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Interview: New NAC Orchestra managing director Arna Einarsdóttir talks about why she’s so excited to work at the new and improved NAC

By Brian Carroll on March 25, 2020

Arna Einarsdóttir is the new managing director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Photo: Heiða Helgadóttir.

Recently, Apt613 sat down with the new managing director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO), Arna Einarsdóttir, for an in-depth conversation on her role at the NAC and her previous experience as the managing director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Apt613: Prior to coming to the NAC Orchestra as managing director, you were managing director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (ISO). Can you please describe how you became the managing director of the ISO?

Arna Einarsdóttir: I worked with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for 19 years, first as a flautist. Then I moved into management and eventually became the managing director in 2013. This was during very exciting times for the orchestra.

I was working with them as a musician when we played in our old previous hall, where we played for 50 years, in a cinema. It was so exciting to move into a hall that was actually designed for symphonic music. It became one of the magnificent concert halls of Europe. It’s considered one of the best. It really puts the orchestra on the map as well. We managed to double our audience. We saw a 60 per cent increase in our subscriptions. So it was just such an adventure!

Apt613: What were your favorite accomplishments as managing director of the ISO?

AE: I had a bit of a task. The orchestra had accumulated debt, which we had to pay back. I managed to do so, and get a turnaround for the finances of the orchestra, by being very conscious with programming. That was an achievement and was very important because we needed that. We needed to make the financial foundation of the orchestra secure.

“You should hear the music. You should feel the music. You should sense the vibration coming out of the walls.”

I also managed to get us back onto the touring circuit. When I left, one of the last things we did was to tour the orchestra to Japan, where we did 12 sold-out concerts over a three-week period. It was just incredible. We had Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. He’s our laureate conductor. We had an amazing soloist as well, Nobuyuki Tsujii.

After the economic crisis in Iceland in 2008, touring came to a complete standstill. Nothing. We didn’t tour for many years. It took a lot of effort to get us back on track with that. But it’s very important. Eventually that happened and I was very, very proud that we could manage that.

Apt613: The ISO moved into a brand new hall, the Harpa, in 2011. You were concert director and then became managing director in 2013. In your time, the ISO and the Harpa have become international major tourist attractions. Please describe your role in making that happen.

AE: Being the managing director at that time, and seeing this incredible increase in the audience—it was all part of this revelation of this dream that the Harpa was for all music lovers in Iceland. And the Harpa was such an incredible sign of hope as well.

It was a very controversial thing that they decided to still go on with building the Harpa, because at the time they saw cuts in health care and education. It was the government (of Iceland) and the mayor of Reykjavik that decided to go ahead. These two powerful women at the time decided to go ahead with this. It was to keep some of the building industry going. It was to keep the pace of the economy moving, although at a very slow pace. So this was happening within Iceland; they were finishing this building.

When it opened in 2011, it became such a huge success. At the time we were also seeing such an increase in our tourist industry because the Iceland krona devaluated and suddenly Iceland was a lot cheaper to visit.

Suddenly, Iceland was a tourist destination. Last year, I think, two million tourists came to Iceland. So it was a huge increase. The population of Iceland is 350,000 people. The Harpa becomes this sign of something that we can be proud of. The building’s facade was designed by Olafur Eliasson, one of our most famous and prominent sculptors and artists. Just walking into the building is an experience. Then you go into the incredible concert hall, which is a musical instrument in itself. There are so many different settings for the acoustics, you can almost play the hall.

Of course, the orchestra just blossomed in this. It could really stretch its wings and fly. That’s what happens if you provide the circumstances to the artists and to the musicians. They will give you the return.

“It’s like when you take a plant from a small pot and put it into a bigger one, and it spreads its leaves and it blossoms and it’s just so beautiful. I feel like this is exactly what’s happening with the NAC and with the orchestra as well.”

This is certainly what you have seen with Icelandic musicians recently. You have soloists like Víkingur Ólafsson, who is a Deutsche Grammophon artist of the year. You have Hildur Guðnadóttir winning an Oscar and Grammy and Emmy awards. You have Anna Thorvaldsdóttir who is a composer working with the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and all the best orchestras. So you have musicians absolutely at the top of the league.

That’s another thing. With the Harpa, it’s also a symbol of survival. I am in some ways grateful to have lived through those times when everything swept underneath our feet and we surely didn’t know where we had landed or what we should stand on. What every kind of cultural institution found in Iceland, at the time, is that we saw an increase in our attendance, more audiences coming to concerts. Because when you’re going through difficult times, this is what you need. You need to come together. And that’s the need that brings you to have this moment of going through the emotions together, and the music connecting you to the emotions.

Apt613: Visitors to the Harpa can join tours of its various performance spaces. The tour guide can wind up being an opera singer or an orchestra musician. How did you recruit such high-powered talent as tour guides?

AE: When you have a small country like Iceland, we sometimes call it the Icelandic way. That everyone has to wear so many different hats. Everyone has to be a lot of things, and I think this is a good example of that. So you have these singers and they are amazing. Often, they’re professional guides. Then of course they’re also professional singers and great singers. It’s a great thing to combine.

The new managing director of the NAC Orchestra. Photo: Marco Fecklistoff.

But you may see fewer people actually working. The manpower, we just don’t have the same human resources you would get in a bigger place. For instance, we only have one tuba player in the country.

You have to look at us and understand the limitation it brings, but also understand that we have a certain way of doing things. We make it work.

Apt613: The foyers of the Harpa and the NAC are both open to the public during the day. Like the Glass Thorsteinson Staircase of the NAC, the Harpa’s foyer includes acoustic design elements. As well as tours, visitors may sometimes hear musicians or choirs using that space. How did you make use of the Harpa foyer when you were the managing director?

AE: I think that is such an exciting thing, to explore the different places. We had a really interesting new music festival called Tectonics.  This is something we developed with our former music director, Ilan Volkov. There we would use every corner of the building and we would take the audience around the place. We would explore. We would just play that as an instrument.

This is what you should feel and sense when you walk into a music place like the NAC. You should hear the music. You should feel the music. You should sense the vibration coming out of the walls.

We just recently had the Big Bang Festival here for children and that was certainly the case all over the place. You would hear music and feel the place vibrating. That’s exactly what we want. Because it’s just so important.

Apt613: Do you have any plans for using the NAC foyer?

AE: I just can’t imagine this place without this beautiful extension to it. I think it makes all the difference. People talk about the new NAC and I think you sense it within the building. And it just shows what a space can do.

It’s like when you take a plant from a small pot and put it into a bigger one, and it spreads its leaves and it blossoms and it’s just so beautiful. I feel like this is exactly what’s happening with the NAC, and with the orchestra as well.

“I sometimes wonder if the audience actually realizes what a big part it plays. For the concert to come alive and for the event to come alive, it’s all about the audience. If the audience wasn’t there, the orchestra would just be rehearsing on stage.”

We certainly feel like we want to meet people where they are. Not only do we want them inside our halls and to share our music with them, but we also just want to meet them, and greet them and surprise them and be there with them.

I’m very excited for the next season. It’s all about dialogue and it’s all about a very important dialogue. And we’re going to have a great time with our audience and just hope to see so many of them with this new space.

Apt613: If I may say so, the ISO’s loss is the NACO’s gain. Why did you leave Iceland for Ottawa?

AE: In Iceland we have these four-year tenures for the managing director. You could only be there for two tenures. I was already on my later one.

So I knew that I would have to either change profession, because we only have one professional orchestra in Iceland, or I would have to look outside. But then this opportunity presented itself because I got a phone call. This phone call was kind of interesting for me. So I decided, okay, let’s see where this takes me and my family.

“People talk about the new NAC and I think you sense it within the building. And it just shows what a space can do.”

I think there were a few things that really attracted me to this place. That was of course this exceptional orchestra and its artistry, its amazing musicians, and of course Alexander Shelley (NACO conductor). But I think it was also being a part of this NAC where you have not only an orchestra, but you also have English theatre, French theatre, dance, Indigenous theatre, all the other disciplines. It’s an interesting place to run an orchestra within this kind of a setting, because it may give us seeds and cross-pollination, which may not happen in different places. I was very inspired to see Life Reflected because I thought that was an interesting project that I hadn’t seen other orchestras do. I was inspired by that approach. And I’m very inspired by working with Alexander and with his musical ideas.

Apt613: Like your predecessor, Christopher Deacon, you’ve chosen to come out and meet the NACO audience. How does meeting the public at the NAC here compare with meeting the public at the Harpa?

AE: I don’t really see any difference. The audience is our life and bread. This is what we need to connect to. I sometimes wonder if the audience actually realizes what a big part it plays. For the concert to come alive and for the event to come alive, it’s all about the audience. If the audience wasn’t there, the orchestra would just be rehearsing on stage.  If you have a full hall, it’s so different than when you have half a hall. So that is where they’re making this moment together.

I’ve had moments walking into that hall—for instance, we had an incredible student matinee recently. It was full of kids, teenagers, very diverse group from local schools. It was electrifying, the intensity of the listening from the kids. It felt almost like walking into a church. They were all there, all ears and eyes and it was just beautiful. It’s really these kind of moments we create together. I don’t find any difference in that with the Icelandic or the Ottawa audience.


In response to COVID-19, the National Arts Centre has cancelled all performances until April 5. However, they have begun live-streaming performances, including those by the NAC Orchestra. Check out the NAC’s website and their Facebook page for daily live-streamed performances.