Just when you thought Icelandic music had nothing to offer beyond singer Bjork and post-rock band Sigur Ros, Mélomanie ups and offers a superb entree to the vibrant and varied musical traditions of this island nation.
Sunday’s concert at The Delaware Contemporary (formerly The Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts) featured internationally known Icelandic violinist Eva Ingolf on electric violin as well as two World Premieres by composer Mark Hagerty: Raven Thoughts (Hrafna Hugsanir) and Icelandic Songs, Sacred & Secular (Islensk log, helg og veraldlega).
The concert kicked off with two rare gems by Scandinavian Baroque composers Johan Helmich Roman and Johan Aggrell. Roman was the first native Swedish composer of international influence, earning him the titles “the father of Swedish music” or “the Swedish Handel.” He traveled extensively throughout Europe, exposing himself to a variety of musical styles, chiefly from Handel and other contemporary Italian composers. The combination of flutist Kimberly Reighley, cellist Douglas McNames and violinist Christof Richter brought out the Neapolitan influence of Roman’s Trio in G minor with its restless harmonies and continually shifting melodic gestures.
|Mélomanie performs with guest artist Eva Ingolf (far right). Photo by Tim Bayard.|
Ingolf offered a performance of her own composition, Lava Flow, a sonic description of the 2011 eruption of Grimsvotn, Iceland’s most active volcano. Searing high notes and a violently cascading melodic line call to mind the magnitude of the event which was the largest in Iceland in 50 years.
That performance warmed her up for the World Premiere of Mark Hagerty’s Raven Thoughts (Hrafna Hugsanir), a four-movement work for solo violin. The raven (or hrafn) is an important bird in Icelandic folklore. It is said that the Norse god Odin had two ravens that counseled him.
It is the intelligence and communication skills of these big black birds that inspired Hagerty to compose Raven Thoughts, which posits ideas — rather than any specific representation — about ravens. Ingolf’s playing is sublime and her articulation and tone impeccable as she moved through the urgency of “Danger,” the intense tragedy of “Loss,” the loopiness of “Flight” and the accomplishment of “Survival.”
Members of Mélomanie joined Ingolf in a performance of the program’s second World Premiere, Icelandic songs, sacred & secular (Islensk log heig og veraldlega) again by Mark Hagerty. It was Ingolf, whom the group met when they visited Rio in 2014, who introduced Hagerty to these traditional Icelandic songs that range in character from the robust to the elegant and hauntingly beautiful.
Hagerty preserves the character of these folk songs with quintal harmonies while imbuing them with a contemporary texture. The coupling of Ingolf’s electric violin with Donna Fournier’s viola da gamba in the sixth song Raven’s Song (Krummavisur) was stunning. The work was a perfect expression of Mélomanie's mission: the paring of contemporary and early — in this case medieval — music.
The only departure from the program’s Nordic theme was Partita 622, composed for Mélomanie (and included on its CD Excursions) by Mark Rimple. Written in 2008 following the death of his stepmother, the piece centers around the fascination she had with the number 622, which was reflected in the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars the day she died. Rimple structured the work around these three digits: the ritornellos appear six times, always a perfect fourth (2 + 2) higher before the composition ends, while the intervening passages are generated by multiples of and powers of 6 and 2.
Although written at the time of a death, the piece is not a lament but rather the contemplation of a mystery, in this case, the complexities of life. The title “partita” represents the “starting out” on a journey. Melodic themes are frenetically tossed among the instruments in a dissonant soup, until at the apex of tension, the themes are gathered in a slow sarabande-like postlude as the mystery remains.