My 2017 Journey with Sigur Rós, Part 2: Walt Disney Concert Hall w/Los Angeles Philharmonic

by Jonathan Pirro on May 1, 2017

LA’s world-famous orchestra adds an entire extra universe of sound to the Icelandic trio’s performances

Sigur Rós with the LA Philharmonic. All photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Sigur Rós with the LA Philharmonic. All photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

If the experience of Sigur Rós live can be described as wondrous, then beholding them with an orchestra is a truly transcendent experience. Prior to this tour as a three-piece, I’ve always seen them with some form of miniature assemblage accompanying them, whether it’s the obscure-instrument-wielding Amiina or the Icelandic indie-folk group Parachutes, but never with a full symphony orchestra supporting them. Originally advertised as “career-spanning sets including fan-favorites (with orchestral accompaniment) and – “if things go to plan” – new, unreleased music (without orchestra)”, each night was a set similar to the current touring setlist, with the first half of the night seeing the band accompanied by the orchestra and the second with them playing solo. Despite the fact that each show had the same set of songs, each night was a different experience as the band and engineers discovered how to make the sound best fill the room, and the results were utterly spectacular.

Schola Cantorum Reykjavík

Schola Cantorum Reykjavík

As these shows were part of the ongoing Reykjavík Festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, each evening was a full span of ancient and contemporary music from the tiny Nordic island. Choral group Schola Cantorum Reykjavík opened each night, with a set of pieces that ranged from ancient Viking dirges to postmodern arrangements, and were a refreshing reminder of how gigantic a collection of voices can sound without amplification. The LA Philharmonic followed, with a set of contemporary compositions, and everything from delicate piano concertos, to massive atonal blasts of organ and timpani, filled the second set of each show. A short intermission came after the orchestra’s set, at which point amplifiers were activated and the stage cleared, and under cover of darkness and steadily-building strings, the men of Sigur Rós walked onstage to thunderous applause.

The LA Philharmonic

The LA Philharmonic

The arrangement of each piece had been put together by a different musician, with composers, electronic musicians, indie rockers and orchestral performers alike all making up the impressive roster. While the overall set — conducted by Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen — was thus possessed of all the shimmering, brilliant glory that Sigur Rós maintain within their shows, this breadth of ideas led to a marvelously complex array of sounds. Calmer pieces floated along with a gentle sincerity; the more massive, thundering numbers, by contrast, filled the colossal space from floor to ceiling with sound; never was there a point, however, when the music became too loud or chaotic that any elements were drowned out. The orchestra, for all of its dozens of players, was never overshadowed by the band they surrounded, nor did they eclipse them; the balance was magnificent, and for the first time in years, I felt myself emotionally gripped with the same intensity that I had felt when I saw Sigur Rós play live for the very first time.

Jónsi playing the crescendo of "Festival" to the animated crowd

Jónsi playing the crescendo of “Festival” to the animated crowd

After the titanic maelstrom of bright major chords and earth-shaking guitar noise that was “Festival”, a 10-minute intermission was offered as the orchestra took their bows and departed the stage, before the trio of Sigur Rós returned for the remaining songs of their set. Despite not having the elaborate screen and light arrangement that they were using on the rest of their tour, there was still a fairly complex array of illumination that lit up the band and hall around them, with projections being cast on the elaborate wood-paneled ceiling in all manner of strange shapes and dimensions, and lights dancing up and down across the poles that jutted out from the orchestra’s stage. It was truly the great concert hall, however, that added to the experience of the group performing; chiefly, a show should always be about the sound and the music itself, and the band and engineers delivered in spades, thanks to all of the new shapes they had to play with inside of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Sigur Rós performing solo

Sigur Rós performing solo

It has now been 10 times in total that I have seen Sigur Rós perform live, and these three concerts at the Walt Disney Concert hall were a magnificent way to ring in this number. The orchestra brought the band’s sound to dizzying new levels of complexity and grandeur; the arrangements were masterful, and all musicians involved were at the top of their game. It was also refreshing to be able to experience a regular Sigur Rós set — amplified — without the need for earplugs, so full and vibrant was the sound within the venue for the entirety of each evening. I am eternally grateful for being able to experience such a phenomenon — one of the rare experiences that I will travel for — and I only hope that if it happens again, it is even closer to me!

Sigur Rós' setlist with / without the LA Philharmonic

Sigur Rós’ setlist with / without the LA Philharmonic

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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