Travel Diary – Iceland, Day Three

It’s concert day, which means first of all, our dress rehearsal. I still recall my utter embarrassment, at the age of 20, when I showed up at my dress rehearsal of the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Vancouver Symphony…dressed. I came to a 10am dress rehearsal in tails, because I assumed that’s what “dress rehearsal” meant. I guess it still means something, clothing-wise, if you’re an opera singer. But for an orchestra dress rehearsal, it’s just an expression. Nowadays I typically show up in baseball cap and shorts.

I’m starting to notice extraneous things. Firstly, the hall is really not great. A beautiful new hall is in construction, its opening understandably delayed because of the extraordinary economic collapse that hit Iceland in 2008. The economy is on everyone’s lips here. It’s easy to understand – this entire country has only 300,000 people. To put that in perspective, that’s the number of new jobs created in the US just in April of this year.

Back to the hall: it has minimal ambience, visually and acoustically. On the other hand, I’m not going to complain. After all, it was good enough for Vladimir Ashkenazy. (I remember once having the temerity to complain about the lousy upright piano in my dressing room at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The stage manager said “Rubinstein warmed up on that piano. Arrau warmed up on that piano. Brendel warmed up on that piano. Is there anything else?” After that, I’ve tended to keep my complaints to a minimum.)

The second thing I notice, which takes a while to sink in because I’ve never experienced it before, is that something is wrong with how my body is relating to the piano. I thought it was jet lag. It didn’t hit me until I realized that my right foot was at an awkward angle to manipulate the pedal. I asked management if the wheels had been replaced recently. “Yes, we had the piano out for repairs and it came back with these new lockable wheels.”

As you can imagine, lockable wheels are highly advisable for 9-foot Steinways, but these wheels were much bigger than the old ones. A little-known fact about Steinways is that they make all their piano legs in two heights, regular length legs for the little wheels, and shorter legs for the big wheels. This ensures that the keyboard is always at the same height, and that the pedals remain nice and close to the stage.

But somebody had put the big wheels on with the longer legs, and consequently I can barely pedal, and the keyboard is at the wrong height for my body. I know it’s not reasonable to expect that this can be changed in an afternoon (although I might have tried, given a chainsaw and a really accurate tape measure) so I crank the bench as high as it can go in preparation for the concert.

The performance goes even better than the rehearsals had seemed to promise. Maestro Remmereit gives the Brahms the gravitas that it needs, and the orchestra plays beautifully. I had played the Brahms 1st Concerto earlier in the year, with both Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, and Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony, so I am at ease with performing the work, and really able to let loose emotionally. In my world, there are few experiences greater than performing Brahms.

But I discover one performance crutch that I have taken for granted for years. In difficult passages, such as the sixths and octave passages in the first movement, I instinctively jam my left thigh into the underside of the piano as a way of anchoring and centering myself. Because the legs of this piano are too long, the underside of the piano is too high, I can’t do that, at least not without risking a hamstring cramp. So I feel like I’m on a high wire without a safety net. How wonderful still be able to find unexpected challenges!

After the concert I have been invited to a reception hosted by Canadian Ambassador Alan Bones. I appreciate being remembered by a representative of the Canadian government. We talk a lot about life up North, a subject equally dear to Canadians and Icelanders. I’m surprised to discover that Ottawa is the 2nd coldest capital city in the world. (The first is Ulan Bator. Hey, we can’t always get the Gold Medal.)

It’s midnight and I can’t sleep. This is common after performing a concerto – the residual adrenalin pumps for hours. So I walk into downtown Reykjavic in search of the holy grail of Icelandic cuisine, the hot dog.

Hot Dog Nirvana

This might surprise you. After all, one correctly associates Iceland with very, very fresh fish. But they have also brought hot dogs to a completely new level. I’m told that the flavor is enhanced by the addition of lamb, and there are whispered rumors that they are soaked in beer before cooking. I’m successful in finding the downtown shack known as Bæjarins beztu pylsur. Famous for serving President Bill Clinton a hot dog, there’s one guy with dogs and a drink machine, and there’s only one tiny bench for sitting down. I order it local style, which includes not only mustard, ketchup and onions, but a remoulade sauce that would fly in a fancy joint in New Orleans. Yum.

Tomorrow, assuming volcano Eyjamultisyllabikull doesn’t erupt again, I’m boarding Icelandair again and heading back across the pole. I can’t believe that I’m not going to earn miles for this flight either.


"Fantasy is not just a technical showcase, but a big, clear picture window of a musician with a rich soul and great artistic depth. It is also a fantastic example of programming that entertains as well as edifies.”
-Musical Toronto

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