Sunday, February 22, 2015


On Monday January 26, 2015, Hartt's contemporary ensemble, Foot In The Door, flew to Reykjavik. After years of planning by composer Ken Steen and my conducting colleague, Glen Adsit, the group had been invited to perform at Myrkir Musikdagar -- the Dark Music Days Festival, which "provides Iceland's foremost platform for showcasing innovative and progressive contemporary music in Iceland." This was a prestigious call, notably because we were the only non-professional ensemble in attendance, and the only group performing two programs. All events were to be held at the new concert hall, Harpa, sitting on the edge of the water like a radiant ice sculpture.

The festival opened on Thursday with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra presenting a program that included a new violin concerto, featuring Sigrun Edvaldsdottir, the orchestra's concertmaster, as soloist.  Her brilliant solo playing was often relegated to the role of David to the orchestra's Goliath -- never before had I heard a concerto in which the orchestra alternately interrupted, ignored and pummeled the soloist with such force and reckless abandon.  It left me shattered, and to this day, I am still thinking about how the composer had completely re-imagined the (usually supportive) role of an orchestra.

On Saturday night, it was our turn.  A couple of months had passed since our last concert, so a date at SubCulture New York (a new hip, underground venue on Bleeker street) the day before we left helped us to get fresh again. As we do on all Foot In The Door programs at home and abroad, Glen and I took turns on the podium. We began by exploring Icelandic influences, including works by two young emerging Icelandic composers, as well as a work for solo violin and chamber orchestra written by Hartt student Ben Park, featuring Hartt alumna, Groa Valdimorsdottir, for whom the piece was written. To close the program, Glen led a beautiful rendition of a new work Ken Steen wrote especially for the festival.

To celebrate, we drove to Groa's parents' home after the concert, where her mother had graciously prepared fish soup and dessert for all of us. As many of us prepared to leave, Groa's mother exclaimed, "why is everyone leaving so soon?" I suggested that Chris Ladd give an impromptu guitar recital, beginning with a duet for violin and guitar which he and Asa Gudjonsdottir (another Hartt alum) had played so beautifully at an Icelandic high school the day before.  (Asa did not have her violin, but Groa quickly solved that problem.) 9 o'clock soon became 11 o'clock, so we said our goodbyes.

Our second program, featuring young American composers -- Nico Muhly, Derek Bermel, Jonathan Newman and Andrew Norman -- was extremely well received. Immediately after our concert, there was still one more concert, and if there was an award for busiest festival performer/administrator, it would have gone to Asa, who played one concert with us, another with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, and her last with the Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra.

Later that evening, all of us shared our final dinner together, and at 11:30, it was time to find a bar that was playing the Super Bowl. Seth, Ben and Brian Johnston (trombone) were all in, and Kristen Powell (bassoon), Elyse Vest (saxophone) and Shannon Vandzura (a flutist with no knowledge of football) decided to join us.  Seth had already done some scouting earlier in the week, and he led us to a bar with television screens everywhere, even on the window facing the sidewalk.  Unfortunately, the place was packed with people ignoring the game, and there was no room inside for our large group. And even though Reykjavik was a tad warmer than what we'd left behind in Hartford, watching the action outside on the sidewalk was not an option. A quieter bar down the street had the game on, so we settled there just as the first quarter was underway.

Super Bowl commercials were not part of the local telecast. At each game break there was color commentary in Icelandic by three guys, one of whom looked like he just stepped off a farm (though he appeared to know more about the game than the other two suits). Kristen, Shannon and Elyse left early, and to our dismay, the Patriots and Seahawks were not a priority for the bartender, who told us she was closing at halftime. (It was a Sunday, after all.) What to do? We returned to the other crowded bar, but just as we arrived, they locked the doors. And it was still too cold to watch from the sidewalk. Time for Plan B.

Earlier in the week, many of us received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik, inviting us to watch the game at their building on Laufasvegur, provided we respond by Thursday at noon.  I had done so, as had Ben, and with a little charm and cajoling, we thought we could get Seth and Brian in as well.  We went back to our residence, Aurora House, to collect our passports (required for entry), and then went in search of the embassy.  Fortunately, a driver was just dropping off other residents at Aurora House as we arrived, and when we asked him for directions, he kindly offered to take us there.

With Naoki Katakura (violinist), we were now five. At the front door to the embassy, they only had Ben's name on the list.  It was difficult explaining our predicament to the two Icelandic guards, and when another was summoned, he, too, was not very sympathetic.  He apologetically explained that, if we were not on the list, we could not watch the game. (While this was going on, Katy Perry's halftime show was filling the upstairs floor.) With Naoki's phone, I searched for the email I had sent to the embassy for proof; once found and read, one guard gave me an opening, saying ". . . . and you sent this email on behalf of the group?"  Of course, I had not, but a white lie was far better than throwing my students under the bus.  Moments later, we were passing through security and on our way upstairs. (For some reason unknown to all of us, Brian had brought his trombone, which was left in a closet for safekeeping, or for post-game improvisatory revelry.)

Once upstairs, we were greeted by a young embassy staffer named Marcie, who could not have been nicer. (Where was she when we were downstairs, fighting for our patriotic right to watch a game with 114 million other U.S. citizens?) There were about a half dozen tables with people watching a large screen television that fronted a cardboard cutout of President Obama and the American flag. The Air Force Network's commercials were even more pathetic than the Icelandic color commentary, but the game had been well worth our trouble, given the high drama at the finish. (Hang on . . . who won the game?)

We were back on the streets at 3 a.m., in bed by 4, and after a few hours sleep, just enough time for a quick dip at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in the middle of a lava field.  When we arrived in Boston later that afternoon, yet another snow storm greeted us.  But the warmth of blue waters, as well as that of my friends and young colleagues, had been the perfect coda to our week.

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