Chip off the old block

Every American schoolchild not born of stubbornly Italian lineage should know that the Vikings beat Christopher Columbus to this continent by more than 500 years. Leif Eriksson heard about this place from his friend Bjarni Herjolfsson, who’d been here in 986. And Leif’s brother-in-law, Thorfin Karlsefni, battled the Indians for three years — long enough for his son, Snorri, to come along and claim the title of “first white person born in America.”

Unlike Columbus and his Spanish underwriters, however, the Vikings managed not to wipe out entire nations of natives during their stay. Not having guns, horses or sufficient gold lust, they eventually retreated before the Indians’ objections.

And while Columbus can boast his own bank holiday, among other dubious decorations, the Vikings’ adventures in “Vinland” receded into the depths of Icelandic saga.

The 1963 identification of the site of little Snorri’s birth helped renew interest in Eriksson and co. — and now, to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Leif’s visit to North America, Iceland has launched a series of cultural events throughout the U.S. and Canada. No, the country’s authentically replicated Viking ship won’t be sailing up the French Broad anytime soon. But our celebration has more resonance: On Oct. 24, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra — enjoying its own 50th anniversary — appears in concert at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, sponsored by Asheville Bravo Concerts. The full, 80-member orchestra will perform Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Aram Khatchaturian’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, and a new, three-minute work by Icelandic composer Atli Sveinsson, titled Icerapp 2000.

Featured will be young violinist Judith Ingolfsson, a native Icelander who studied in the United States and has recently been garnering a slew of international awards.

When you consider the size of Iceland — it has less than a third the square mileage of North Carolina — it’s rather a miracle that they have a symphony orchestra at all. Iceland, however, is European in all but location — and Scandinavian to boot. So its natives understand the importance of art, and support it out of all proportion to their size, at least by American standards.

Philistines might crab that Icelanders, huddled on the shores of their Arctic island, don’t have anything else to do during their long winter nights. But Iceland is actually a pretty nice place. Though the country’s perched at the northern end of the Gulf Stream, its climate is surprisingly temperate, averaging about 41 degrees. The island is laced with both glaciers and volcanoes, providing its inhabitants with free geothermal heat (not to mention dramatic scenery and equally dramatic earthquakes, floods and lava eruptions).

There’s an old joke that Erik the Red, Leif’s father (hence “Eriks-son”) named the frigid island “Greenland” and the pleasanter one “Iceland” to confuse the expected waves of settlers. Fortunately, 10th-century immigrants, of which there weren’t hordes, were drawn to more accessible pickings: Erik’s hopes and fears went for naught. The population of Iceland has peaked at a quarter of a million, while Greenlanders number around 55,000, living in an area about eight times the size of North Carolina, 32 times bigger than Iceland.

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra plays a 26-week season in its capital city of Reykjavik, bracketing that with a couple of North Atlantic tours a year. Award-winning American conductor Rico Saccani, who apprenticed under the American Symphony Orchestra’s Giuseppe Patane, directs; the orchestra’s soloist, Ms. Ingolfsson, made her concert debut at age 8 with Germany’s Waiblinger Chamber Orchestra.

Ingolfsson’s real name, incidentally, is “Ingolfsdottir.” The Icelanders, whose language most resembles the old Norse of their ancestors, practice the ancient custom of using the father’s first name and adding “son,” or — in the egalitarian Scandinavian manner — “daughter.”) Check out the list of players in the ISO: There’s an impressive collection of “dottirs.” But the violinist’s agent apparently decided that “Ingolfsson” would be “less confusing” to American audiences than Ingolfsdottir’s given name.

One only hopes that agent hasn’t underestimated our ear for good music.

Around the world in six months

Asheville Bravo Concerts continues its 2000-01 season with a passionate roster of internationally recognized classical music and musical theater.

All performances take place at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in the Asheville Civic Center, beginning at 8 p.m., unless otherwise noted.

• Thursday, Nov. 16: Gypsy magic with The Veriovka Ukrainian National Song & Dance Ensemble

• Tuesday, Jan. 23: London City Opera presents Bizet’s fevered Carmen

• Sunday, Feb. 25: The conductorless Prague Chamber Orchestra with The Beaux Arts Trio (4 p.m.)

• Tuesday, April 17: The dazzlingly contemporary Miami City Ballet

For more info or to order tickets, call 299-0820.

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