Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dämmerung – hommage á Arvo Pärt premiered in Berlin Philharmonie

In the beginning of this year I participated in a wonderful project I want to share with you. Andreas Peer Kähler, a german conductor, commissioned a piece from to be premiered beginning of this year at the Berlin Philharmonie by the German Nordic Youth Philharmonic. The orchestra is a project, like a masterclass, for young musicians from all around the world where they come to Berlin and stay there for a week while learning from professionals the skills of orchestra playing.

The piece was to be written to honour my favourite composer, Arvo Pärt, who turns 80 years old later this year.

For the event I composed a piece called Dämmerung – hommage á Arvo Pärt and is for a string orchestra and a soprano, which was performed by Tui Hirv. Dämmerung is composed to the poetry of Melitta Urbancic, an Austrian Jew who escaped to Iceland during the second world war. The piece was conducted by Simone Bernadini, a violin player from the Berlin Philharmonic, whose expertise really benefitted the performance.

Also I can not forget to mention what a privilege it was to work in the Philharmonie, the duchess of all concert houses. Unbelievable work of art it is!

Here is the annotation I wrote for for the premiere, to shed some light on the work's background.

Dämmerung – Hommage á Arvo Pärt

Dr. Melitta Urbancic (1902–1984) was a Jewish poet, actress, intellectual and a sculpture artist. She fled the Nazi regime in mainland Europe, came to Iceland with her husband, Vicor Urbancic, and their children in 1938 and settled there. Melitta grew up in Vienna, a metropolis of culture and art. She graduated with a PhD in literature from Heidelberg University. It is difficult to imagine how it has been for Melitta, a well-educated poet and actress to move to a country as far away, culturally as well as geographically, as Iceland in these times. There were 38.000 people living in Reykjavík; no palaces or gothic cathedral nor a large opera house, only timber houses with corrugated iron, a few stone houses and one prison. The streets had no asphalt and most people were poor. Iceland had not yet recovered from the financial depression after many years of unemployment and housing shortage. Melitta wrote poems about this experience and preserved them in a manuscript, not knowing if they would ever see the light of day.

When I received the commission for a hommage to Arvo Pärt, I immediately saw strong associations between his story and Melitta's. The Pärt family needed to emigrate their home country, Estonia, due to controversies between him and the Soviet authorities because of his creative output. The only people allowed emigrating were Jews returning to Israel. Arvo and his Jewish wife Nora decided to use this opportunity, but never made further than Vienna. The Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, a long-time friend of Pärt, had heard about their journey. He notified Alfred Schlee, the head of Universal Edition, who arranged the Pärt family citizenship and stipendium, enough to get settled, first in Vienna and then Berlin.

We can only assume what would have become of Pärt and his music if destiny hadn't interrupted in such manner. Would we ever have heard his music?

In 2011, Iceland was the honorary guest at Frankfurt Book Fair. On that occasion there was an exhibition in Vienna about the life and poetry of Melitta Urbancic. Icelandic writer and poet Sjón saw the exhibition and realized the importance of Melitta's personality for Icelandic culture. He approached Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the ex-president of Iceland, and her Institute of Foreign Languages about releasing Melitta's poems in Iceland. The exhibition was set up at the National Library of Iceland in 2014 and the poems were released in German along with Icelandic translations by Sölvi Björn Sigurðarson.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Website updated

I have added quite much new material to my website, please, feel free to check it out. There are excerpts there now from my latest pieces, that are all large scale works for orchestra, string orchestra or large ensembles. My list of works has also been updated and more info added to the biography.

Also, check out my facebook site as well so you can receive information about what's happening at the moment.

All the best to you,

Páll Ragnar

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Skálholt 2014

Me and Tui just came back from Skálholt, South Iceland, a former episcopal see since the year 1056. Today it serves as a church and a museum where concerts often take place. What brought us there was the premiere of my latest piece, Ljóðaljóðin (Song of Songs) for soprano, baritone and mixed choir at the Sumartónleikar festival, an annual event that has lived for 40 years, where I had the honour of being the composer in residence. Performers were Tui Hirv – soprano, Hafsteinn Þórólfsson – baritone and Hljómeyki choir. Conducted by Marta Halldórsdóttir. Also on the program were some of my older pieces for choir and some instruments: Davíðssálmur 141 (Psalm 141) for organ and choir, Tímamót (Watershed) for female choir and I Pray to the Sunbeam from the Window for 12 voices and string trio.

Me and Tui stayed there for almost a week during the rehearsals and then the concert. Everything about this trip was just fantastic, the beauty of the place, the nice accommodations and last but not least wonderful people that gave everything into the performance. And what a performance it was, simply brilliant!

Here are some pictures from the trip.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Recording with ISO

Last ast two days were spent recording my piece, Nostalgia, with Una Sveinbjarnardóttir on violin and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Daníel Bjarnason conducted. I composed the piece in the autumn of 2012 and it was premiered at Dark Music Days 2013 by the same orchestra, then conducted by Ilan Volkov. The recordings were done by the Icelandic National Braodcast Service.

Here are some photos from the session and then I'll add some excerpts when I have the final product.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Yfirráðandi kyrrð (Supremacy of Peace) to the International Rostrum of Composers in Prague on the 28th – 31st of May

On the 7th of April, my piece, Yfirráðandi kyrrð (Supremacy of Peace) was premiered at Estonian Music Days by Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Conducted by Risto Joost. The orchestra's performance with, Risto Joost's sharp and focused conducting, was fantastic and a got a strong response from the audience. Right after the concert I was approached by The Estonian Public Broadcasting Service where they offered me to send the recording to the International Rostrum of Composers in Prague on the 28th – 31st of May. This is of course a great honour for me and I'm very exited to be a part of this legendary event.

Here is the annotation to the piece, where I share some of the inspiration behind the music:

Supremacy of Peace

Northeastern Estonia is an area of sharp contrasts. Man-made ash-mountains of oil shale, glowing inside, are in a strange opposition with the peaceful surrounding of farms and cows. Villages that are half-empty because the factory they were built around has long ago been closed down seem like an unpleasant dream in the wild forest. In Sillamäe, a pond of nuclear waste lies next to the seaside where children are playing.

In Kuremäe, there is a convent. There, Mother Alipia told us “Here we have a sermon seven times a day. Psalms are sung every hour, day and night. We pray every waking hour. This we have done for one hundred and twenty years. That is why everything grows so well here”.

The piece starts in a loud, almost violent way. Tensions resolve and then build up again, transforming from masses of distorted sound to microscopic, ice-like textures. After a while this ice starts to crack and fragments start moving like molecules in a substance. When the tension rises up to the level of burning over, the textures start to unravel, like petals of a blossom. This is a long and purifying process where all energies come to rest. At the end of this journey we are greeted with a psalm.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Recording with Kammerkór Suðurlands

Kammerkór Suðurlands (The South Iceland Chamber Choir) recently recorded my piece Kom, skapari, heilagi andi (Veni Creator Spiritus) for mixed choir and tubular bells for their upcoming album of Icelandic contemporary composers. The recordings were done in Sundlaugin (The swimming pool), a recording studio built by Sigur Rós in an old swimming pool close to Reykjavík.

The choir's conductor is Hilmar Örn Agnarsson. Percussion by Frank Aarnink. Engineering by Silli Geirdal. Produced by Kjartan Sveinsson.

Here are some pictures from the session:

For more information, please check out my website!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Upcoming concerts

Náttúruljóð (Nature Poems) for soprano and string quartet will be performed at Tallinn Music Week in Mustpeade maja on April 6th by Tui Hirv - soprano, Ida Teppo - violin, Laur Eensalu - viola and Theodor Sink - cello. Poem by Sjón.

Undir yfirráðum kyrrðar (Supremacy of Peace) for 12 stings will be premiered on Estonian Music Days April 7th by Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Conducted by Risto Joost. 

Varjust varju (From Shadow to Shadow) for soprano and string orchestra will be premiered at Tartu Composers Festival on June 8th in St. John's Church by Tui Hirv and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Conducted by Mikk Murdvee. Poem by Indrek Hirv.