From Iceland to Ottawa: NACO names new managing director

Arna Kristín Einarsdóttir is the new Managing Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

The National Arts Centre has named Arna Einarsdóttir as the managing director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

The current managing director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra replaces Christopher Deacon who was named president and CEO of the NAC earlier this year. Einarsdóttir will begin her work in the spring, just in time to see NACO undertake a 50th anniversary tour of Europe that will begin in the U.K. in May.

She has been the managing director of the ISO since 2013. The only professional orchestra in Iceland performs more than 100 concerts and other activities each season. Under her tenure, the orchestra has eliminated its debt and has posted a surplus every year since 2014, the NAC said in a news release.

“Arna Einarsdóttir is a brilliant 21st century leader who knows how to enable an orchestra to thrive artistically and to triumph on the world stage,” said Deacon in a media release. “Her strong commitment to touring, new creation and education, and her ability to strengthen artistic teams, will make her the perfect administrative leader for the National Arts Centre Orchestra.”

She joins NACO’s leadership group that includes music director Alexander Shelley and principal guest conductor John Storgards.

Einarsdóttir was a member of the ISO playing second flute from 200o to 2004. She became ISO Concerts Director roducing more than 80 concerts and shows, including around 20 educational and outreach projects. She also helped found the ISO Youth Orchestra in 2009. She is a graduate of Reykjavík Music College, she also holds an MA in Cultural Administration from the University of Bifröst, Iceland, as well as a postgraduate diploma from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England.

Late Monday afternoon, she answered some questions from ARTSFILE by email from her home in Reykjavik.

Q. Why did you want to take this job?

A. It felt like a great move on to the international stage. I have been at the forefront of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra since 2007 at a very important times for the institution, preparing and moving into a new concert hall, Harpa, in 2011. According to ISO’s bylaws, the managing director can only sit for two four year terms. I’m in my second term and I knew I would have to look outside Iceland for other opportunities as the Iceland Symphony Orchestra is the only professional orchestra in Iceland. However, this time the opportunity came looking for me. 

Q. You were once a musician. Why take up management?

A. In 2000 I auditioned successfully for a temporary position as the second flute with the ISO. At the time I was living and working in England. It was supposed to be for only a year but the orchestra kept extending my contract so in the end I played with the orchestra for four years. By then I had moved back to Iceland, met my husband and was seven months pregnant when the position was advertised as a permanent position. That time around I did not win. It is hard to be a freelance musician in Iceland with the population of only 360.000 people. I knew that if I wanted to keep playing the flute I would have to do a lot of teaching. I loved teaching but not as a full time position. So I went back to school and took a Masters in Cultural Management. In 2007 I was appointed as the concert director of the orchestra and became the managing director in 2013. I thought I would miss playing but I have never looked back. I love working as a manager and being able to direct and influence where an  organization is heading.

Q. Why the flute?

A. I love the sound. The woodwinds also have the best positions in the middle of the orchestra. The sound of an orchestra and the energy is so incredible. There is nothing like it. I know that conductors feel that they have the best position at the front of an orchestra, but I don’t agree. It is actually the flutes.

Q. Symphony orchestras can be a hard sell these days. What’s been your secret in Reykjavik, Iceland where the ISO seems to have done rather well for itself.

A. I’m not sure there is a secret. We are extremely well supported by our audience as well as our government. However, moving into a new concert hall in the city centre has played a big part in our success. The story of that building is also very interesting. For a while it was not certain how the building would be finished because it was only half way built when the financial crisis hit Iceland in 2008. It was a very brave decision of the city and the government to decide to complete the building while the country was going through its deepest recession. A lot of people did not see the point in completing a concert hall at these difficult times. However, when it opened in 2011 the tune changed and today it is full of life. It is one of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions and has more than million visitors a year.

As a national orchestra and the only professional orchestra in the country, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra has always performed all kinds of music. At the core there is always the classical repertoire. For five years we hosted a modern music festival called Tectonics, curated by our former chief conductor, Ilan Volkov. This season we have performed with one of Iceland’s most popular heavy metal bands. We also had a popular stand up comedian as a presenter which proved to be very popular, just to mention a few of our projects.

Q. What do you know of NACO?

A. I knew about the NACO from recordings. But in 2014 the Iceland Symphony Orchestra hosted a Nordic orchestra conference in Reykjavik. We invited (Christopher) Deacon as one of the keynote speakers to talk about Life Reflected. I was very inspired and later got the chance to see it when it was performed at the Luminato festival in Toronto. In my mind Life Reflected is a ground breaking project in which the concert format is stretched at the same time as light is brought on something that is important and current for the community.

For me it is very important that organization and institution that get public money are in touch with their communities and reflect the society they are a part of, but at the same time bring and give access to the heritage we share with the rest of the world. This is what I have worked towards here in Iceland and will hopefully be able to do in Ottawa as well

Q. I’m wondering if NACO will visit Iceland and perform there next spring?

A. Unfortunately not.

Q. Will you move to Canada?

A. We will all move to Canada — my husband and I, and our two sons aged nine and 14. My grown up daughter is an actress and lives in London. She will stay there. I’m very close with my extended family and we will certainly maintain very strong connection to Iceland.

Q. What are your duties with NACO?

A. I will work in line with the artistic vision of the National Arts Centre. I hope we will be able to increase the international profile of the orchestra further. I also feel it is really important that the orchestra stays close to its people and is inviting in its approach. For me the most important thing is to give as many people as possible the chance to experience the magic of an orchestra. Music is so powerful and carries such a strong message. When experiencing music together we feel the emotions of the music and these shared emotions create empathy. In my mind there are very few things more important in modern societies than empathy. That is why our work is so important.

Q. Did you know Alexander Shelley?

A. Not personally. I have seen him conduct twice and was very impressed with the way he communicates to the orchestra and the audience. I’m very inspired by his ideas and artistic vision. I really look forward to working with him and the orchestra. The orchestra’s playing is of such high standard, I can’t wait to get to know the musicians.

I have worked with John Storgårds and there was talk that Pinchas Zukerman would conduct the ISO on a tour to China in 2019 but that tour did not take place. The music world is actually quite small. This season Jan Lisiecki performed with us in Harpa and I know and have worked with a lot of the soloists I see performing with NACO this season.

Q. Do you like winter?

A. In Iceland, the winter is very dark, however, it does not get as cold as I think it gets in Ottawa. I like winter. I love snow and I love alpine skiing. For me that’s when I forget all my worries and live in the moment. 

I keep fit by running. When I had my first interview with the NAC I’d just run the Berlin marathon and was still wearing my race bracelet. That was my first marathon – and maybe the last. I have not decided.

By the way – did you know that Iceland´s First lady is from Ottawa. Her name is Eliza Reid and we all love her.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.