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Hartt’s Foot in the Door Ensemble Takes the Stage in Iceland

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre in Reykjavik was the site of the 2015 Dark Music Days Festival.

The very thought of traveling to Iceland in the winter may give you shivers. Yet, even a blizzard that was about to close down Boston’s Logan Airport could not  deter the approximately 30 students, alumni, and faculty of the Foot in the Door contemporary music ensemble from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School from boarding a plane to Reykjavík, Iceland  on January 26, 2015. They were on their way to participate in that country’s showcase for innovative and progressive contemporary music, the annual Dark Music Days Festival. They had been invited to perform two concerts at the festival and would perform an additional four concerts at a variety of nearby venues.

Traditionally a mixture of graduate and undergraduate Hartt students that fluctuates in size depending on the music being played, the Foot in the Door (FITD) group in Iceland included alumni and professors as well. The ensemble’s repertoire consists of established as well as emerging 20th- and 21st-century composers. Its co-directors are Glen Adsit, director of bands, and Edward Cumming, director of orchestral activities. Ken Steen ‘82, professor of composition and theory, is the group’s artistic advisor.

It is Steen who started the connection with Iceland through an artist residency he had at Gullkistan Center for Creativity in 2013. That residency provided opportunities for discussion of exchange possibilities with faculty and administrators at the Iceland Academy of the Arts (IAA).

A fledging exchange program between the two schools has already begun. Two violin students came to Hartt from Iceland between 2009 and 2014: one, to pursue both Graduate Professional and Artist Diplomas, and the other, to pursue a Master of Music degree. In fall 2015, one senior Hartt composition student will go to IAA, and one or two composition students will come from Iceland to Hartt.

According to Adsit, the invitation for the group to perform is quite an honor; partly because Foot in the Door is a student group, and also because they were coming from outside Iceland. Traditionally, few international artists are featured at the festival, which places emphasis on premiering new and often experimental pieces that reflect the ever-growing diversity and creativity of Icelandic music.

In late August 2014, Foot in the Door students had to make a commitment to go to Iceland, which also meant making a financial contribution. Additional funding came from Hartt’s Faculty Development Fund, from Hartt’s acting dean, T. Clark Saunders; from the Graduate Professional Travel Grants fund; and from a special fund set up by Hartt donor Susan Brake.

A favorite stop for tourists in Iceland is the geothermal region, where geysers erupt frequently. Foot in the Door stopped along their way to give a few local concerts in a church, a school, and a bookstore.

The ensemble’s two performances at the Dark Music Days festival included exciting combinations of alumni, faculty, and students from both schools, including IAA students Árni Bergur Zöega and Ásbjörg Jónsdóttir, along with director of the Dark Music Days Festival Kjartan Ólafsson. Hartt students featured on this program included Catherine Phang ’14, whose Arirang Spirit for chamber orchestra was premiered, and Ben Park M’12, AD'14, whose violin concerto Huldufólk (The Hidden People) was performed by Hartt alumna Gróa Margrét Valdimarsdóttir GPD’11, AD '13, for whom the work was commissioned by FITD in 2012. A new work by Steen entitled DĔPO FLUX, composed for the occasion of the festival, featured faculty members Robert Black ’79, professor of double bass; Carrie Koffman, artist teacher of saxophone; Christopher Ladd AD’03, artist teacher of guitar; Rita Porfiris, associate professor of viola; and Hartt alumna violinist Ása Guðjónsdóttir M'13, along with the entire FITD ensemble.

 In addition to performing at Dark Music Days and elsewhere, Hartt faculty offered master classes and lessons to IAA students, thereby deepening a direct pedagogical link between the two schools. Perhaps the most dynamic activity of the trip was the reading/recording session on which FITD collaborated with three IAA student composers. The new works were rehearsed, performed, and recorded, providing invaluable feedback about the practicalities of score and parts preparation, orchestration, rehearsal protocols, and many other elements of compositional craft essential for these young composers as they begin their professional careers. The session also provided essential experience to members of FITD in cross-cultural collaboration within the context of interaction with young composers in the realization of their musical works.

Students and faculty alike praised the benefits of going to the festival. Eugenio Figueroa M'16, who plays viola, says, “Playing the duo with my teacher Rita Porfiris was one of my best (and most stressful) experiences of the trip.” Saxophone teacher Koffman says she enjoyed the opportunity for exchange. “We came back with ideas we didn’t have before we went. Everybody grows in a collaborative environment.”

Kayla Herrmann M’13, GPD ’15, cello and manager of the ensemble, adds,  “Foot in the Door offers opportunities to work intimately with faculty, with small ensembles, with soloists, with Ken as composer. Going to Iceland made it even more so. We saw them practicing and hanging out. We were with them 24/7.”