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A 'beast' of new Icelandic music will premiere tonight at the Hollywood Bowl


Daníel Bjarnason, the 38-year-old co-curator of the L.A. Phil’s popular Reykjavik Festival this year, returns to L.A. for the premiere of his Violin Concerto.
Los Angeles has been good to Daníel Bjarnason. In April, the Icelandic composer and conductor co-curated the Reykjavík Festival for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On Tuesday night, Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto receives its world premiere at the Hollywood Bowl, with Gustavo Dudamel leading the L.A. Phil in a program with Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.”
Dudamel has conducted several premieres by the 38-year-old Bjarnason, including “Blow Bright, ” a work partly inspired by the composer’s reactions to the Pacific Ocean. Dudamel performed the piece on the orchestra’s North American tour in 2014, a career boost Bjarnason gladly acknowledges.
“The relationship with the L.A. Philharmonic really got the ball rolling, ” Bjarnason said by phone from Iceland. “After my 2010 album `Processions’ came out, that changed a lot for me, because it caught the attention of Chad Smith, the Phil’s VP of artistic planning at the time, and creative chair John Adams.”
Meanwhile, commissions and invitations for Bjarnason to conduct show no sign of abating. His brooding and ethereal new album on the Sono Luminus label shows the artist as a vibrant advocate of music from his homeland. The release features him conducting his own score, “Emergence, ” for piano, synthesizer and orchestra, as well as four other works by Icelandic composers.
Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the L.A. Phil and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, was planned as part of the Reykjavík Festival but delayed because Bjarnason also was working on his first opera, “Brothers, ” which had its premiere in Denmark last week.
The concerto will feature Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, a longtime friend of Bjarnason’s. The composer said the piece was inspired by the violinist’s curiosity and playfulness.
“It’s just something that happens, ” the composer said. “I’ve seen Pekka play all kinds of music, from Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, to folk music-slash-standup in a bar in Finland. He’s very improvisatory, always looking for new angles.”
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One new angle, suggested by Kuusisto, was detuning the violin with the lowest string tuned a fourth down. “That’s a lot, ” Bjarnason said. “Usually they are tuned by a half-tone or whole tone. It’s one of the things Pekka showed me when I started to write the concerto. It gives a certain resonance that I tried to exploit in the piece. There’s something macabre about the violin dropping down into viola territory.”
For Kuusisto, the customized tuning allows him to create harmonies that are not normally available to the instrument. Performed without a break, the concerto is in three sections, set off by two completely improvised cadenzas.
“Daniel is taking a massive risk, ” Kuusisto said of the total freedom the musician has in the cadenzas. “Even more than usual, each performance will be different. I try to make it match Daniel’s language in my own way. It’s like having a theater role written for you with two big scenes and you have to think of something that increases the power of the piece.”
Kuusisto has performed at the Bowl twice before: the Sibelius concerto in 1999, conducted by Leif Segerstam, and a salsa-style version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in 2006. Bjarnason’s been to the venue only once, to watch experimental rock band Sigur Rós perform in 2016.
“It’s a fantastic test for Daniel’s score to be put in an outdoor arena like this, ” Kuusisto said. “The Bowl’s vibe is so unique. It’s a really good source of energy, so if you manage to tap into the slightly surreal aspect of being in front of that audience, you’ll be able to dive in and enjoy the ride.”
Bjarnason said he’s curious to see how his concerto pairs with Holst’s “Planets” on the program’s second half, but Kuusisto is confident it will hold its own in such mighty company. “There’s a fairly large beast inside Daniel’s piece that will defend itself, ” Kuusisto said.
After being away from home for a month because of his new opera, and now being here in Los Angeles for the premiere of his concerto, Bjarnason said he needs a rest.
“It’s been a hectic year, ” he said. “I’ll be taking a bit of downtime, compositionally speaking, and doing more conducting in the fall.”
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