Arts Desk

Nordic Cool at Kennedy Center: Yes, You Should Go, and Here’s What You Should See

They say the sun never sets during the summer nights in some parts of Scandinavia. And while this winter’s Nordic Cool festival can’t bring eternal sunshine to the Potomac, it can give you reason to stay out late listening to music at... the Kennedy Center? Here's what we think is worth checking out at the arts center's massive Scandinavian-themed festival, which officially began Tuesday and runs to March 17.

"Cool Club"

Let’s be clear: We agree the name the center chose for this year’s international arts celebration is not cool. It sounds like a new flavor of Trident. But the programming genuinely is cool. Really. Especially the late-night concert series dubbed, rather squarely, “Cool Club.” These genre-bending sessions take place in the Terrace Gallery, which has been transformed for the occasion into a sort of Scandinavian design salon. Regrettably, you cannot sit in the Arne Jacobsen Series 7 chairs, but you can relax, grab some vodka, and look around while listening. Drinks are allowed inside, and craft beers are cheaper at the Kennedy Center than at some bars in Columbia Heights.

The Cool Club series opens Thursday with two sets from Midaircondo (shown above) and Michala Østergaard-Nielsen, an all-female lineup of Swedish electronic musicians/performance artists. Friday’s offering looks a bit more loungey, with twentysomething Finnish guitarist Olli Hirvonen and his quartet, which features drums, upright bass, and vibraphone. (Hint: if you, too, are a twentysomething, check and see if the Kennedy Center still has discounted tickets available through its MyTix promotional program). Faroe Islands folk-fusion jazz makes its KenCen debut on March 1, when Yggdrasil, a collective based off the Norwegian coast, performs sets of catchy, sax-driven tunes.

The festival’s closing weekend brings the 2013 official band of Reykjavik to the Kennedy Center. No, not Sigur Rós. Sorry. But chances are those ethereal popsters (and Björk) are fans of pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs and her trio, which is a bit darker and more avant garde than some of the festival other jazz offerings. Gunnlaugs performs March 8. (Rebecca J. Ritzel)

Classical and New Music

Besides the late Jean Sibelius and his corroded liver, Scandinavian composers don’t get much notice. The National Symphony sought to correct that in 2010, bringing Susanna Mälkki to conduct a piece by fellow Finn Mangus Lindberg. This year, Nordic Cool plans to extend the spotlight to Finland and Lindberg, but Denmark will get a chance to shine, too, with jazz singer Caroline Henderson on March 7 and Trio con Brio Copenhagen (shown) on March 13, along with performers from Norway, Iceland, and even Greenland (Nanook, also March 7). Sweden got top billing at yesterday's festival opener by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; the love continues with multiple appearances from vocalist Anne Sofie von Otter, a mezzo-soprano known for cultivating a broad repertory. For her performances with the NSO March 7-9, she sticks to Schubert’s Lieder and Mozart’s Requiem: neither Nordic nor particularly cool, but proven vehicles for her talents. (Mike Paarlberg)

Given the number and quality of contemporary composers coming out of Scandinavia these days, Nordic Cool's offerings include more new music than most Kennedy Center festivals usually do. For the first time in a decade, the National Symphony will perform a piece by Kaija Saariaho, regarded by many as the foremost living female composer. Feb. 28 through March 2, Saariho’s "Orion" shares an NSO program with a violin concerto by her fellow living composer Magnus Lindberg. In the New Yorker, Alex Ross described Saariaho’s music as “a heaving expanse of intermingled timbres, like a landscape turned molten, or an ocean boiling.” If that doesn’t sound as Scandinavian as Norse mythology, we don’t know what does. (Rebecca J. Ritzel)

Theater

The Stockholm Royal Dramatic Theatre's production of Fanny and Alexander will make its U.S. debut at Nordic Cool on March 7. Based on Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's Academy Award-winning 1982 film of the same name, the play (performed in Swedish with English supertitles) highlights themes typical to Bergman's work: love, death, and the dark side of religiosity. Around the turn of the 19th century, Alexander and his sister Fanny are cast from their fairy-tale upper-class life into a harsh new reality when their father dies on stage and their mother marries a cold, austere bishop. While the characters and the story line are largely realistic, fantasy and magic are also woven into the plot. The narrative follows an arc similar to that of Bergman's own youth, but the 2009 theatrical rendition brings the fantastic to the fore in a way the cinematic production couldn't or didn't. The story moves, literally and physically, as the stage rotates and set workers dart in and out of the background. Active in theater throughout his life, Bergman directed more than 30 plays at the Royal Dramatic Theatre over the course of his career. You'd be hard pressed to find a group better equipped to handle the great director's work. (Benjamin Preston)

Dance

Some swear that the most interesting contemporary dance today is sprouting from European soil. True or not, it’s undeniable that what was initially an American invention is flourishing across the Atlantic—though that’s sometimes hard to believe, given the paucity of European companies that tour here. That's part of what makes Nordic Cool so exciting. The festival spotlights five modern dance companies: the Iceland Dance Company on Feb. 27, Danish Dance Theatre March 1-2, Norway’s Carte Blanche March 6-7, Tero Saarinen of Finland on March 12, and Sweden’s GöteborgsOperans Danskompani (shown, right) from March 15-16. (A testament to Americans' excitement about seeing all this great European modern dance? All but the latter two shows are already sold out.) All five are relatively mainstream, which means this isn’t an opportunity to sample the highly postmodern, avant-garde style that Europe’s northernmost countries are best known for. But given the region’s traditionally generous arts funding, it’s a chance to see some very well-crafted shows with high production values, as well as some seriously technical—ass-kicking, that is—dancers. If you can only catch a couple, the Danish Dance Theatre (March 1-2) and the GöteborgsOperans Danskompani might be the best bets—though, as mentioned, the former is already sold out, so hit the standby line if you're eager. (Amanda Abrams)

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