The ISO Project Presents an Occurrence

cover DSL-92243

BJARNASON: Violin Concerto.* VAKA: Lendh. TÓMASSON: In Seventh Heaven. JÓNSDÓTTIR: Flutter.+ JÓHANSSON: Adagio / *Pekka Kuusisto, vln; +Mario Caroli, fl; Iceland Symphony Orch.; Daniel Bjarnason, cond / Sono Luminus DSL-92243

According to the booklet notes, this is the third and last CD devoted to music by contemporary Icelandic composers played by the ISO, including by the orchestra’s conductor, Daniel Bjarnason. The names are mostly unknown to Western audiences, as is their music.

The program opens with Bjarnasson’s Violin Concerto, which begins with the solo violin plucking a few notes while someone whistles along with it. Then a few tremolos from some of the orchestral strings come in as the soloist plays his quirky, atonal melody. The tempo increases and falls back again; the orchestral strings, now playing loud pizzicati, urge things along but the tempo remains rather amorphous and, it seemed to me, in a very irregular meter. The piece is in one continuous movement lasting 23:41, with some very energetic, almost explosive episodes along the way. The solo violinist, at least early on, almost sounds like a giant intruding insect on top of the orchestra, though it quiets down for a brief spell while the massed forces engage in some musical turmoil.  I found this to be a consistently interesting and innovative piece, certainly one of the finest compositions I’ve heard in recent years from a conductor-composer who is not named Esa-Pekka Salonen. It bears a familial resemblance to the music of Swedish composer Kalevi Aho, at the very least a cousin in terms of sound underlying structure and surface excitement without resorting to the usual slam-bang-edgy devices so overused nowadays, particularly by American composers who think themselves original by using the exact same devices over and over.

I was, however, a little perturbed by the purposely rough, edgy, microtonal figures played by the soloist at about the 9:20 mark. These seemed to me a bit of pandering to those who like to hear punk rock influences in classical music, something I abhor. Fortunately, this episode doesn’t last too long, and we get back on track as the basses in the orchestra stealthily come in behind one of the soloist’s lines. In the next sequence, the soloist again plays somewhat edgy figures, but this time almost in the rhythm of a very fast hoedown. I’m not sure if the soloist is doing this or two violins, but there is clearly another (high) violin line being played over the first…and then our whistler returns for a jolly little interlude. It ends quietly.

Next up is Lendh by Icelandic-Canadian Veronique Vaka (b. 1986). The notes claim that “Her work intends to create a poetic context between what she sees, hears and feels in the unspoiled nature.” Here we have the formulaic opening of so much modern Western music, the loud thud or clang (in this case a thud) followed by atonal figures, but in Vaka’s case they move slowly, like dinosaurs across a frozen tundra of sound. For the most part, this score consists of slow-moving, pitch-fluctuating tone clusters which create a strange ambience. A trombone choir plys a brief interjection, but for the most part the scoring consists of strings (both high and low) and a few woodwinds. My sole complaint of this work was that it went on too long (11:36) but said very little.

In Seventh Heaven was written by Haukur Tomasson (b. 1960). It is quite different from the previous two works in that it is rather chipper and upbeat, using upward-moving high wind and string figures, sometimes overlaid on one another. The open chording almost reminded me of Copland, but in a more modern context. The music is primarily bustling and effervescent, although with some ominous moments tossed in by the bass trombones. Later on, it is the tympani that thump down below.

Flutter, by Thuríƌur Jónsdóttir (b. ? ), is one of those ambient sound type of compositions, mostly of sound effects with occasional atonal whines from high instruments and percussive sounds produced by others, that simply say nothing and do not impress me. Mostly, it sounds like a dog panting while isolated atonal notes are played by members of the orchestra and a lot of percussion knocks around in the background. Big deal. It also has the defect of being far too long (20 minutes) for what it has to say, which really is nothing.

Next up is Adagio by Magnús Blöndal Jóhansson (1925-2005), considered the first really modern Icelandic composer. The notes tell us that, after the death of his wife in the early 1970s, he composed nothing until around 1980 after fighting a long battle with alcoholism. This Adagio, a really stunning work based on a few simple motifs, appeared suddenly that year, and is considered to be his last major composition. It consists of a few simple gestures by soft, mid-range strings, a few thumps here and there from the basses, and a celesta solo.The ISO plays it with great affection.

An interesting album, then, and one worth hearing despite my misgivings about the Vaka and Jónsdóttir pieces.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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