his eyes closed, he is guided by his highly developed sense of smell towards kitchen doors behind which Christmas delicacies are being prepared. Flour, until fairly recent times, was very much a luxury commodity in Iceland, and baking was kept for special occasions such as Christmas.

Once he has sniffed his way to a kitchen, Gáttaþefur’s genetic make-up means he is a compulsive cake thief, and when the opportunity arises he never fails to take advantage.

Gáttaþefur, aka Door Sniffer

In the past, 22nd December was known as Hlakkandi (Looking-forward Day), because it was around this day that children started to anticipate the arrival of Christmas.

The penultimate Yule Lad is most definitely a carnivore. Meat is what he likes, any sort, and lots of it.

It was the simplest of exertions in days gone by to climb up onto the roof of an old turf house. There, with the aid of a long, stout hook, Ketkrókur would reach down the chimney and snag hold of a leg of smoked mutton or any other meat that might be hanging from the rafters. Or he might have reached further down (no doubt he had, and still has, lots of implements for different situations) to hook a morsel from a pot cooking on the hearth.

It was customary in the olden days to eat smoked lamb on St Þorlákur’s Day, 23rd December. However, these days, possibly to foil Ketkrókur, a tradition from the west of Iceland has become more generally accepted; that of eating skate on this day. The large, flat fish is hung for quite some time, until gamy, which means it has a most unappetising odour. This dish is decidedly an acquired taste!! Quite what Meat Hook thinks of the new development, nobody knows.

Ketkrókur, aka Meat Hook

The tradition of giving lavish gifts at Christmas is a relatively recent one. However, the giving of candles on 24th December stretches back for centuries, a fact of which the last of the Yule Lads is well aware. Before the advent of electricity, children used the candles to brighten up the darkness in celebration of Christmas, but the hungry Candle Beggar would have devoured any he could lay his hands on. In those days the candles were made of tallow (animal fat) which – while not exactly delicious – was at least edible and would have helped to keep a wiry Yule Lad warm on his long journey back to the mountains.

These days Kertasníkir is still an avid collector of candles but he has to satisfy his nutritional needs by other means.

Kertasníkir, aka Candle Beggar

As if Grýla and all her mischievous offspring were not enough, the poor Icelandic children have to contend with the Yule Cat as well! A grossly overgrown house cat turned feral, it is cold, mean and ravenous. Instead of hunting mice like a normal-sized feline, it preys upon children – but not just any children. The Yule Cat s quite discerning, choosing only those who haven’t recently been given something new to wear!

It skulks across the frigid winter landscape, its yellow-green eyes glowing in the dark. Its teeth are sharp and its claws drawn ready to pounce on any poor, unsuspecting children whose uncaring parents have failed to provide them with a fresh item of clothing for Christmas.

Nobody knows where it comes from or where it goes, but on Christmas Eve, when the candles were lit, the Yule Cat would peer in through the window. If it saw each child of the household clutching a parcel containing something to wear, it would hiss and scowl and continue on its evil way.

Keeping warm in the Icelandic winter was, and still is, the number one priority. Children in the not-so-distant past were called upon to help with the preparation and production of new garments.

The spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing were performed, to some extent, by children. Until fairly recently in Iceland, all clothing came direct from the sheep. The wool had to be washed, combed and spun before it was painstakingly crafted into a garment. It was a long, arduous process. To make sure the children worked hard and concentrated while they all huddled round the light of a meagre flame, adults would put the fear of God into them with horrific tales of the Yule Cat.

These days every good Icelandic parent still makes sure that at the very least there is a new pair of socks or gloves for the kids at Christmas time – just in case! Because on long, dark, windy winter nights a faint, sinister caterwauling can sometimes still be heard.

Yule Cat
Yule Cat

From “The Yule Lads – A Celebration of Iceland’s Christmas Folklore” by Brian Pilkington.

The Icelandic Yule Lads are amongst some of the most curious Christmas Creatures of Icelandic folklore and are said to come down from the mountains every December to cause all sorts of havoc in the name of Advent. Each year the City of Reykjavík plays host to these Yule Lads, plus a number of other fascinating Christmas Creatures, who take up residence on some of the city’s most prominent buildings during Advent.

Arvo Pärt and Mozart at Harpa

Harpa – Norðurljós recitall hall

Consternation! There is no stage to pose on! 🙂

Little bears are at Harpa for a Friday series concert. The standard program features solo works paired with an orchestral work performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

Tonight’s main soloist is Víkingur Ólafsson, who is widely considered Iceland’s pre-eminent pianist. Víkingur is no stranger to Harpa. He performed at the concert hall’s opening event in 2011, and has premiered several new works there, performing regularly with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. In 2012, Harpa started hosting his annual chamber music festival, Reykjavík Midsummer Music. Needless to say, he’s grown very fond of the place.

Víkingur Ólafsson

Víkingur Ólafsson has shot to international fame due to his playing of Philip Glass. But tonight he is playing Arvo Pärt and Mozart.

Although Mozart and Arvo Pärt belong to two different periods, they have much in common artistically. Their music is pure and uplifting, often with a simple surface overlaying inner complexity. Für Alina for piano was a watershed in Pärt’s career, in which he found his own voice after a hiatus of many years. The Mozart-Adagio is Pärt’s piano trio arrangement of a gorgeous movement from one of Mozart’s piano sonatas.

Mozart’s piano works in c minor, written in 1785-1786, are unusually dark and tempestuous – even a sort of harbinger of the type of expression frequently associated with Beethoven. The Fantasia for solo piano is a perfect prelude to the concerto. In both pieces, Mozart explores the depths of the soul in a different way than he had previously done. Víkingur Ólafsson does double-duty as soloist and conductor, leading the orchestra from the piano, as was done in Mozart’s day.

Für Alina (1976)

Nicola Lolli, violin and Víkingur Ólafsson, piano

Arvo Pärt went into a self-imposed creative exile for eight years, trying to find a way to resolve the creative conflict that he had opened up in Credo (1968). His Third Symphony, from 1971, is the only piece that dates from this transitional period, an attempt to fuse elements of the traditions Pärt was drawn to: Gregorian chant, harmonic simplicity, and the spiritual explorations into his Russian Orthodox faith he undertook at the same time.

In 1976 he succeeded in his quest, and the result sounds as if it had existed all along, music of the “little bells”, the so-called “tintinnabuli”, which you hear for the first time in this two-and-a-half minute piano miniature, Für Alina. This little piece is the seed from which the rest of Pärt’s musical life has grown: in the space of just a couple of years, Pärt composed the pieces that are still among his most popular today, including Fratres, the Concerto for two violins, Tabula Rasa, Summa, and the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. These works helped establish his international reputation, especially in the West.

Mozart-Adagio (1992)

Nicola Lolli, violin, Víkingur Ólafsson, piano and Sigurgeir Agnarsson, cello

This short piano trio was written by Arvo Pärt in memory of his friend, the Russian violinist Oleg Kagan. Kagan is particularly renowned for his chamber music partnership with his wife, cellist Natalia Gutman, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Kagan had become seriously ill with cancer in 1989 and died a year later aged 43 in Munich. 216 years earlier in the same city, the 18-year-old Mozart had written his Piano Sonata in F K.280. Its Adagio, in the form of an F-minor Siciliana, has an extraordinary tragic power emphasised by poignant use of the semitone interval of a minor second (as in the opening three notes). Pärt’s reworking of the Mozart Adagio is respectful and moving.

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian classical composer and one of the most prominent living composers of sacred music, whose shimmeringly beautiful music is a curious and compelling blend of the secular and the sacred.

He was born in Estonia in 1935. In 1939 the Nazi-Soviet Pact handed the country to Stalin, and Pärt grew up under Soviet rule. That did not preclude a sophisticated musical education. At school he studied piano, percussion and oboe, and at 14 he began composing. Within three years he had written Meloodia, a solo piano piece in the style of Rachmaninov, which was commended in a young artists’ competition.

In 1954, he was called up for National Service in the army for two years. On his return from National Service, Pärt studied at the Tallinn Conservatory with Heino Eller, then a leading Estonian composer, whose teaching provides a thread running through modern Estonian music. Besides Pärt, Eller taught the great symphonist Eduard Tubin, who left Estonia in 1944; and his last student (Eller died in 1970) was Lepo Sumera, one of Estonia’s leading contemporary composers. By no means a modernist, Eller was tolerated by the Soviet authorities, and Pärt recalls him fondly: ‘There is only one central composition school in Estonia, and it’s Eller’s school. He gave me a path, but this path was very broad. He didn’t push in any direction, he supported you even if what you wrote wasn’t exactly like his own credo. He was very human, and it was a vivid apprenticeship.’

Still, it was not easy to be a composer in Estonia. In 1961, Pärt wrote what is widely acknowledged to be the first piece of Estonian serial music, his oratorio Maailma samm (‘The Stride of the World’), a work no longer included in the composer’s catalogue. The authorities regarded serialism as Western and decadent, and Pärt could not but come into conflict with those who controlled musical life, especially since much of his work was overtly religious. For many years he made his living working in radio and film, while writing music that struggled to find an audience.

In 1968 the authorities criticised Pärt’s work Credo, because its religious title seemed to challenge the pillars on which the Soviet Union was built. It seemed impossible for Pärt to be true to himself while also pleasing the authorities and so he hardly wrote a note during the next decade.

In the first half of the 1970s, Pärt’s health, damaged during his time in the army, recovered. He also joined the Russian Orthodox Church and married his second wife. A period of close study of medieval music led in 1976 to the style which Pärt labels ‘tintinnabular’ in recognition of his quest for a bell-like simplicity. Eventually the unending frustrations of Soviet life caused Pärt to emigrate in 1980, and he has lived in Berlin since 1982.

Pärt’s music relies on his deeply held faith and is infused with the centuries-old traditions of European church music, but it is for each listener to make up their own mind whether his music really is ‘religious’.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, K491 (1785-1786)

Víkingur Ólafsson with Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Mozart composed 12 piano concertos during the years 1784-86, an astonishing feat given the originality and exceptional quality of these works. To a large degree, much of their originality lies in the sonority and textures resulting from the expanded role of the wind instruments. Mozart was so taken with the abundance and abilities of the wind players in Vienna, that he used them in his scores as a distinct “mass” of sound against which the voice of the piano could be pitted, or to which it could respond in an interplay of motivic and timbral dialogue. In this sense, Mozart’s woodwind writing in this series of concertos figures prominently in the articulation of their forms; the winds no longer simply double the strings but function structurally as “dramatic personas” in their own right.

One of only two concertos Mozart wrote in a minor key, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K491 possesses a much darker, stormier nature than his previous piano concertos. The kaleidoscope of angst and emotions bundled inside of this work are far beyond those presented in Mozart’s previous concertos. A minor key signature establishes a distinctly different character than that of previous piano concertos. The foreboding character set up through the minor key signature is continued through the changes in structure and form, allowing for the introduction of more themes and contrasting ideas than most concertos. The synthesis of themes between orchestra and soloist also work towards the dark and turbulent character presented in this piece.

Premiered in Vienna on April 7, 1786 at one of three subscription concerts by Mozart, K491 was the last piano concerto of both his time of highly prolific piano concerto compositions, as well as his “Figaro season”. A dramatic change from his previous piano concertos, it was written only twenty-two days after the premiere of Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major and is regarded by many to be “one of Mozart’s most popular works in any genre.” One of Beethoven’s favorite pieces, Beethoven commented to his friend Johann Cramer after hearing a later performance of this concerto that “we shall never be able to do anything like that!” Many critics have noted the menacing, emotional mood of this concerto, describing it as having “an unrelenting, tragic character” that has a “gloomy agitation, but… a major mood, violent and energetic, to be sure, but not ‘tragic’.”

The fact that this concerto is written in a minor key departs from compositional norm of the time. This choice of a minor key illustrates a deliberate conveyance of something different, moodier, and more tempestuous than past concertos. German American musicologist Alfred Einstein, in describing the significance of different key signatures for Mozart observed that “If G minor is the fatalistic key for Mozart, then C minor is the dramatic one, the key of contrasts between aggressive unisons and lyrical passages. The lyrical quality is always taken over by gloomy outbursts.” Mozart’s use of C minor as a dark and emotional key had a large influence on Beethoven who later wrote his Pathetique Piano Sonata No. 8 in the same key, most likely hoping to express the same emotions of emotional turmoil presented in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.

The torrid turbulence of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor is achieved through a variety of compositional techniques. The choice of a minor key signature, unusual for the time, sets up a more expressive, emotional turmoil than a major key signature would.

The innovation in dialogic interaction between the orchestra and the soloist creates a darker and more foreboding sound as well as providing a vaster array of themes. While Mozart’s piano concertos typically start with a dialogue like interaction between the orchestra and the soloist, K491 does not incorporate any of this direct interaction of dialogue in the initial theme. The first four notes of the orchestral introduction are never played by the soloist. The removal of this dialogue between orchestra and soloist at the beginning creates a more hostile, foreboding sound than the back and forth sharing of themes found at the beginning of previous piano concertos.

The topics expressed in each of the themes synthesize the symphonic storminess of the orchestral expositional theme with the more subtle conflict and struggle of the ascending and descending motives in the soloist expositional theme creating a highly emotional and stormy character. The form of the piece differs from previous concertos possessing a longer exposition into the relative major key as well as introducing more themes.

Finally, the expanded instrumentation of the orchestra gives the piece a larger range of sounds and dynamics to draw from to portray its emotional conflict and stormy nature. The vastness of the orchestra K491 is written for creates a sense of storminess and passion that a smaller orchestra would be unable to produce. Counted among one of the “symphonic concertos”, the instrumentation of Piano Concerto No. 24 includes not only the traditional instruments found in most piano concertos, but also a particularly large woodwind section with oboes and clarinets. The vastness of the instrumentation for this concerto adds to the stormy contrasts of emotions and volume of this concerto. Containing flute, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings, oboes, and clarinets the palette of colors, tones, and harmonies enhance the dark and stormy character being created in this concerto.

The pre-concert talk was not optional! Each piece and composer was introduced in depth, and in Icelandic 🙂 , as part of the concert.

For the encore, Víkingur Ólafsson played Philip Glass’ Etude No. 9.

There Once Was a Puffin

Oh, there once was a Puffin
Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the bright blue sea!
He ate little fishes,
That were most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea.

But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn’t play nothin’,
For he hadn’t anybody
To play with at all.
So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.

Then along came the fishes,
And they said, “If you wishes,
You can have us for playmates,
Instead of for tea!”
So they now play together,
In all sorts of weather,
And the Puffin eats pancakes,
Like you and like me.

Icelandic pancakes at Cafe Paris

by Florence Page Jaques