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July 1, 2021
by Jóhanna María Einarsdóttir
Published in Fréttablaðið, Reykjavík
Geirþrúður Anna was 14 years old when she decided to become a cellist. On July 10 & 11 she performs her dream works: the complete Solo Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, at 4pm in Norðurljós. 

Geirþrúður was 14 years old when she decided to become a cellist. The weekend of July 10 and 11 she will fulfill a longstanding dream: to perform the six cello suites by J.S. Bach in Norðurljós Hall in Harpa. Geirþrúður spent this summer traveling around Iceland and performed the suites in concerts at Akranes, Ísafjörður, Dalvík, and Breiðdalsvík. "It was incredible to get to travel all around the country. I've never driven the ring road before even though I've visited many of these places. The weather was also gorgeous the whole time, which is of course no given in Iceland."

The concerts were well attended and Geirþrúður says she's looking forward to performing in Norðurljós on July 10 & 11. The concerts in Harpa are funded by Ýlir, Harpa's music fund for young musicians. "I am now gearing myself up again after the tour to play these next concerts. I always think it's very important to find something new to bring to every concert and to experience the music in a novel way."

The Perfect Project for a Pandemic

Geirþrúður graduated from The Juilliard School in New York after a two-year long master's degree in the spring of 2020, when she was 26 years old. "I was graduating in the middle of a pandemic which was of course rather strange and left a big question mark regarding was I should do next. Initially I had thought to remain in New York and freelance but that was no longer a very viable option."

Geirþrúður has spent the past year in Cambridge, England, where her partner is a doctoral candidate. "It was difficult to play with other people, but I wanted to keep in shape after graduating. Which is why I assigned myself the goal of learning all six Bach suites. During my studies I had played some of the suites but never all in one go.

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I had always dreamed of playing them all at some point in my life. So, I organized a concert tour of Iceland, applied for funding, got in touch with the people I knew and so forth. I have now been living with these suites for a whole year, but I've also taken on some other projects chamber music and recording projects here and there. The Bach suites were the perfect project to devote myself to during Covid and it's really thanks to the pandemic that I managed to make this dream come true. I was quite worried something would prevent the concerts from being able to happen, but thankfully everything worked out well."

Bottomless Suites

It has come as a surprise to Geirþrúður that the more she plays these suites, the more they give back in return. "I've often felt that when I play something for a long time, I start to grow tired of it, but that has not been the case with the Suites. These are six pieces, all very different and they are all-round so demanding. A lot has been written about them and it's really interesting to get to know what others who have played them have to say about them. They really are bottomless suites, and it feels really good to feel like I can keep playing these pieces. They could easily become a life-time project for me. 

My favorite suite really is the 6th suite. It is different from the others in that it was written for a five-stringed cello. Today it is usually played on a regular instrument with four strings, which makes it particularly challenging. But I think that makes it even more fun. Five-stringed cellos were popular during the baroque era but then fell out of fashion. In the past 20 years people have been rediscovering these instruments and it's a big dream of mine to get to play Bach's sixth suite on a five-stringed cello one day, like it was written."

There is something about the sound, how you draw it forth, how deep and rich it is...

An Indifferent Student

Geirþrúður was five years old when she started studying violin in a Suzuki program, but that lasted a short while. "I remember when I saw kids playing the cello and told my parents that that was what I wanted to do. They then contacted my uncle, Gunnar Kvaran, who agreed to take me on as a student when I was six years old," says Geirþrúður. She says Gunnar has commented on the fact that when she was little, she was not a very industrious student. "My parents played a lot of classical music, but it wasn't until I was 14 years old and got an iPod that I started developing a real interest in this music myself. I started listening to cellists and cello concertos and realized that I loved this music. Then the wheels began turning and I started getting more out of the cello lessons."

At eighteen Geirþrúður when to Chicago to study for five years. "I was working with a very technically demanding teacher, who built me up in a very systematic way. It was a very rewarding time and prepared me really well for the next phase of my studies, which was at Juilliard."

A Cello with a History

The cello that Geirþrúður plays on has a particularly lovely story behind it. The instrument is itself is French. "When I first went abroad to study, my uncle Gunnar lent me his cello - the very cello he had played on when he was teaching me. Later I was so fortunate as to be able to purchase it. The cello really is a part of the family and it's incredibly important to me. People always comment on the beautiful sound and look of the instrument, and naturally so since it is a very nice instrument. There is also a unique design on the back of it which gives it a very special look."

What is it that draws you to the cello as an instrument?

"What captivates me most about the cello is the sound. There is something about the sound, how you draw it forth, how deep and rich it is. I have always particularly loved romantic music, where the juicy and lyrical characteristics of the instrument get to shine. It was one of the things that drew me to the instrument when I was young and it's what I always enjoy practicing most."

Pants the best playing outfit

Geirþrúður says it's tricky to choose clothing as a cellist. "Skirts and dresses can be difficult since they are often too short or too tight. I personally always feel most at home in pants or jumpsuits, so I look for those kinds of outfits for concerts. Comfort is key and as a cellist I need to be able to move on stage. But at the same time I like wearing something a little noticeable. I'm drawn to colorful clothes, especially colorful pants, which are visible when I play. I think darker colors go better with the instrument that lighter ones, especially reds and blues. I also like having an open back design, which can be seen when I walk on and off stage. I look for something distinctive, both in color and design."

"Emma Watson is sort of my fashion model. I have always found her really tasteful, and she always appears in something new and exciting. She also works with interesting designers, and I like how she thinks about the effects of the fashion industry on the environment and broader society. One of my biggest influences on the cello was the British cellist Jaqueline du Pré. She was my first inspiration as a cellist. She was incredibly successful and one of the most important cellists of all time, but she died very young at the age of 42, in 1987."

Accidents on stage

Geirþrúður doesn't have a lot of juicy stories about wardrobe malfunctions on stage, although there have often been close calls. "You can say that for female cellists it can be very tricky to wear outfits that are very loose or open. You can run the risk of showing more to the audience than they bargained for. I've also made the mistake of appearing in something that was too long, and nearly fallen headfirst onto my instrument as I walked on stage."

High heels are not a problem on stage, says Geirþrúður. "I'm not very good in heels day-to-day, but they have often been my savior on stage since I'm quite short. It's very common for the chairs that are provided on stage to be too tall for me, and in heels I can reach the floor far more easily.

On the July 10 concerts, where I play the first three Bach suites, I'm planning on wearing a black jumpsuit with an open back and a keyhole cutout in the front. Then I have a dark red jumpsuit for the later three suites which are a bit more dramatic."

Has gotten to know herself all over again

"I have always loved playing chamber music, and it was kind of a funny challenge to play so much on my own this past year and play so many solo concerts. I've always thought of myself as a chamber musician rather than a soloist, but this year has really given me the chance to get to know myself as a solo player. I hope to build up a career a a solo and chamber musician and it'd be an absolute dream come true if that works out."

This fall Geirþrúður will be an Artist Diploma student in London, where she will have private instruction and the chance to perform regularly. "I will also be traveling back and forth between London and New York, where I play in a string quartet which was founded at Juilliard. Then I'll of course come back to Iceland regularly and play here and visit my family."

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