Ólafur Arnalds @ Town Hall, 28 September 2018

Sitting behind me, a couple discuss the differences and pleasures of seeing live events abroad. I know eavesdropping is generally, and rightfully, frowned upon but listening to them seems a more engaging way to entertain myself before tonight’s concert starts without resorting to scrolling through my phone. While I don’t mind attending concerts on my own, it is in these brief, quiet moments that I’m reminded of how alone I am. Listening to the young couple, however uncouth it may be, is at least comforting.

They are from different places and are discussing a recent trip she took to Iceland. He has never been. The topic is, in part, I imagine because tonight’s concert is by the Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds. But of course, and those who have also been to Iceland will vouch for me on this, the country is so beautiful that it’s difficult not to talk about it when given the opportunity. Iceland leaves you breathless but not lost for words. I had the pleasure of visiting in January and the young couple’s conversation brought back the best of memories from my time in Reykjavik and the surrounding area.

In winter, Iceland is bitterly cold and the snow storms are something else. On one particular morning, upon venturing outside into a blizzard and raising my arm, I lost sight of everything beyond my elbow. I swiftly returned inside. I have yet to experience the country in summer but I’m told by friends that the contrast is startling.

It is this contrast of bleak, blinding winters and the beautiful open vistas to be explored in spring and summer that shapes the spirit of Icelandic people like Ólafur Arnalds. Tonight’s concert represents that spirit very well. With summer’s last embers beginning to cool, tonight’s concert marks the perfect way to prepare, in one’s soul if nowhere else, for autumn and the coming winter.

The concert begins in near total darkness. One of two pianolas at the back of the stage begins to play. As the pianola finishes, Ólafur Arnalds takes to the stage followed by a string quartet. A drummer would enter later in the evening.

Tonight, the audience is expecting a blend of classical music blended with the electronic beats that make up Ólafur Arnalds’ sound. It is with surprise then that they hear Ólafur ask “Can you sing?” A Last Night of The Proms style sing-a-long was not supposed to be on the cards, especially this early in the concert. Thankfully, Ólafur was only asking the audience to hold one note. Capturing it, he then blended it into a wonderful second piece.

Ólafur Arnalds plays the kind of music that allows you to sit back, close your eyes and imagine the flowing rivers and rolling mountains of Iceland in your mind’s eye. His music is the ideal soundtrack to those vistas.

But this is not a concert where you want to close your eyes. Ólafur uses light to great effect, with strobe lighting taking on multiple personalities throughout the evening. It was particularly moving when used as lightning and as a sunrise–with a golden dawn illuminating Birmingham’s Town Hall.

Ólafur is keen to talk to the audience throughout the evening and during one interlude discusses the pianolas at the back of the stage.

“I wasted three years of my life on that! At least it was fun.”

When Ólafur moves to the back of the stage to play the pianola for himself, you can tell that it was in no way time wasted.

The concert’s main performance finishes with a piece from Ólafur’s new album ‘re:member’. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this is a very accessible way to discover him. The piece, Nyepi, is based on his travels in Thailand and is named after the day of silence celebrated in Bali. A day where citizens do without electricity, without conversations; a day to give mother nature a break from humanity.

Following a brief exit from the stage and a standing ovation from the crowd, Ólafur returns to to play one final song. A sweet, simple melody he wrote for his grandmother who had mentored him in studying piano and classical music.

It is a beautiful piece to finish on.

Reviewer: Gareth Jenkins

Image: Benjamin Hardman supplied by PR.

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