Árni Heimir Ingólfsson – Melody, Myth & Musicology
December 22nd, 2008 | In The Spotlight
Pianist, Conductor, Musicologist, Author, Journalist and ISO Program Director are just some of Árni Heimir Ingólfsson’s working titles. One of the most active and erudite men working in Icelandic music today, Árni holds BM-degrees in piano performance and music history from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and master’s and PhD degrees in Musicology from Harvard University.
He has appeared in numerous concerts in Europe and the United States as a pianist, accompanist and choral conductor, and has lectured and published widely on Icelandic music, especially the music of Icelandic composer Jón Leifs (his biography of Leifs is scheduled for publication in 2009).
He is also the founder and artistic director of the Carmina chamber choir, which specializes in the performance of Renaissance polyphony. In 2007 the group released its first CD, Melódía, which won the Icelandic Music Award for classical recording in 2008. Ingólfsson was Associate Professor of Musicology at the Iceland Academy of the Arts from 2003-2007, when he was appointed Program Director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Last month, the ISO were nominated for a Grammy award.
Your musical activities are extremely broad: where does your interest in music originally stem from?
Well, I started taking piano lessons when I was six, but for a long time it was just one of many childhood hobbies and I didn’t really think about becoming a professional musician until I was about 16. That was when I got to study with two teachers who were enormously influential in my musical development: Jónas Ingimundarson who was my piano teacher at the Reykjavík College of Music, and Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir, the conductor of the Hamrahlíð choir. From them I learned the discipline you need to become a musician, and also through their inspired teaching I began to enjoy making music even more than before. But I’ve always been omnivorous in my musical interests. Of course I’ve been shaped to a large extent by my piano background, but then my love for choral music drew me into earlier periods like the Renaissance, and my interest in Icelandic music has led me to study the 20th century. There’s really very little music that I actively dislike!
What drew you to the piano, and to classical music in particular?
It wasn’t really my choice to begin with. My grandparents decided to give me music lessons for my birthday, and since we had a piano in our apartment it seemed like the logical instrument to learn. Still, I went through a phase as a teenager where I very much regretted not having chosen violin instead. For some reason my favorite concertos were always the big violin concertos: Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and not the ones for piano. My interest in the historical aspect of music came later, probably when I was about 14 or 15. It became something of an obsession, and I was fortunate that my English was good and so I could read all the books I could find on music history and musicology. I’m fascinated by the role music has played, and continues to play, in people’s lives, and by how perceptions of what music is and should be change from one generation to the next.
When did your conducting career begin – and what have been the highlights to date?
I don’t really consider myself a conductor, but rather a musician who conducts. My approach to music-making is a collaborative one, which is possible because I don’t work with large ensembles. My chamber choir, Carmina, usually consists of about 8-14 singers. There needs to be a leader, someone who gives directions and makes final decisions on interpretive things, but in the end I see the whole experience more as making music with my friends. The whole thing came about because I realized, when I moved back to Iceland after nine years of studying in the US, that there was no Icelandic vocal group devoting itself to performing Renaissance polyphony. It’s such gorgeous music and I thought it was a shame that the whole country was missing out on it. So I got some people together and we gave our first concert in Skálholt in 2004. It’s been a wonderful journey. The most memorable concerts are our concert with the Tallis Scholars in Langholtskirkja in 2006, and the first Icelandic performance of the six-part Requiem by Tomás Luis de Victoria, a Spanish 16th-century composer, in 2007. Also, winning the Icelandic Music Awards earlier this year was quite nice!
You have a forthcoming book on Icelandic composer Jón Leifs – can you give us a synopsis of his legacy, in both Icelandic and international terms?
Leifs is without a doubt the most important Icelandic composer of the 20th century. His music is dramatic, raw, primitive, and based on elements of Icelandic folk music like the rímur and tvísöngur. This was unheard of when he began composing in the 1920s. Icelanders were stuck in this Danish/German late-Romanticism that was completely derivative and epigonal. Then Leifs comes along and starts experimenting with a completely Icelandic kind of musical language. Some of his works were very poorly received at the time, and still some haven’t even been performed. I think he realized that what he was doing would take decades to become accepted. And because he’s such a unique voice, he is one of the Icelandic composers that has aroused interest internationally. People are fascinated by how evocative the music is, of the Icelandic landscape and the national character. It’s quite an achievement.
What works of Leifs have you personally performed or conducted – and what mysteries or magic can be found within for the contemporary artist?
My first experience performing Leifs was singing his Requiem – probably his most beautiful work – with the Hamrahlíð choir. I’ve also accompanied some of the songs, but actually Leifs hasn’t been prominent in my career as a performer. I actually rather like it that way, because it gives me a certain scholarly distance. I did my BA-thesis on his Organ concerto back in 1997, and I’ve been writing on his music on and off since then. I’m now putting the final touches on the first draft of my biography, which has been a laborious undertaking but completely worth it.
Do you think that Iceland’s vibrant pop and rock scenes hog the limelight in terms of contemporary music today – or do you think exposure and coverage is fairly distributed?
Yes, unfortunately. I think the pop/rock culture dominates the Icelandic music scene to the virtual exclusion of everything else. I wish the discussion could be more open-minded, on all sides. There’s so much interesting contemporary music that doesn’t fit neatly into categories, and so much "classical" contemporary music that I think a lot of younger audiences would enjoy tremendously if they could just be convinced to open their ears. Still, I’m cautiously optimistic that things will change. Concerts like Ísafold´s evening of Ligeti at Kjarvalsstaðir this fall, where new music was performed in an unusual setting, and with a large, young audience, could bring about a change in this attitude. But it’s also a question of the media trying to be a little more open-minded and not just interested in the hard sell.
In terms of traditional Iceland music, could there be more done do you think? Are there more ways of combining traditional with contemporary music for example?
There’s an endless amount of research to be done in terms of traditional Icelandic music and its history. We’ve got hundreds of valuable documents and manuscripts lying around in libraries, not just in Iceland but in Denmark and the UK, for example, and these still need to be studied and performed. Usually the biggest barrier is the limited funding for these projects, because they take a long time and the results may not be immediately obvious to everyone. I think there’s also much to be done in combining traditional and contemporary music. Some Icelandic "classical" composers use traditional elements a lot, and Sigur Rós had an interesting collaboration with Steindór Andersen, who is such a gem. Talking to him you feel like you’ve got instant access to a time machine, Iceland in the 18th century! But I’m still waiting for Björk to do a, let´s say, "folk song" album with crazy electronics and arrangements, taking it to a whole new level. It’s like we’ve got all these fantastic ingredients, and world-class cooks, but they’ve yet to be introduced to each other!
How has 2008 been in terms of Icelandic classical music?
Looking back, 2008 feels a bit dull. Partly I think the reason was the economic downfall. A lot of the big artistic projects of the last decade have relied on funding from banks and other corporate sponsors, and already at the beginning of 2008 it seemed obvious that these channels were drying up. So this means we have lots of artists with great ambitions but no money. I’m particularly sad that the younger generation of classical musicians – and I’m talking about really fantastic, world-class players here – doesn’t quite get the opportunities and the recognition they deserve. It’s becoming harder and harder to make a name for yourself in Iceland, not only because the "market" is more competitive, but also because the media are doing less and less to support even the big young talents.
You recently became Program Director for the ISO – was this something of an ambition for you? And what have been your principle acts as PD to date?
I’ve always been interested in arts management, because it has a really big impact on how a lot of people connect to the musical experience. I didn’t expect to get side-tracked from academia quite so soon, but it’s been a wonderful experience. I’m mostly responsible for the artistic decisions that involve putting together the concert season. Putting together many works on one program is quite a challenge. You want to choose styles, composers, and individual works that complement each other and create a strong, whole experience. It’s kind of like putting together a menu, where you don’t want one taste to drown out the others. Now I’m finishing up the blueprint for our 2009-10 season, which I think is very exciting. We’ve obviously got to take the economic situation into account in our planning, but I think we’ve found a way to do it without compromising our artistic integrity. There will be a lot of Romantic music by composers people love: Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven, Mahler, and also many young and very talented Icelandic soloists.
The ISO were recently nominated for a Grammy – how did this feel?
A Grammy nomination is a great honor, and in our case a completely unexpected one. This is the first time the ISO is nominated, and when you think of the stiff competition we faced in the category of orchestral performance, it makes the achievement even greater. Almost all the major orchestras in the world released CDs last year: New York, Berlin, London, etc. And yet an Icelandic CD of virtually unknown music by an obscure French composer makes the list… it’s almost too big to comprehend. We’re incredibly happy and proud, not just for ourselves but for Iceland to be on that list.
What have been the proudest musical moments in your life and career so far?
I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious, but there are lots. Many of my earliest unforgettable moments are being on stage with the Hamrahlíð Choir, singing Icelandic choral music in places like the Bergen Arts Festival. Also, working with Carmina on various really interesting projects where we perform 500-year old music for the first time in Iceland. I’m really proud of having released two CDs with Icelandic music from the 14th-17th centuries that had been virtually forgotten until I started digging up the original sources. These CDs, Tvísöngur and Melódía, are probably my proudest achievements.
What are your future plans for 2009 – for the ISO and other projects?
The first months of 2009 will mostly be devoted to completing our plans for the 2009/10 season and preparing our season brochure. Then I’ve got exciting summer plans: Carmina will record a new CD and give a concert of old Icelandic music at the Skálholt music festival. After that, I will spend a few weeks in Paris, which is a city I don’t know well at all, so I’m looking forward to experiencing all the magic for the first time!