Founded in 1950, The Iceland Symphony Orchestra has distinguished itself as one of the leading Nordic orchestras through its acclaimed performances and recordings. The artistic achievement of the ISO is even more remarkable given that in Iceland, the classical music tradition only began in the 20th century. The first concert by a full symphony orchestra was given in 1926, when the Hamburg Philharmonic toured Iceland and Norway under the direction of Icelandic composer Jón Leifs. Around that time, a small ensemble called the Reykjavík Orchestra (Hljómsveit Reykjavíkur) had begun to give concerts in the nation's capital, but it was only in 1950 that the state and municipal authorities, along with the Icelandic Radio, reached an agreement to found a symphony orchestra.
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra has been led by eight music directors throughout its history: Olav Kielland (Norway), Bohdan Wodiczko (Poland), Karsten Andersen (Norway), Jean-Pierre Jacquillat (France), Petri Sakari (Finland), Osmo Vänskä (Finland), Rico Saccani (US) and Rumon Gamba (UK), whose term as Music Director will come to a close in June 2010. The orchestra also maintains a long-standing relationship with Vladimir Ashkenazy, who began conducting in Iceland in 1972 and now holds the post of Conductor Laureate. The legendary Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky will be the orchestra's first Principal Guest Conductor, leading the orchestra in a series of concerts in 2011. The orchestra also collaborates regularly with such eminent conductors as Eivind Aadland, Eva Ollikainen, Carlos Kalmar, James Gaffigan, Ludovic Morlot, and Hannu Lintu.
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra consists of 82 full-time members and can be enlarged to 100 players if needed. It gives around 60 concerts each season, including subscription concerts in Reykjavík, family concerts, recordings, and local as well as international tours. It has performed in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Austria, France, and the United States. Its first concert in Carnegie Hall, under the direction of Osmo Vänskä in 1996, proved a defining moment for the orchestra, lauded by Alex Ross of the New York Times for its "staggeringly good" performance.
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra records regularly for BIS, Chandos and Naxos. Its cycle of Sibelius symphonies for Naxos, under the direction of Petri Sakari, has received great acclaim and is the orchestra's best-selling release to date.
The 2009-10 season was the orchestra's 60th anniversary and features such highlights as Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting Tchaikovsky's Manfred symphony, Gustav Mahler's Symphony no. 2 with Hillevi Martinpelto, Sarah Connolly and the Hallgrímskirkja Motet Choir, Prokofiev's First violin concerto with Hilary Hahn, both Chopin piano concertos in honor of the composer's 200th anniversary, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons performed by a young Icelandic winner of the J.S. Bach competition in Leipzig.
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