Kvennakór Akureyrar: from Akureyri to Riverton

Last night, I ,and a group of my friends, went to Riverton, Manitoba, to hear the Kvennakór Akureyrar, the all woman choir from Akureyri, Iceland.

Akureyri is Iceland’s second city. It only has 18,000 people in a country of 320,000 but its size is no measure of its historic or current importance. The local economy is based on fishing, local industry, and tourism.

Harley Jonasson receiving gifts from the choir for all he had done in arranging the choir’s visit and being mc for the evening.

Given the size of the city, it is surprising, at least in Canadian terms, that is has a symphony orchestra, several choirs and music schools. There is a long tradition of singing and choir music in Iceland. That may be attributed, at least in part, to the vigour with which the Lutheran bishops stamped out all frivolity. They even went so far as to get the Danish king to pass a law saying that Icelanders were not to spend their time in social activities unless they were religious. Also, Iceland was the poorest country in Europe. There were few musical instruments. However, creativity and pleasure will prevail and Icelanders had the best musical instrument of all, their voices. There were hymns worth singing. No one could stop a shepherd singing a secular song in valleys and on the hillsides. At the annual gatherings at the trading stations and the sheep roundup, there were opportunities to sing in groups. Church attendance was taken seriously and even where a minister could not officiate regularly, people gathered and worshiped themselves. Those events also provided the opportunities to raise their voices to the Lord.

Times have changed and the Akureyri Women’s Choir now has a repertoire that includes Icelandic and foreign folk songs, works of world music, classical choral works, gospel, musical numbers, and choral arrangements of popular Icelandic and foreign songs.

The choir’s director, Daniel Þorsteinsson, has studied in Amsterdam, has performed as a soloist and chamber musician and accompanies solo singers and choirs. He teaches at the Akureyri music school, works as an organist in Eyjafjörður and conducts a local church choir.

In the first part of the program which was made up of all Icelandic songs, the centuries of influence of church music was apparent. Even though “Jesú min morgunstjarna” was classed as an Icelandic folksong from Hólabók, I felt the church in every chord. Because I´ve been reading much of Icelandic history, it was enjoyable to listen and imagine that this was the sound people heard in the 17th Century.

The second half of the program was made up of foreign songs. Of these, those that captured my immediate attention and held it were a Norwegian trilogy. These were traditional Norwegian folk songs and, if the samples in the program are indicative, the Norwegians got to have more fun than the Icelanders. In songs like “God morgen Ola Reppom” with the animals in the barnyard greeting the day, there is lightness and laughter.

Alma McCaffrey, Rosalind Vigfusson, Borga Jakobson, Daníel Þorsteinsson. The song performed was Rosalind´s composition but the evening generated even more local pride with the presence of Borga Jakobson (translator of The Young Icelander) and her daughter, Alma McCaffrey. Borga’s father-in-law was the poet whose words formed the lyrics of “Minni Íslands’.

However, the highlight of the evening was “Minni Íslands”. The words were by the poet Böðvar Jakobsson and the music by well known musician, choir director, Rósalind Vigfússon, from Arborg. Daniel said the poem was long but the choir was going to sing all of the song so everyone should just sit back and relax. It was easy to do that. The song and music were a pleasure to listen to.

Rósalind, for all her years performing and leading others in performance, looked both happy and a bit embarrassed by all the attention. It was a wonderful and deserved compliment to her to have her work performed by such an accomplished choir. She has spent years organizing and training a young people´s Icelandic choir. Before this performance of her work, she´d only heard it performed by her own youth choir. As her choristers have grown up, it has proved more difficult to get young people to join a choir to learn to sing in Icelandic. However, she has been approached by many people who’ve suggested that she start an adult choir and she hopes that might begin in October.

Along with everything else she does, Rósalind travels from Arborg to Gimli on Friday evenings to join a local group that plays and sings at the nursing home, Betel. Her musical life encompasses a wide community, bringing pleasure to people whose health is poor, whose lives need to be lightened and, on the other hand, she is also able to listen to one of her compositions being performed by a highly accomplished choir from Iceland.