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Icelandic Sounds, U.S. Baton

American conductor Rico Saccani is eager to share 'the best-kept musical secret in north Europe.'


What most of us don't know about Iceland could fill books.

For instance:

Iceland is the most literate country in the world.

It publishes more books and its citizens read more books per capita than any other country.

It was the first country to directly elect a female president--Vigdis Finnbogadottir--and it kept her in office for 16 years, from 1980 to 1996. She was also the first female president in Europe.

So should anyone be surprised to learn that there's an Iceland Symphony? Probably not.

Well, how about the fact that it's led by an American--Rico Saccani?

"I always say the orchestra is the best-kept musical secret in north Europe, without a doubt," Saccani said in a recent phone interview from his office in Reykjavik, before the orchestra's concert Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, presented by the Philharmonic Society.

Iceland has a population of 275,000, with roughly half of the citizens living in the capital, Reykjavik. The orchestra was founded in 1950, making it one of the youngest national orchestras in Europe. Most of the musicians, including the soloist for Sunday's concert, Judith Ingolfsson, are Icelandic. They got their start in Reykjavik, then went on to do further work in other countries in Europe and in the United States.

"A lot of them came back," Saccani said.

No doubt drawn by the nice weather.

"People have a total misunderstanding of the weather here," Saccani said. "The Vikings misnamed Iceland. It's certainly more green than Greenland, and Greenland has more ice. It is no colder than the rest of Europe. It's a long way from Buffalo and Chicago. The winter here doesn't even come close to those kinds of temperatures."

Saccani, 47, knows something about winters. Though born in Tucson, Ariz., he graduated in conducting in 1982 from the University of Michigan.

He had been born into an artistic family. His mother danced in the San Francisco Ballet. His older brother studied piano. Saccani, too, pursued a career as a concert pianist, participating in the Tchaikovsky and Leeds competitions. But in 1980 he switched to conducting.

"I would love to know what was going on astrologically then," he said. "Tons of pianists went into conducting during the same 12- to 18-month period. If you look at it historically, most conductors have an enormous piano background."

A protege of conductor Giuseppe Patane, Saccani won the Herbert von Karajan conducting competition in 1984 and went on to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, Arena di Verona, the Czech Philharmonic and numerous other orchestras and opera companies in North America and Europe.

But he never had a permanent orchestra until he became music director of the Budapest Philharmonic in 1997, a post he will hold until 2003.

He became music director of the Iceland Symphony in 1998 and will remain there for the next three seasons.

Both orchestras, although geographically worlds apart, have at their heart a concern for the musicians, which is indispensable to making good music, Saccani said.

"The door to my dressing room is always open. Musicians are always in and out. In Budapest, we play pingpong together or Foosball during the break, making the symphony a team sport to me."

Which city is his home?

"There is no home right now," Saccani said. "I don't live in either of these two cities. I have had no permanent base for the last four or five seasons.

"But I can't complain. I have the great luxury of working about half the year with these orchestras and half the year guest conducting in Asia or Europe or doing tours."

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at


* Rico Saccani will conduct the Iceland Symphony in works by Sibelius, Khachaturian and Atli Heimar Sveinsson on Sunday , 3 p.m., at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Violinist Judith Ingolfsson will be the soloist. $20 to $55. ($10 seniors, subject to availability.) (714) 556-2787.

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