Víkingur Ólafsson | Credit: Ari Magg

Looking over the current classical concert season, now that it is in its usual May wrap mode, one interesting trend has to do with Iceland. Last month, a starry moment on the classical stages came with the U.S. premiere of the new piece Rituals, by famed and fast-rising Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Next Thursday, May 11, the spotlight turns to another Icelandic musical figure gaining stature in the international scene, pianist Víkingur Ólafsson.

Ólafsson will make his Santa Barbara debut at Hahn Hall, as part of the significant Hear & Now series presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures (A&L), focusing on his intriguing and left-of-conventional project Mozart & Contemporaries. Adding import to the evening, Ólafsson’s recital also serves as a high-profile finale to another formidable A&L season. The Hear & Now series is dedicated to creating a forum for up-and-coming young artists making local debuts — with a roster including now preeminent pianist Yuja Wang. Just this season, the series has accounted for at least two of this season’s greatest “hits,” harpsichordist Jean Rondeau’s transportive performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations last fall and the Brooklynite Attacca Quartet in March.

By now, Ólafsson, at age 39, has made the rounds that count, in terms of performing with major orchestras, including the Los Angeles and New York Phils, stateside, and has a slate of awards including the Gramophone magazine Artist of the Year award. But perhaps Ólafsson’s greatest contribution to the densely populated field of contemporary classical piano is his impulse to create albums and projects that manage to be both adventurous and accessible. His discography first gained wide acclaim with his 2017 Piano Works with Philip Glass and includes the 2021 album Mozart & Contemporaries. That album, and the Hahn Hall recital before us, blends Mozart’s piano music, not necessarily from the tried-and-true, overplayed repertoire, with music of lesser-known composers of the day — Domenico Cimarosa and Baldassare Galuppi — as well as Haydn, from more obscure corners of his vast catalog.

For another elucidating taste of the pianist’s range and expressive eloquence, proceed to his most recent album, last year’s From Afar. On this entrancing 45-track, double-disc set, Ólafsson weaves an eclectic yet cohesive tapestry of pieces, with Bach at the base, but moving through music of Schumann, György Kurtág (from his deceptively understated Játékok series), Bartók, and Thomas Adès. Closer to his cultural roots, Ólafsson also dives deep into pieces by the late, melodically driven Icelandic composer Sigvaldi Kaldalóns — “Ave Maria,” which, incidentally, has racked up more than 10 million hits on Spotify. Also in the mix is the Icelandic folk song “Where Life and Death May Dwell,” as reimagined by composer Snorri Sigfús Birgisson.

Adding sonic and contextual intrigue to this highly personal and inventive album is the choice of performing on both the traditional grand piano and a specially equipped upright piano. All in all, From Afar is a cerebral sensation from an artist respectful of musical connections across generations, isms and vistas. Leave it to him to cast new light on Mozart and his time.

Víkingur Ólafsson performs at UCSB’s Hahn Hall on Thursday, May 11, at 7 p.m. See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.


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