Folk Songs from the Far North

Skuli Thorsteinsson

It’s not a high profile concert series, but Mostly Nordic Chamber Music Series devotees don’t miss if they can help it. Just completing its 21st season, the series takes place at, where else, the Nordic Heritage Museum. Beginning each January, it presents five concerts, each representing one of the five Nordic countries and followed by a smorgasbord of food from that country—pickled herring is invariably on the menu! One of the joys of this series is the chance to hear music we rarely hear elsewhere, despite the Nordic countries having many fine composers besides Grieg and Sibelius, not to mention fine performers.

The last concert of this season, titled “Winds of Change—the Icelandic Spirit,” took place Sunday, with the sister/brother musicians Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, cello, and Skuli Thorsteinsson, guitar and arranger. Saeunn, who has played around the world and was a winner of the Naumburg Competition in 2008, has recently been appointed to the cello faculty at the University of Washington, while her brother, also a teacher and as well as a player, is based in Boston.

The “Mostly” part of the program was in the form of two Bach preludes, which they included since Bach wrote much of his work for Lutheran church services and Iceland is, they said, 99% Lutheran.  It only took a few notes to realize that these two are very fine musicians it was a privilege to hear in this close-up venue.

Skuli performed the D Minor Prelude BWV 999, originally for lute but easily transferrable to acoustic guitar. The hall was totally silent to hear this very soft instrument played with exquisite clarity and sensitivity to the music. Saeunn played the Prelude from the Suite in C major, BWV 1009, using care with baroque articulation and vibrato just as occasional ornament, in a thoughtful performance which also showed off the beautiful warm tone she elicited from her cello.

She also performed a Prelude composed by her UW colleague Melia Watras. This attractive short work had much the same sense as the Icelandic music comprising the rest of the program, as did Watras’ settings of two poems by the Icelanders’ great-grandfather.  Sauunn, who says she is not a singer, sang them as though to a child close by, like musing lullabies, accompanying herself.

A Celtic influence crept in with a changed tuning (the original Icelanders brought many Irish—Celtic—slaves with them), as Skuli played a composition of his own, with an atmosphere which is typical of the songs they performed later, like a gentle lament.

The second half of the program included nine songs, lightly arranged or transcribed for instruments by Skuli, leaving the original feel intact. Most of these were folk songs originally sung a cappella. Many had a cumulative feel of love and loss, some with a medieval tone using a drone accompaniment. A few were more lively and cheerful, but the overall impression had a darker poetic sense, even the lullabies. These were largely quiet songs.  Composer Sigvaldi Kaldalons composed a delightful set of variations on a simple jaunty little melody and the program ended with his setting of “Ave Maria.”

Music does not have to be loud or fast to be moving or musically interesting, and this concert had an attentive, engaged audience, judging by the silence in and applause after each work. Lisa Bergman, co-founder and artistic director of the Mostly Nordic series since its inception, steps down now with grateful thanks from all who have had anything to do with it. Her position will be taken by singer Laura Loge, the series to continue as it always has.