Sibelius’ First Symphony Warms Iceland Orchestra

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The Iceland Symphony made a loud and raucous opening-half impression in its Southern California debut at the Eclectic Orange Festival concert Sunday afternoon. After intermission at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the orchestra’s profile changed for the better, however.

The offending, noisy sounds came in the playing of Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto, conducted by the American musician Rico Saccani, with the gifted Icelandic violinist Judith Ingolfsson as soloist.

This was an exciting but metallic performance. Throughout, Music Director Saccani’s collaboration and the orchestra’s loudness seemed intentional but nearly painful in the ear.


Ingolfsson’s aggressive and intense playing showed an individuality one cannot ignore, yet her playing of the outer movements, though engaging, was also scratchy and characterized by bluster. In the central slow movement, she pulled back from pushiness and produced a beautiful and slender tone one had to admire.

And in the main business of the afternoon, Sibelius’ impassioned First Symphony established the Iceland orchestra’s high achievement in its barely half-century history. It is an ensemble of polish and security, anchored by a strong string body, with world-class woodwinds and a powerful yet mellow brass section.

Saccani produced a full-out yet never overstated performance of the demanding Sibelius score, shaping its inner workings and total impact with a sculptor’s finesse. Each section of the piece fit into his unified concept, nothing was forced and the composer’s continuity held. One was struck anew at Sibelius’ masterly integration of passion and restraint.

The overture to what turned out to be a satisfying afternoon was a most amusing creation by Icelandic composer Atli Heimir Sveinsson, a work called “Icerapp 2000.”

It is a six-minute kitchen-sink sort of piece of jokey, dancy, percussive character that occasionally asks the orchestra members to sing or to call out words. It has something to do with rap and everything to do with fun, and it is fun, as well as an exact opposite of Sibelius’ First.