Hallfríður Ólafsdóttir – Maximus Musicus Roars On
May 25th, 2009 | In The Spotlight
Hallfríður Ólafsdóttir is the author of the best-selling children’s book, Maximus Musicus, the tale of a mouse that visits an orchestra. Ms. Ólafsdóttir, a flute player with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, wrote the book in 2008, with illustrations from ISO violist Þórarinn Már Baldursson, and a symphonic concert of the book was made last year featuring famous compositions from Ravel, Copland and Beethoven, amongst others.
The concert had now been performed several times to great acclaim and Maxi the musical mouse has become a household name amongst Iceland’s younger generation. The book is to be published this month in Korea and the Faroe Islands and the concert programme will also be performed by the Faroese Symphony Orchestra at the end of April.
The educational managers of some of Europe’s greatest orchestras have also showed great interest in the program and have travelled to Iceland to see and hear the show.
When did you come up with the idea of Maximus Musicus, and how did it come about?
It’s unusual but in fact I know exactly when the idea popped up in my head! It was on a day that I had been waiting for, a day in November 2005 when The Iceland Symphony Orchestra performed Ravel’s ballet music, Daphnis and Chloe. This piece has the biggest, most famous and exquisitely beautiful flute solo ever, and it’s every flute player’s dream to play the solo flute part with an orchestra! So, on that day I took some time for myself in peace and quiet to prepare for the big evening. There, in the silence, the vision suddenly came to me of a small character that would come on stage and see the goings-on of the orchestra with the eyes of the little ones. He immediately had his name, Maximus Musicus.
I knew that I wanted the book to be accompanied by a CD with all the sounds and music as well as the narration, so my first step was to contact the chief conductor and artistic director of the ISO, Rumon Gamba, and ask whether this was something that the orchestra would be willing to do. I got a very positive response from both him and the manager of the orchestra, Þröstur Ólafsson, and after we’d established a collaboration with the publishing company and the State Radio the recordings were planned as well as the work on the text and illustrations.
Have you had any experience in education or teaching before?
I have always loved children’s literature. Also, I have during my twelve years in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra been very interested in the educational programmes that we’ve done as well as pedagogy in general and the art of teaching, having taught flute students of all ages since I was studying myself. Also, I have two children that at the time were 6 and 8 years old. I had just come from a trip to America and had been looking for a gift for them amongst the children’s books in a concert hall. None of the books about music fitted their age, they were either too childish or too theoretical. So, I guess that in my subconscious all these threads were combining to make this idea come about although I’d not had any intention of writing a book.
What other inspirations were there?
There’s a piece for flute, guitar and a story-teller that I have performed many times for play-school age children. It’s an old story about the four winds that an Icelandic composer, Árni Harðarson, put music to. That has provided me with useful experience in introducing music to pre-school children. Of course we all know the classics, Peter and the Wolf and Tubby the Tuba. The difference between these pieces and the Maximus concert is that they are pieces of music that have been written for a story, Maxi’s tale is a story written for music.
What made you choose the major compositions involved (Ravel, Copland, Beethoven)?
I wanted to be able to show different instruments and combinations of instruments in the main piece. Ravel’s Bolero has a great tune that is repeated with various soloists and combinations of sounds, it’s a masterpiece in instrumentation. Besides that, I needed a separate piece to show off the brass and Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is a great showpiece. It also begins with a big bang and I needed that to wake Maxi up after his afternoon nap. Another piece was needed so that the "rehearsal" in the story would make sense and I thought that Beethoven’s Five would be a funny piece to play while the mouse is recovering from his adventure in the tuba, munching crumbs backstage.
The inclusion of “Á Sprengisandi” sounds like it was a perfect denouement. Has that always been a popular tune in Iceland?
Á Sprengisandi, or On Sprengisandur, by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns, has been a very popular song in Iceland for a long time, one of the songs that children learn at a very early age. It was included for three reasons; I wanted to have one Icelandic piece, a sing-along piece and, besides the fact that it is immensely popular here in Iceland, it is the all-time favourite encore of the ISO, especially abroad. Whenever we play this piece the hall simply erupts with applause, it’s a fun piece.
"Maxi’s Song" is one of your own compositions, is that right?
Yes, well, Maxi’s Song is the only composition of mine, besides the tune I made at the age of seven. Maxi’s name has a lilt that translated itself into a tune in my head and adding a few runs to it made up a simple tune that seems to work. A colleague calls it an ear-worm because it sticks to your brain. The text and music for Maxi’s Song was sent out to play-schools to enable them to prepare the children and it’s also possible to listen to the tune on the ISO web site so in the concerts they all sing along.
Was Þórarinn Már Baldursson involved from the outset, or only after you had devised the concept?
Þórarinn’s involvement came early in the process. I had him in mind from the beginning, as I’d seen some of his hilarious musical cartoons, which I hope will be published sooner than later!
How difficult was it to adapt the story to the stage?
The concert programme is almost the entire story, we only leave out a little bit. The illustrations are projected onto a screen and my colleagues in the ISO were very positive and willing to act out some of the events of the story. They stand up for their solos, pretend to be looking for things, stand up and stretch, and even leave the stage at one point, shed the casual top that is concealing their concert dress and don their jackets etc. in only a few minutes, arriving again on stage in full concert dress. I am told that this creates a most magical metamorphosis.
How did the premiere go?
The premiere went extremely well. We started off with a few days of play-school concerts and the book arrived from the printers only days before. So, it seemed like the end of a journey for me, the book and everything being ready. Then we played the first concert. The hall was packed with 4-6 year olds with the bustle that follows that kind of a crowd and we are used to during those concerts. But then the story began and there was this deep and completely unexpected silence and the electricity of intent listening. I sat there in the orchestra and thought, Oh, my God, this is not the end, this is just the beginning. We have now been introducing Maxi to other orchestras because of how well it works.
Has it already inspired many children to become involved in music?
Almost every time I go out I meet someone who will tell me about a child that simply loves Maxi and listens to the CD all the time. They listen to the story with the all the sounds and music floating in and out around the narration and then they listen to the pieces as they come in their entirety after that, without narration, so they are also getting used to listening to long pieces. Many have chosen their favourite instrument and I love the comment from the 4 year old boy who had wanted to be Spiderman but now wanted to be Fiddleman!
Will you take the show out internationally, and if so, how will you adapt it for international audiences?
The Maximus Musicus Concert Programme has already been performed in the neighbouring Faroe Islands and there has been interest from orchestras and publishing companies both far and near. We have prepared a concert package, now ready in English and German, with the scores and parts, all the instructions, illustrations and manuscripts so that any orchestra should be able to do this with the instructions provided. We give the option of exchanging the Fanfare for another one and there’s also the possibility of adding another short sing-along piece.
Do you hope that MM will become part of Icelandic/children’s folklore in many years to come?
Well, Maxi seems to already be a household name within the youngest generation and I do hope that he will continue to lead children into the wonderful and magical world of music in times to come. We are now preparing the sequel, Maximus Musicus Visits the Music School, with young children playing with the orchestra and there are more ideas about further adventures of his in the music world that I hope will see light sometime in the future.