Musical Surprises Await in Iceland

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SKÁLHOLT, ICELAND -- The Skálholt Cathedral stands on a low hill, visible for miles across the rugged landscape of Europe’s most sparsely populated country. The site of a music festival? In Iceland, anything seems possible.

The 90-minute drive here from Reykjavik takes one past Þingvellir, a national park where rocky canyons formed between two tectonic plates, providing a visual representation of continental drift. It is also where the world's first parliament was established, in 930 A.D. Nearby, fissures bubble and a geyser spouts steaming water 100 feet in the air.

Iceland is full of such wonders, not least of them being the ability of a country of 315,000 to support a large performing arts center, a full-time symphony orchestra, and dozens of annual music festivals.

The Skálholt Summer Concerts are collectively billed as Iceland's oldest summer festival, founded in 1975 and today emphasizing mostly Baroque and contemporary music. Music itself has thrived in this southern agricultural region for centuries; Skálholt was the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops, starting in 1056, and for centuries was the center of Icelandic Christianity. Yet for all its historical significance, the present white church in Skálholt is a modern building, erected from 1956-63 over the ruins of earlier ecclesiastical buildings.

The five-week Skálholt series emphasizes numerous Icelandic performers and composers. But there are some international groups too, including Corpo di Strumenti, a Paris-based early-music quintet, which concluded the festival on Aug. 2 with an afternoon of music by Palestrina, Castello, di Lasso and other 17th century composers.

If the program seemed a bit dour for a season finale, the setting was an only-in-Iceland experience, right down to the post-concert vista from the church doorway onto a timeless, wind-swept countryside. It offered a dramatic contrast with a previous day’s visit to the ultra-modern Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center, which opened in 2011 on the Reykjavik waterfront.

Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland
Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland (Brian Wise/WQXR)

Home to the Iceland Symphony and the Icelandic Opera, Harpa features a honeycomb-like glass façade comprised of 956 glass cube boxes. By day, the cubes play marvels with sunlight; at night, colored lights appear across its dark-blue surface.

As a friendly tour guide explained, the facility is intended to symbolize Iceland’s historical ties to Denmark, having been designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, and built by the Copenhagen-based Henning Larsen Architects. The building's four halls – of varying sizes, designs and flexible acoustic treatments – also host rock concerts and big-budget musicals. During the summer, a daily program called "Pearls of Icelandic Song" features native art songs performed by eager young singers. 

Harpa is also designed to be earthquake-proof, a reminder that in Iceland, nature's own unique drama is never far away.

Q2 Music will stream the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s performance at the BBC Proms on Sept. 6. The program includes music by Haukur Tómasson, Schumann, Leifs and Beethoven.

Interior of Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland
Interior of Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland. Along with four halls, there's a cafe, a high-end restaurant and a branch of the 12 Tónar record store. (Brian Wise/WQXR)