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Symphony in the North: Akureyri’s Best Kept Secret

With the number of talented musicians, bands, and singers clustered around the capital area, it is easy to forget that music is a vital part of Icelandic life and culture around the country. Nearly every small town and fishing village has its own music venue, favourite local singers and musicians, and choirs.

 

The North Iceland Symphony Orchestra

As Akureyri grew into the “capital of the north,” it decided to make its love of music more official. The Chamber Orchestra of Akureyri was formed in 1987, comprising mostly of talented graduates from the Akureyri Music School. After going through several conductors and performing many concerts, the group changed its name in 1993, becoming the North Iceland Symphony Orchestra—the only official orchestra outside of Reykjavík.

As the North Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the organization was able to seek funds, both from the state and from the city of Akureyri. This helped to establish the orchestra as a staple of the Akureyri cultural landscape. Its first concert was in October of 1993, conducted by Guðmundi Óli Gunnarsson, who would hold this position for 23 years.

With fewer people in Akureyri than in the capital area, the North Iceland Symphony Orchestra performs on average about once a month. This means that positions in the orchestra are not full-time. Instead, musicians sign a 3-4-year contract, which is typically project-based. When this contract ends, they can try out again for the positions, although newcomers can also challenge them for a spot in the orchestra.

 

Hof Cultural Center

The orchestra performed dozens of concerts in the following years, but they lacked a proper venue. In 1999, the Icelandic government agreed to help fund cultural houses outside of Reykjavík. In 2003, 1 billion ISK was allocated to Akureyri and Vestmannaeyjar to construct buildings to fit their cultural needs. Construction began on the Hof Cultural Center (Menningarhúsið Hof) in 2006. But it quickly became clear that more space was needed to accommodate all of the building plans, and the gross size of the building more than doubled, causing long delays. Hof Cultural Center, the new home for the North Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, finally opened in August 2010.

 

Sinfonia Nord

Two talented residents of North Iceland, composer Þorvaldur Bjarni Þorvaldsson and film composer Atli Örvarsson, started a creative music company called Sinfonia Nord in 2014. Sinfonia Nord began producing scores for films, TV series, and video games, and Bjarni and Atli turned to the North Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

For each project Sinfonia is involved with, the orchestra will provide the appropriate collection of musicians – sometimes a string quartet, a synthesizer, or a full choir. Depending on the project, they may have to reach out to musicians in the East, in the capital or even abroad to fulfil the requirements of each score. After the company established itself, recording studios were built inside Hof Cultural Center so that almost everything is done under the same roof! Included in Sinfonia Nord’s impressive resumé are the video game God of War (2022), Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021), and The Dig (2021). With their international reputation, Sinfonia Nord is one of North Iceland’s best-kept secrets.

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