Baldur Brönnimann / Basel Sinfonietta
Georg Friedrich Haas / Gérard Grisey / Elliott Carter

Kultur- und Sportzentrum, Münchenstein BL, 2020-11-22

4.5-star rating

2020-11-27 — Original posting



Table of contents


Introduction

Venue, date & timeKuspo — Kultur- und Sportzentrum, Münchenstein BL, 2020-11-22 19:00
Series / TitleBasel Sinfonietta — Es verändert sich (Things are / keep changing)
OrganizerBasel Sinfonietta
Reviews from related eventsPrevious concerts with this orchestra
Previous concerts with Baldur Brönnimann

The Artists

Neither the orchestra, the Basel Sinfonietta (see also Wikipedia), nor its conductor, Baldur Brönnimann (*1968, see also Wikipedia) need an introduction here. I have written about numerous of their concerts in this blog. And I was happy to attend one of their concerts again, almost 10 months after the last encounter on 2020-02-02. I meant to attend more performances since then. However, the pandemic imposed cancellations and precluded full-scale concerts.

Changes in Plans, New Venue, “Ghost Concert”

The original plan called for this concert to take place in the Goetheanum in Dornach, SO, the world center of the anthroposophical movement. Due to restrictions in allowed audience size, this orchestra withdrew the plan and cancelled the concert. However, at relatively short notice, the possibility opened up to broadcast the concert via radio (Radio SRF Kultur). This would be pre-recorded and transmitted a few weeks later (2020-12-09, 21:00h). At the same time, it opened up the extra opportunity for a live streaming broadcast to the orchestra’s registered audience. The pandemic forced this into a concert without audience. Consequently, the last-minute announcements called this a “Ghost Concert“.

Setting, etc.

For this alternate plan, it was not necessary to rent a concert venue, such as the Goetheanum in Dornach. Rather, the radio recording and live broadcast took place in the main hall of the Kuspo, the Kultur- und Sportzentrum in Münchenstein. Here, the orchestra used the small stage merely for the percussion section. The main body of the orchestra was spreading over the front 2/3 of the hall, observing the rules for physical distancing, every musician with their own desk. The rear third was available for a symbolic audience, as well as for the orchestra members that were not required for the second of the three pieces.

The (non-orchestral) audience consisted of a mere five people, among them a member of the local press, my wife and myself. In fact, I regard it a privilege to have been invited to this performance. Without that, this review would not exist, as I don’t review online / streamed performances.


Program

In the aftermath, the title / motto of the concert, “Es verändert sich” (“Things are changing”, or “Things keep changing”), had multiple justifications. The new & unexpected one was in the change in concert format. Then, there’s the theme inside the pieces of the program:

Es verändert sich

The topic of “change” within the pieces is illuminated under various aspects. Haas’ composition looks at changes in what one can see in the starry night sky through varying zoom levels and fields of view. The title of Grisey’s composition, “Modulations” implies change in itself, and Carter’s composition is a set of variations—changes on a given theme.


Concert & Review

Georg Friedrich Haas: Joshua Tree (2020)

The Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas was born 1953 in Graz (Styria) and grew up in Vorarlberg. He did his studies in Graz, later in Vienna. He has been a teacher in Graz, as well as in Basel. 2013, he became professor of composition at Columbia University. His oeuvre comprises a large variety of genres, from chamber music to vocal works, to orchestral compositions, on to several operas. The latter have been criticized for esthetic voyeurism, evoking themes such as suffering, illness and death. Some call him a leading exponent of spectral music. The program notes state that Haas pursues the utopia of creating music that is expressive and pleasant—not despite, but because it is new.

Joshua Tree (2020) was commissioned for the Basel Sinfonietta by the Kölner Philharmonie and the Musica Festival Strasbourg. At the latter festival, the Basel Sinfonietta performed the world premiere, on 2020-09-19.

The title of the work refers to the Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. This is one of the world’s best and most beautiful locations to observe the night sky. Haas’ comment on this composition: “The watcher of the night sky inevitably looks at groups of stars, and these create pictures in the viewer’s imagination. However, when looking at the same area through a telescope, the sheer number of light spots makes it impossible to recognize structures. Everything revolves around density and imperceptible motion. That’s the phenomenon which I wanted to implement in music.”

Performance / Listening Experience

A soft beat on the tam-tam opens the piece. Its fading vibrations evoke resonances in the orchestra: a high-pitch, narrow, microtonal cluster that converges to a single tone, grows and decays in waves, opens up again into neighboring microtonal (quarter-tone) intervals. Definitely together with the composer’s description, this invoked the picture of infinity, of the resonating universe.

Change and Migration

These resonance waves pick up intensity, move to other pitches. Layers of resonances / tones, growing to shrill, even ear-piercing dissonances, diversifying, constantly changing, temporarily converging to near-tonality, even an arpeggiated major chord on piano and harp. These chords are sending ascending waves into the persistent, high-pitch resonances. A modern version of a “harmony (!) of the spheres”? As Baldur Brönnimann explained in his brief introduction, Haas works extensively with quarter-tone intervals. This also explains the presence of two harps, tuned one quarter-tone apart.

Constantly change between acceleration / deceleration, density vs. void / space / distance, crescendo vs. fading, whirring and pitch-less noise vs. warm, dark tones. The latter are shifting / diverging into microtonal clusters, constantly changing colors. Similarly, there is constant change in sonic texture, a “war of pizzicatos”, droplets. Trills, whirring sounds: voids with scarce stellar objects vs. chaos in large-scale celestial structures with their huge variety of shapes. It doesn’t take much to picture a look into the wandering field-of-view through a telescope: the mysteries of the universe in its near-infinity. Not just one climax, but multiple climaxes everywhere.

Spectral music?!

A central point is at bar 236, which Baldur Brönnimann used as example in the introduction. It introduces a clear, arpeggiated C major chord on the piano, picked up by the orchestra, then instantly starts broadening into neighboring quarter-tone intervals (“chords which never quite match”), creating an atmosphere of density, tension, dissonance, which again changes into intense, harmonious chords, allusions to the Turangalîla Symphony by Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992). Or, wasn’t this a near-quote from “Der Ring des Nibelungen” by Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), such as the Prelude to “Das Rheingold“, or brass sounds from “Siegfried“?

Shifting chords, indicating the redshift of distant objects? Breathing stellar winds? Cello and bass grumbling, noise clusters, light flashes from the brass section, ultimately fading into the distance. The disorderly nature of distant parts of the universe? The term “spectral music” didn’t mean much to me prior to this concert. However, what demonstrates that better than this grandiose piece?

Performance

As for the performance: no surprises here. Baldur Brönnimann’s clear and precise conducting kept the orchestral apparatus under control at any time (even with the physically distanced setup). At the same time, with his experience in new and newest music, he left no doubt about his thorough familiarity with the score.

★★★★★

Gérard Grisey: “Les espaces acoustiques” — IV. Modulations (1976 / 1977)

The French composer Gérard Grisey (1946 – 1998) grew up in Belfort, but started his music studies in Trossingen, Germany (1963 – 1965). He then entered the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique (CNSM) in Paris, studying with Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992), and in parallel to that with Henri Dutilleux (1916 – 2013) at the Ecole Normale de Musique. He also attended the Darmstädter Ferienkurse, which brought him into contact with composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007), Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001), and György Ligeti (1923 – 2006). Grisey, too, is called an exponent of spectral music. He later rejected that attribution.

Les espaces acoustiques

1976 – 1985, i.e., over a decade, Grisey developed a six-part cycle Les espaces acoustiques, a “big laboratory, in which the techniques of spectral music are applied to a variety of musical situations”. The cycle consists of six independent compositions. All, except for the Epilogue can also be performed just by themselves (the description below is an excerpt from the program notes):

  • I: Prologue, for viola and optional live electronics (1976)
  • II: Périodes, for flute, clarinet, trombone, violin, viola, cello, and double bass (1974)
  • III: Partiels, for 18 musicians (1975)
  • IV: Modulations, for orchestra (1976 / 1977)
  • V: Transitoires, for large orchestra (1980)
  • VI: Epilogue, for 4 solo horns and large orchestra (1985)

One may see Les espaces acoustiques as quintessence of Grisey’s oeuvre. The motive / idea in these pieces revolves around a central sound, which gradually evolves into related sounds. The growing distance from the original creates increasing tension (breath intake, systole). Conversely, when that process is reversing, the listener experiences gradual relaxation (breathing out, diastole).

Modulations is the fourth piece in the above cycle. It is written for 33 musicians. It shows “continuous flowing, above a background of a spectrum of harmonics covering the entire tonal space”. The dedicatee of the composition, Olivier Messiaen, brought about the concept of consciously using harmonics (overtones) to enhance the richness of colors in musical textures.

Baldur Brönnimann, Basel Sinfonietta @ Kuspo, Münchenstein BL, 2020-11-22 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Baldur Brönnimann, Basel Sinfonietta @ Kuspo, Münchenstein BL, 2020-11-22 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Performance / Listening Experience

Here, with only 33 musicians in this fairly large hall (12 string instruments, winds, 3 percussionists), the orchestral setup was even more “diluted”.

The percussive, dissonant blasts which open the piece set a string contrast to the preceding composition. The beginning felt “pseudo-rhythmic”, featuring a chaotic sequence of irregularly spaced, microscopic, noisy chords / clusters. Gradually, the spacing between the clusters was growing. The piece acquired structure, regularity, turning into “breathing” through crescending pattern at alternating pitch levels, then into “belly notes” in migrating (dis-)harmonies. As mentioned above, almost throughout, tones were associated with coloring high-pitch overtones. I did not sense melodies, merely chords forming microscopic motifs. One might also see this as multitude of breathing micro-layers, gradually fading into silence.

A Fresh Start (Part II?)

A second part opens with accelerating drum rolls, converting into brassy sounds, diversifying in multiple layers. Melodic fragments from isolated, dissonant clusters, tension gradually changing into a kind of resting, calm breathing in varying pitches, always with a shiny, often glittering high-pitch “companion sound”—Messiaen’s coloring method. The (pseudo-)melodic layers increase in number, ending in a manifold, lively interaction. Momentarily this felt like chatter, then gained rhythmic & dynamic structure, coherence. Deceleration leads to isolated chords with rich harmonics, overlaying / accumulating resonances. Clusters calling out, fading, listening: “resonating space”? Surprisingly, the piece ends almost abruptly, with a splash after a short crescendo.

Performance

Even in the vastly spaced setting, Baldur Brönnimann and the Basel Sinfonietta maintained coherence at all times. Very often, as a listener, one forgot completely that there were only 33 instrumentalists performing!

★★★★½

Elliott Carter: Variations for Orchestra (1954/55)

Elliott Carter (1908 – 2012, see also Wikipedia) was one of the most well-known American composers of the last century. Born into a wealthy family, he spent most of his youth in Europe. It was Charles Ives (1874 – 1954), who motivated Carter to move into music. Ives took the young Carter to concerts, where he encountered music by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971), Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953), and numerous other composers. In his own compositions, Carter gradually developed his own style, evolving from neoclassicism, i.e., influences by Stravinsky, Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990), and Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963).

The Variations for Orchestra (1954/55) are Carter’s first major orchestral work, in which the composer realized his own esthetic ideas about orchestra sound. The 12 movements are all performed attacca (separated only by contrasts in tempo / movement), building up to the finale:

  1. Introduction: Allegro
  2. Theme: Andante
  3. Var.1: Vivace leggero
  4. Var.2: Pesante
  5. Var.3: Moderato
  6. Var.4: Ritardando molto
  7. Var.5: Allegro misterioso
  8. Var.6: Accelerando molto
  9. Var.7: Andante
  10. Var.8: Allegro giocoso
  11. Var.9: Andante
  12. Finale: Allegro molto

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (/ piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

Performance / Listening Experience

Let me start by stating that I followed the music in this concert without score. While frantically scribbling notes, I didn’t really try following the structure, i.e., the sequence of the variations in all detail, and my references to specific sections may be misaligned. I should state, though, that to the unprepared user (such as myself), Carter is far from using the classical model of a theme with an easily recognizable melody or rhythm, let alone an identifiable harmonic progression.Consequently, what appeared as a short sequence of slow / heavy bars was likely an entire variation, instantly flowing into the next segment. The listener is actually better served by just enjoying the kaleidoscope of music passing by, letting inspiration create a flow of associations. Either way, it would take multiple passes to capture a substantial portion of the details (allusions, interconnections) in this composition.

After the first two compositions, Elliott Carter’s Variations appeared amazingly “melodic”. Initially, though, I had the impression of disconnected / competing melody fragments, strictly atonal, mostly dissonant. Soon, however, the low voices introduce motifs / (near-)quotes from late-romantic symphonic works. Russian orchestral compositions came to mind, later rather Mahler, maybe Bruckner (but far less tonal), possibly French impressionists (especially passages with flute solo). Emphatic segments alternated with moments of “looser intensity”, tonal moments with micro-melodic ones. I noted “pointillism“, even though I’m not sure whether this term is applicable to Carter’s music.

Variation 6: Accelerando molto

This extensive variation starts after a short general rest, with a melody first in the clarinet, then in other wind instruments, later also strings, definitely accelerando molto. The acceleration is not a simple, coordinated action, but happens in every individual voice, competing, layered, giving the impression of continuity in accelerando.

Variation 7: Andante — Variation 8: Allegro giocoso — Variation 9: Andante

Low brass instruments appeared to imitate an Aequale by Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896). Was this just the brass sonority?? That part is not alone, though (as in Bruckner’s models), but the underpinning to a longer, affirmative melody (in unison) in all string instruments, with intermittent woodwind moments. Late-romantic attitude, though avoiding tonality.

Variation 8 is indeed happily joking, more rhythmic than most other variations: a surprisingly melodic voice surrounded by short motifs jumping / hopping around between many voices. Variation 9 forms a string contrast, with hefty, dense sounds of a major symphonic work. A complex web of competing voices, atonal (even though individual melody fragments may well be heard as tonal), “modernist” at the time of the composition.

Finale

The finale returns to allusions to symphonies by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911), other post-romantic composers, and music by Igor Stravinsky. Yet, Carter seemed in the process of finding his personal style, taking off from heritage that he must have encountered during his stay in Europe. A work that is pivotal between late- and post-romantic styles and modernism. Sure, it must have sounded much more progressive at the time of the composition, compared to the impressions that it makes to today’s ears.

Performance

After the concert, Baldur Brönnimann told me how challenging and interesting this last composition was, with the countless short solo segments. And all this in a setting with such large distances between the instrumentalists / the voices, as well as between parts of the orchestra and the conductor. I must say, though, that I never felt any coordination issues: the instrumental & musical performance was really excellent in all aspects. If I was to look for the hair in the soup, all I can think of was one short moment of minor intonation issues in the brass section, close to the end—hardly noticeable at all. Congrats to everybody involved!

★★★★½ (performance: ★★★★★; composition: ★★★★)

Conclusions

I can’t thank Baldur Brönnimann and the management of the Basel Sinfonietta (Werner Hoppe, in particular) enough for inviting me (a mere blogger!) to this “ghost concert”. To me, this was an extraordinary opportunity, and a highly interesting experience.

One would hope (!) that this remains a unique and one-time chance. However, as the pandemic is far from being over, we cannot exclude the necessity for additional “ghost events”, such as this one.


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