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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 28, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 17
Johann Johannsson and American Contemporary Music Ensemble give mesmorizing performance at Benaroya Hall
Arts & Entertainment
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Johann Johannsson and American Contemporary Music Ensemble give mesmorizing performance at Benaroya Hall

by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

JOHANN JOHANNSSON
WITH THE AMERICAN
CONTEMORARY MUSIC ENSEMBLE
NORDSTROM RECITAL HALL
BENAROYA HALL
April 20


This show gave me all the feels. I wasn't sure what to expect from a live concert by acclaimed Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson going into last week's show at Benaroya Hall's Nordstrom Recital Hall, but when the evening came to a close, following a 90-minute performance complete with three standing ovations, I was grateful to have been in that room. It was what I hoped it would be - beautiful, experimental, intense, dramatic, uplifting - and I, as well as a near full house of curious fans, was captivated from the second the house lights went out to when they came up again.

Johannson is mostly known for scoring the music for the films The Theory of Everything and Sicario, which earned him back-to-back Academy Award nominations in 2015 and 2016, as well as composing the soundtrack for last year's sci-fi thriller Arrival, which could've given him a third Oscar nod had it not been ruled ineligible by the Motion Picture Academy due to its strict, confusing rules.

On Thursday evening, the concert got off to a bizarre start, though if you're familiar with Johannson's solo work outside of his movie soundtracks, you knew that as the house lights dimmed and the distorted vocals of a young girl were heard repetitively overhead, that he was beginning the performance with 'A Song for Europa' from his 2016 album Orphee. It set the tone for what would be a collection of deeply emotional, yet spirited and dreamy songs that were threaded together marvelously as if they had all been featured in the same film. 'De Luce et Umbra' and a gorgeous, riveting version of 'A Sparrow Alighted Upon Our Shoulder,' both from Orphee as well, were performed next in succession.

Throughout the concert, Johannson either played keyboards, or piano, or simply hovered above the six-person American Contemporary Music Ensemble, but occasionally he switched film reels on a vintage projector that instead of displaying images, it just illuminated the stage with random lighting. The string players, meanwhile, often took turns multi-tasking and tinkered with electronic equipment as if they were scientists working cohesively in a laboratory.

'Sálfræðingur,' a track from the artist's Englabörn recording, included a robust piano backdrop from Johannson, who is now based in Berlin. 'The Drowned World' was enhanced with a glorious Celtic harp arrangement and 'A Deal with Chaos' featured some intriguing radio static in the background.

Although he didn't quite dive into his film scores for this show, with the exception of playing the theme song from 2013's Prisoners movie, some of the material on Johannson's set list had strong hints, and perhaps may have included a snippet, from The Theory of Everything. Before dismissing themselves singularly from the main portion of the concert, Johannson and the ensemble performed a piece from his album IBM 1401, A User's Manual and an enlightening rendition of 'Odi et Amo,' which found a few members of the string section mildly scraping their instruments in dramatic fashion with their fingertips.

Returning for an encore, Johannson and the musicians delighted the audience with a sweeping performance of 'Fordlandia' that intertwined a fierce string arrangement, a series of Icelandic voices and bright white strobe lights flashing radically on stage. It was an audacious finish to a concert that unexpectedly and pleasantly felt like a spiritual awakening or mystical adventure, or both - as if I'd dreamt of being on an outer planet. It was a journey that I was happy to embark on for one night.

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