Eastern Iceland is another world. Mountains rise like giants from the ocean, deserted fjords are haunted by ghosts. In the winter, there is little daylight, in summer, no darkness. Icelandic mythology conjures images of elves, trolls, sea serpents. Humans are dwarfed by their surroundings.
“It is a special, magical place,” says Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson (pronounced “HOS-culd-son”), principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since May 2016. (He will be the soloist in Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 in CSO concerts Nov. 29-30 and Dec. 1 and 4.) Tiny fishing villages dot the landscape. Among them is Neskaupstaður, his hometown of just 1,000 inhabitants. “In my childhood I had total freedom,” he says. “There was just nature. No cinema, no restaurant. I wasn’t distracted by anything.”
For Höskuldsson, music and nature were inseparable. His father was a part-time organist in a local church, and also sang and played accordion. Outside, there was nature’s art, and inside, “there was always a lot of music and song in my household.”
At 8 years old, Höskuldsson felt the shock of recognition. “I had a cousin in my town who played the flute, and I had a lesson with her. I remember very clearly what that felt like. I loved the sound so much.” At first, he played only the flute’s headjoint, whistling joyfully, building the foundation of a “sound” that would be central to his musical life.
Höskuldsson’s supportive, generous father was the spark for everything in his life. “My father didn’t want anything but the best for me.” True to form, he would drive his young son to Reykjavík for monthly lessons with Iceland’s pre-eminent flutist, Bernhard Wilkinson. This trip, from eastern to western Iceland, takes 11 hours. Each way.
Now in his 40s, Höskuldsson still possesses a sweet, boyish charm. His gentle exterior hides an inner heat, released when the subject turns to music. “There is an intensity with which I like to play. I meditate on my material, try to get inside the music.” His practice carries a similar focus. First, foundation work: “I practice the skills, the sound, fingers, moving the fingers, articulation.” Then, there is just music: “I vocalize a lot, singing out loud, trying to get it as close to the heart of the music.”
Höskuldsson’s intensity was kindled by three main teachers, of whom he speaks in reverential tones. They loom large, each in his different way. Benny Wilkinson, his teacher for 11 years, was “a great musician, very demanding, the ultimate disciplinarian.” The two spent long hours together working on every detail of phrasing, technique and sound.“Benny opened my eyes to the vast world of music. We studied scores together and listened to many orchestral pieces, including old recordings of the Chicago Symphony.”
Peter Lloyd, a legendary English player, “took the French flute school to the maximum. … the finesse of his approach, in terms of sound color and lightness of articulation. We spent a whole year on articulation, to get it light enough.”
Wissam Boustany, however, was a true philosopher of the flute. “Wissam was a huge influence on me, he lit a fire. He is all heart, pushing us to go to the depths of expression, to go right to the source.” Improvising was essential. “If we are having a hard time with a piece of music, then improvise on the material to understand it better.”
Again and again, Boustany would ask his students, “Why is it that we play music?” For Boustany, there was no single way of being a musician, of making a career. He advised, “Take time to find your own voice.” After graduation, Höskuldsson took his advice, wandering Europe, playing competitions, finding his sound.
“I wanted to get my voice heard,” says Höskuldsson, who found that everywhere in Europe, he was rebuffed. He needed a change. When Höskuldsson, then 25, arrived in New York City in 2000, “I was lost. I tried to find jobs, played for people, met people, networked.”
This period of Höskuldsson’s life sowed seeds of doubt. But one thing made him get up every morning: “My love for the sound. That’s all it boils down to. Sound is so basic, the fundamental thing.” This “sound” is at the core of his musical identity. It was with him as an 8-year-old in Iceland, it stayed by him through his studies in England, and it remained close during his journey in America.
Höskuldsson took several orchestral auditions in New York, and after two close calls, in 2004 he successfully auditioned for second flute of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, later moving to principal flute in 2007. Then, two lightning bolts struck from Chicago.
The first: He had “the good fortune” to work with Riccardo Muti at the Met, in the 2010 production of Verdi’s Attila. “It was astounding. Maestro Muti opened the world of Verdi for me that I had not understood until he came along. It became a dream of mine to get to work with him again.” The second: Höskuldsson played with the CSO as guest principal flute, during which he was blown away by “this glorious, all-encompassing sound, colorful and rich.”
Now that he’s a crucial part of that orchestral voice, Höskuldsson said he is “finding my sound in the hall. Learning how to fit in, understanding how to complement the orchestra’s sound while still having my own individual voice.”
Tim Munro, a former member of the Chicago-based ensemble Eighth Blackbird, is a flutist, speaker, writer and teacher.
Note: A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds Stories.
TOP: Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, CSO principal flute, gives a master class during the orchestra’s winter tour last season. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018