Review: Sigur Rós rocks the L.A. Phil in the name of Reykjavík

Music Critic

It was yet another Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night concert. The orchestra’s conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was once again on hand. The orchestra, as usual, had invited a big-name soloist. And the L.A. Phil, well known for attracting young audiences, had drawn a lot of young people to Walt Disney Concert Hall.

A violin concerto by a hot young composer, Daníel Bjarnason, was commissioned for the concert, the orchestra known for commissioning hot young composers. The score wasn’t finished in time, which happens all the time, and was replaced by a Bjarnason U.S. premiere (with the new concerto rescheduled for the Hollywood Bowl in August).

For the record:

5:05 a.m. Oct. 6, 2022An earlier version of this article said the Sigur Rós show was an L.A. Phil subscription concert. It was not.

OK, maybe the L.A. Phil did give the world premieres of 11 other works from trendy composers, small pieces in the five-minute range, or an hour of brand new music. And maybe that solo act was something special, namely the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós. Oh, yes, the evening was five hours long, but even that was not a first for this orchestra.


But how about this: For the three-night run ending Saturday, the program has been changing, including even more premieres.

On top of all that, these three concerts come in the midst of the Reykjavík Festival, an 11-day exploration of Icelandic music, mostly classical but also pop and a little visual art and film as well. (As an add-on, Björk will appear with orchestra in a Disney concert in May that sold out almost instantly, because you can hardly do Icelandic music without Björk).

The Thursday concert began early and small and kept getting bigger as the time got later and later. The regular pre-concert talk in BP Hall was preceded by a mini-concert from Nordic Affect, an Icelandic early music quartet (three strings and harpsichord). It gets young Icelandic composers to write for it because Iceland had no Baroque composers, the country’s classical music tradition being less than a century old.

BP Hall had been Iceland-ified for the festival by the artist known as Shoplifter. You may know her from the mask she designed for Björk on the cover of “Medúlla,” and her Disney Hall site-specific installation turned the space into a playground, garlanded with multicolored hair extensions, which also framed a video screen above the stage.

You could complain, and I will, that the Icelandic scene seems dominated by men, although the Icelandic composers that excite me the most happen to be all women. Happily for 15 minutes this was an all-women event, framed by two works from Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir — “Loom” (a world premiere) and “Clockworking.” Both, accompanied by haunting videos (respectively by Dodda Maggý and Thorbjorg Jónsdóttir), are beautifully crafted process pieces full of tiny events hidden in typically Icelandic snowy sonic mists that start to magically reveal themselves. Out of the mists of the middle work, Hildur Gudnadóttir’s “Point of Departure,” came a middle section of rhythmic grooves and Baroque instrument players singing pa-pa-pa like a girl band.

Disney’s main hall also was a sight. Besides the orchestra set-up there was Sigur Rós’ equipment and its light saber poles, all designed to create rock ’n’ roll anticipation for a three-part program with two intermissions. That, unfortunately, meant the Schola Cantorum Reykjavík chamber choir, which introduced the orchestral program with five short a cappella pieces, was treated by too many rock fans with the disrespect of a warm-up band. (Even Sigur Rós’ manager had to be told to turn off his cellphone.)

The singers made a super-quick trip through Icelandic music from early folk song through a modern updating (and world premiere) of Medieval myth by Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson. Salonen then began the L.A. Phil portion with Hlynur Adils Vilmarsson’s “BD,” a dozen minutes of slow-moving music teaming with strange sounds. Then, in each of the three extravagantly orchestrated movements of Bjarnason’s “Emergence,” what emerges from this equally slow music is focus and climax.

A well-known feature of Icelandic music is the porous nature of the classical and pop worlds. (Its literate pop scene is what has made it so striking.) Vilmarsson and Bjarnason have worked on pop recordings. So it was not much of a stretch for the L.A. Phil to ask eight composers — including Bjarnason, David Lang, Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli — to write arrangement for orchestra and band of some of Sigur Rós’ songs.

It was, however, more a stretch to pull this off. The three-member Sigur Rós, which gets so much of its haunting sound on records from the wailing falsetto of Jón Thór Birgisson and the band’s ethereal instrumentals, is far more conventional on stage. Rather than have some meaningful interaction with the composer, the band banged out its songs, leaving Salonen and the closely miked orchestra as mere background.

The order of the songs was not given in the program. The lighting was dark. A few moments did stand out, beginning with Bjarnason’s string writing for “Á” heard before the rockers came (sneaked is more like it) on stage. Even Sigur Rós couldn’t cover Anna Meredith’s effusive orchestrations of “Fljótavik”; Dan Deacon got effectively churchy with “Festival” and Lang ended “Hrafntinna” with a glorious brass chorale (after the band had sneaked off stage).

Sigur Rós’ solo set came after the second intermission. The band got happy fans bopping and dancing in their seats. But I thought the set tired.

The lighting was rock generic. Many artists have lighted Disney Hall more imaginatively.

You can’t abuse your voice for more than a decade and keep a pure falsetto, and Birgisson hasn’t yet come up with an effective second act. Like so many Icelandic musicians, Sigur Rós develops its often irresistible material with a slow determination, and that came across quite well, but the sonic intricacies of band hit a wall — namely the lively Disney acoustic — when it let amplification, not its music, carry it away and manipulate a fan base the easy way.

Still, the L.A. Phil Reykjavík Festival is a festival like no other, even from an orchestra that makes a habit of making festivals like no other. For the remaining orchestral programs, only the Sigur Rós/L.A. Phil set remains the same; Nordic Affect, the Schola Cantorum and Salonen’s orchestral pieces all change.

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Reykjavik Festival: Sigur Rós & L.A. Phil

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Tickets: Sold out (other Reykjavik Festival events still open)



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