Is talent born or made? My recent interview with the young Icelandic pianist Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson brought me no closer to resolving this debate as I learned that he has benefitted from both a tuneful gene pool and a distinguished educational lineage – with a kindly look-in from the huldufolk, and an unwitting wee nudge from international terrorism along the way.
VHO: I was surrounded by music very early. My mother was studying piano in Berlin when I was in her womb. She was practicing eight hours a day, so that’s basically how my musical upbringing began, before I really entered the world.
Back in Reykjavík, his early life was filled with the piano sounds he would hear coming out of the living room where his mother gave piano lessons. At the age of five, he met his first teacher, Erla Stefánsdóttir, a woman much respected in Iceland, with a large circle of friends, some of whom, I learned, live in rocks.
VHO: She’s quite well known in Iceland both for being a very good piano teacher and also for seeing through mountains and rocks, for her “sixth sense.” She can see elves, and auras around people, and energy fields.
As a teenager, Víkingur went to the Reykjavík College of Music, where his teacher, Czech pianist Peter Maté, encouraged him to take on the really big pieces in the repertoire such as the Tchaikovsky concerto and the Liszt sonata. An important idol during his teen years was the Russian child prodigy Evgeny Kissin, whose jaw-dropping performance of the Chopin first piano concerto with the Moscow Philharmonic at the age of 12 had astonished the musical world in 1984.
VHO: I asked for his CDs for every birthday and Christmas. I would get only Kissin CDs and I studied them backwards and forwards. My mother was actually kind of worried that I was only listening to Kissin and nothing else. She was trying to give me Glenn Gould CDs but I only wanted to listen to Kissin. He was just my idol. He came to Iceland in 1996, when I was 12, and played a fantastic concert at the Reykjavík Art Festival, and I got to meet him backstage.
A Russian pianist of the previous generation, Vladimir Ashkenazy, was destined to be an important mentor for the young Víkingur. Ashkenazy, a first prize winner at the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition, had left the Soviet Union with his Icelandic wife, Þórunn Sofía Jóhannsdóttir, settling in Iceland in 1968 and becoming a citizen in 1972.
It was Ashkenazy who encouraged Víkingur to go abroad to study. But where? A first stop was the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, where he met Ann Schein, a former student of Artur Rubinstein. She told him that there were only two choices: the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, geared towards young performers, and Juilliard in New York.
It was Dec. 1st, 2001 when Víkingur and his father walked in to the Juilliard School, only to see the same date printed on the admissions notice … as the deadline for applications. But the momentous events of that fateful year in New York’s history had changed everything, even at Juilliard, as Víkingur soon found out.
VHO: So I went to the Admissions Office and I asked them if there was anything I could do and as chance would have had it, there was actually an extension. There were so many people who were afraid of going to New York after 9-11. Everyone was just hysterical thinking about what might be bombed next, maybe Lincoln Centre or the arts, they just had all these fantasies.
Víkingur and his dad then returned home to Iceland and he immediately set his entire focus on completing his application which he managed to send out in time.
VHO: And so, the biggest victory in my life was probably not getting into Juilliard but rather just getting into the audition, and that all went very well and I got into the school.
Víkingur emerged from Juilliard very much his own musician, eager to have a career, but on his own terms, and that is just what he has done. He produces his own recordings – a CD of Brahms and Beethoven has already been issued and his second CD, of Bach and Chopin, is soon to be released – but he refuses to be pinned down to a single career track. In addition to concertizing, he has worked on projects with Björk, and with Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst, in addition to giving master classes for young musicians and preparing a 10-part television series on music for RUV, the Icelandic state broadcaster.
Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson will be performing with the Iceland Symphony, under the direction of Vladimir Ashkenazy, at the opening concerts of the new Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík, on May 4th, 5th