Mostly Nordic: floating in the Blue Lagoon

By Philippa Kiraly

The concert title sounded beguiling, and the performance lived up to it. The third concert in Mostly Nordic’s annual series at the Nordic Heritage Museum featured an Icelandic flutist with music by a half dozen Icelandic composers (plus some Prokofiev, the “Mostly” part of the series name), but it also included some of that country’s history and arts development.

I hadn’t known that Western instruments found their way to Iceland only in the 19th century, with the first brass band formed as late as 1876 and a symphony orchestra in 1925, while indigenous composing only got going in the 20th century. The arts now flourish there.

Melkorka Olafsdottir, the young principal flute of the Icelandic Opera, was a persuasive exponent of her country’s music, performing a variety of quite short works for solo flute and a couple accompanied by Mostly Nordic’s artistic director, Lisa Bergman.

The evocative, unaccompanied “Solitude” by Magnus Blondal Johannsson left one thinking of wide open, empty spaces, with its unhurried tempo and breadth and depth of range, ironically written years after the composer had moved to New York.

Four brief and contemporary settings of Icelandic folk songs by Arni Bjornsson for flute with piano from lullaby to lively were succeeded by Atli Heimir Sveinsson’s “Sounding Minutes.”

Olafsdottir explained the composer wrote 21 one-minute vignettes, each ended by a helper sounding a tiny gong at exactly one minute when the performer was to move on instantly to the next. With an audience helper, armed with gong and timer, she played five: Sounds of Women, Sounds of Rain, then Flowers, Fish and Sounds. Sveinsson used flute techniques we rarely get a chance to hear, except in a recital like this: fluttering sounds, double tones, overblowing like wind in trees, used to great effect, so that he really did achieve the sound of rain, and brought the idea of fish vividly to mind, all within an elegant modern harmonic frame.

A mischievous Oslo Reel by Porkell Sigurbjornsson, an interlude from music for a children’s play by Sveinsson and a lament by Askell Masson followed, and then “Lux” a work for flute and electronics written for Olafsdottir by Hugi Guomundsson. Originally, Olafsdottir explained, it was for solo flute backed up by 12 more flutes, and since that was impossible to travel with, the composer revised the work for an electronic accompaniment, in which she played all the flutes.

It’s hard to imagine how it could sound in the original version, as the flute group sounded quite otherworldly or echoing at times, like an organ at others, the whole with solo creating a fascinating ambiance.

Seveal works besides the “Sounds” and “Lux” required great technical ability which Olafsdottir encompassed as though the easiest thing in the world. Her fast light runs, her staccato or lighter spiccato, even once what sounded like a siren rising and falling under the note she was playing above, left the listener amazed at what this unassuming young player could do, while at the time she was always an expressive proponent of the music.

She and Bergman ended the concert with the big Sonata in D major, Op.94, by Prokofiev, sheer pleasure to hear. Despite very little rehearsal, the two performers seemed very much on the same page, in what Bergman described as a work that is “meat and pototoes” for the flute and piano literature.

The last two concerts in this series are Finland, May 22, and Sweden, June 5. As with all Mostly Nordic concerts, they end with a smorgasbord. Tickets at 206-789-5707, ex 10

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