Reykjavik: From exploding geysers to international star-studded gigs
by Rachel Halliburton | Time Out London | August 18-24, 2011
I’m looking out of my hotel window. It’s midnight, and the sun is still high in the sky. I’ve never done a white night before, and the whole insomnia-splashed experience shimmers with unreality. Today I’m here for the opening of the stunning Harpa Concert Hall, but my last visit to Iceland was in February 2000, to a rock festival where the guttural howling of some of the performers possibly suggested too many long hours spent in darkness. By contrast, in midsummer Iceland you feel irradiated with light, as if the bones of your body had been recast in crystal and you were a conduit for the rays of the never-setting sun.
Maybe the last sentence makes it sound like I’ve been drinking too much Brennivin – Iceland’s signature schnapps. But I’m in a country which – with its volcanic eruptions that sound like dragons roaring beneath the landscape and lava-rock terrains that look like the surface of the moon – seems to deal in several shades of otherworldliness.
In a phenomenon peculiar to regions close to the Arctic circle, people have recorded seeing the most bizarre things that have turned out to be nothing more than complex mirages. Watching it glittering in the impossibly bright white night, the Harpa Concert Hall is clearly not a mirage – the £150 million needed to build it clearly testifies to that – but as the polygonal glass bricks that make up its façade shift and wink their subtly changing colours in the Icelandic summer light, it’s easy to imagine that it might be. That sense is added to by the fact that some of its transparent exterior walls lean out at angles which seem to defy the constraints imposed by gravity.
Luminescence of the sky
The designer of the exterior – artist Olafur Eliasson – won a legion of followers in London with his installation piece, ‘The Weather Project’, at Tate Modern in 2003. Here, he again makes the weather his subject, but it’s about the luminescence of the sky, which is picked out in ethereal pinks and yellows that glimmer at you from the otherwise transparent surface. In the summer it naturally has a constant glowing presence. In the winter, LED lights will allow it to mark its distinctive form against the inky sky.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Harpa is that it was completed at all. When Iceland went bankrupt in 2008, a high-profile arts and conference complex was, unsurprisingly, no longer a priority, and the building work stalled. The usual jeers and shouts were hurled about how government money could have been better spent when building work started up again, but it’s undeniable that the organisers’ persistence has resulted in a world-class venue. When I talk to the flamboyant leading violinist and conductor Maxim Vengerov, he declares he ‘would place it among the top ten concert halls across the world’.
I meet Vengerov after a morning at sea, which – as well as yielding viewings of five minke whales and an abundance of puffins – demonstrates how the Harpa is already embedding itself in the local mentality. A crowd of kids on board whose main aim, it seems, is to jump up and down at the prow of the vessel as we speed out to sea and get soaked by the oncoming waves, fall silent as our cruise guide points out Harpa’s distinctive shape on the edge of the harbour; its contrast with the rocket-like Hallgrímskirkja (Lutheran church) and the old harbour’s wooden buildings is arresting enough to leave even these wet teenagers dumbstruck.
The Harpa is unsurprisingly bringing in international stars – Björk (obviously a local) will be performing in October, as part of her ‘Biophilia’ tour, Elvis Costello will be appearing in November, and a production of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ is running until October – but it’s also proudly scheduled a host of national events that draw on the country’s own musical heritage, an eclectic range that takes in Icelandic a capella, lieder and songs set to the poems and verse of the 1955 Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness.
The main hall holds 1,800 people, which has attracted comments from some quarters that a country with a tiny population like Iceland will have trouble filling it. On my visit, however, there seemed to be no such problem. The main inauguration of the building will be on August 20, but on July 8 Vengerov – who took a break from playing the violin in public in 2008 due to an injury – performed there as a major stop in his comeback tour. It seemed appropriate: a musician back from time in the wilderness helping to celebrate an economy that had spent its own time out in the cold. We gave him a standing ovation, and then headed out into the Reykjavik night, not forgetting, of course, to put on our sunglasses.
Copyright Time Out
Original URL: http://www.timeout.com/travel/features/953/reykjavik