Iceland's hall comes through hard times
by William Littler | The Toronto Star | May 20, 2011
Behold the puffin: black above, white below, its triangular beak striped orange. Physicists tell us it should not fly, yet it does. And you wonder why Iceland puts puffins on its postage stamps?
Like that hardy, physics-defying bird, this tiny island nation of only 320,000 people, isolated in the mid Atlantic, specializes in the near-impossible, the latest evidence rising from the harbour of Reykjavik in the form of a brand-new, multicoloured glass-sheathed, world-class concert hall, rejoicing in the name Harpa.
In Icelandic, a language so little changed through the centuries that Icelanders can still read the medieval Norse sagas, harpa traditionally means harp. But today Harpa means much more.
It is, as President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson observed at a reception honouring its official opening, a symbol of victory over the greatest financial catastrophe suffered by the island republic in living memory, the collapse of its banking system in October 2008.
Harpa was already under construction when the bad news arrived. It was a public-private partnership project involving a major conference centre as well as the country's first major concert hall.
With the private partner lost to the economic downturn, the question facing the national and civic governments was whether to abandon the long-planned project, in the face of pressing economic and social needs, or to press ahead. Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdottir, artistic director of the new facility, is not alone in thanking the governments for deciding to go ahead.
“From the day of my first piano lesson this hall was portrayed as the promised land for music in Iceland,” she recalled in an interview prior to the official opening last week. “It is unique that a country has waited so long for its music hall. A long history of hoping has kept us going musically in Iceland.”
It is probably also unique that a country so small has achieved so much musically, from rock acts such as Sigur Ros and Björk to a symphony orchestra with an international touring and recording career. On a per-capita basis Iceland likely boasts more composers than any other country on earth.
All this helps explain why the two levels of government acted as they did. Petur J. Eriksson, chairman of the board of Portus Group, the organization charged with the facility's construction, also points out that the $90 million (all figures U.S.) already poured into the project by its private partner could be written off, leaving them with a $160 million bill for a structure that would cost $240 million were they to start over.
“We had a choice,” he says, “between abandoning it to make Harpa a symbol of two years of failure or by completing it to make Harpa a symbol of a richer life for 100 years to come. Parts of the project have been delayed, such as a hotel, offices and restaurants next door, but when the conference facilities are ready we will be poised to attract interest from both sides of the Atlantic.”
Although much of the building remains unfinished, the 1,800-seat concert hall has already, through concerts presented throughout its opening month, showed itself able to stand comparison with the finest modern venues in Europe and North America.
To the pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who became an Icelandic citizen following his defection from the Soviet Union, fell the honour of conducting the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in a series of preview concerts featuring Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the beginning of the month.
The official opening took place Friday of last week, a four-hour marathon in which the Finnish maestro Petri Sakari took over the baton for a program that ran the gamut from music from Verdi's Don Carlo, sung by the Icelandic Opera, to solo piano music performed by one of Iceland's rising young talents, Vikingur Heidar Olafsson, to a series of rock performances, the whole event culminating with a reprise of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
An open house the following day featured performances not only in the main hall but in two smaller venues as well and the day after that, children invaded en masse to watch Harpa's mascot, a music-loving cartoon mouse named Maximus Musicus, join the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on stage.
By all accounts, Icelanders have already taken Harpa to heart, and no wonder. Henning Larsen Architects of Copenhagen have worked with artist Olafur Eliasson to give the Icelandic capital an iconic building, in collaboration with Artec, the New York-based acoustics - and theatre-planning firm responsible for the successful acoustical renovation of Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall.
As Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdottir explains, with pardonable enthusiasm, “From the first sound in the new hall, it was as if we had died and gone to heaven.”
Copyright The Toronto Star
Original URL: http://www.toronto.com/article/686065