The arts in Washington, DC are an ever-evolving landscape. Being in the political center of the country we sometimes underestimate the resources that organizations have to present some of the greatest cultural diversities that the world has to offer.
Víkingur Ólafsson, rich in tradition, and even more rich in culture has added another treasure to their to collection in the form of Nordic Cool 2013. Alicia Adams, Vice President for International Programming and Festival Curator says, “Nordic Cool 2013 manifests the intersection of life and nature, art and culture. Appreciation of and respect for the natural environment are reflected throughout the Nordic countries – and they’re deeply rooted in the arts there, too.”
From the moment you enter the Hall of Nations, you see a towering exhibit called “Are We Still Afloat” which is a suspended ship divided in half, made up of 1000 shirts belonging to people from the DC area. This beautiful installation is just the first part of an entire experience the Kennedy Center has presented.
As you wind your way through the halls, you see exhibits to Nobel laureates; a gallery of art by noted Nordic artists (including a life size horse lamp); an interactive Lego display for children, as well as a myriad of iPads so you can play Angry Birds – all things that originated in Nordic countries. But the centerpiece of tonight, was the brilliant and emotional concert by pianist Víkingur Ólafsson.
When Mr. Ólafsson entered the Terrace Theater on Monday, he carried with a whim of charm and enthusiasm that told me I was about to have a good time. As he sat, he gently caressed the piano as if he was becoming in tune with the fine grand Steinway, and prepared himself (and us) for the musical journey we were about to embark on.
Starting with Three Intermezzos by Johannes Brahms, he playfully jumped around the keyboard while keeping the nuances of the simple melody relaxed yet refined. One of Mr. Ólafsson’s gifts as a pianist, is his ability to delicately stroke the upper register of the piano, without making it sound too forced. He had the perfect blend of touch and dynamic in this region, which made Brahms’ beautiful melodies resonate.
He next jumped into Jean Sibelius’ Sontata No. 1 in F Sharp minor. And he literally jumped. I am pretty sure that he started playing the first notes before he even sat down, like an excited child on Christmas morning ripping open a present in one strong motion. During the Largo section, he expertly navigated the cross handed section with great ease.
Following up, he delighted us with the premier of an original composition, written especially for this festival by Haukur Tómasson, one of Iceland’s foremost artists. The haunting chords put his listeners in a “northern state of mind” while his left hand rumbled fiercely on the bass, while his right hand gently played in the upper register.
He ended his first section with a trio of children’s songs by Claude Debussy. As he notes in the program, these are not for children, but about children, and the child inside the performer was out in full force. The final piece, Feux d’artifice, (“Fireworks”) was a great cacophony of sound that I was sitting on the edge of my seat, expecting to see a light show above the audience.
His second set was much more subdued than the first, but not in style or charisma. Performing a lyric piece (Klokkeklang – Bell-Ringing) by Edvard Grieg, he played the open fifth chords as if he were a one-man handbell choir, and then followed up with Grieg’s Holberg Suite – a set of dances originally composed for the piano, but more famously heard as a string orchestra. One of the many highlights of this piece was the fourth movement – Air (Andante Religioso), a beautiful dialogue between two counter melodies.
Before presenting his finale, he entertained us with some Icelandic Folk songs – beautiful songs that lamented on the Nordic climate and atmosphere. I felt both a sense of coldness from the chill of the music, yet warmth from the depth of the performance. The hallmark of this section was Ave Maria by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns – a masterful piece that had a beautiful arpeggiated accompaniment reminiscent of the Franz Schubert setting, yet a simple melody embodying Charles Gounod.
In his grand finale, he played Franz Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The pianissimo ending was a beautiful and appropriate way to say goodnight, under the Nordic Sky.
Mr. Ólafsson at the ripe young age of 29 has presented a concert full of passion and love while maneuvering around the keyboard with a sense of optimism and hope.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission.