Baldur Brönnimann / Basel Sinfonietta
Giger / Hosokawa / Norman / Dean / Volans / Márquez

Volkshaus Basel, 2016-09-24

4-star rating

2016-10-02 — Original posting
2019-10-28 — Replaced video link (addendum 1) with functional one

Baldur Brönnimann (© João Messias | Casa da Música)
Baldur Brönnimann (© João Messias | Casa da Música)

Table of Contents


Basel Sinfonietta and Baldur Brönnimann

After a fascinating concert experience in Zurich on 2015-10-03, this was my second encounter with the Basel Sinfonietta. For general information on this interesting orchestra see Wikipedia or my earlier post. The ensemble was founded in 1980. As previously mentioned, in 2015, for the first time in its history, the orchestra elected a principal conductor, Baldur Brönnimann. Brönnimann is a Swiss conductor, native of Basel (born 1968). He has made most of his conducting career outside of Switzerland. Indeed, he may be more known outside of Switzerland than even in his home town.

After studies at the Basel Music Academy and at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, Brönnimann launched a conducting career, covering both concert and opera. Contemporary music has always been one of his focal areas. He has been guest conductor with numerous orchestras in Europe, as well as South Korea and Australia. He also has conducted at the English National Opera, at the Teatro Colón, Argentina, as well as at the Komische Oper Berlin. 2007 – 2012. Brönnimann was Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia, since 2011 he is Artistic Director the BIT20 Ensemble in Norway. In 2015, he became Principal Conductor of the Orquestra Sinfonica do Porto Casa da Música. For additional information on the artist see here and on Wikipedia.

The Venue

As of this season, the orchestra’s regular home, the Musiksaal in the Stadtkasino Basel, is undergoing renovation / remodeling for about 3 years. This forces the orchestra to look for alternative locations and venues, and to spend more time touring for concerts in other cities / countries. In this season, alternate locations & venues will replace the Stadtkasino. These are both in an other community in the Canton (Aesch, canton Basel-Landschaft), as well as (mostly) within the city of Basel: in the Kaserne (former / historic military barracks), in the Musical Theater, in the Church St.Martin, and in an icerink.

The first concert in this season took place in the Volkshaus Basel, a community building in Kleinbasel (the smaller part of Basel, on the right bank of the Rhine), close to the trade fair buildings. The Volkshaus is a historic multi-purpose meeting / convention site, now housing a concert hall, meeting / convention halls, a bar, a beer garden, a restaurant, a hotel, and more. This concert was in the large concert hall (Festsaal), in a configuration to hold around 800 – 1000 seats. The concert was sold fairly well. My wife and I were holding first row balcony seats.

The Concert Program

This entire concert season 2016/17 runs under the motto “Grenzen” (borders). This can be seen as exploring / surpassing borders in musical style or in music provenience, as surpassing the borders of conventional concert venues (as just discussed), even as surpassing the “border” to being an orchestra with a permanent Principal Conductor. In his introductory remarks, Baldur Brönnimann announced the program as “a concert with 6 works (all between 9 and 14 minutes) by 6 composers from 6 continents“, running under the title “WorldWideMusic“.

Concert and Performance

Jannik Giger (*1985): Came Adrift (2016)

Composer and Work

The evening started with the world premiere of a work by a Swiss composer—even a composer from Basel, Jannik Giger (*1985). Giger received his first musical education in Bern (2007 – 2010, Batchelor of Arts). 2010 – 2012 he studied in Lucerne, with Dieter Ammann (Master of Arts in Composition). After that, 2012 – 2014,he continued his studies in Basel, with Michel Roth and Erik Oña (Master of Arts in Composition / MASP). Since 2010, he has produced compositions, both for chamber music formations, as well as for large ensembles.

His work is named “Came Adrift” and was completed 2016. The title presumably refers to “material that has drifted ashore”. From the composer’s own explanations:

He was inspired to this work by a chorale-like melody / fanfare from the “Concerto for Orchestra” (Sz.116 / BB 123) by Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945)—I have written about this work in an earlier concert review. The “chorale” is found in the second movement, “Presentando le coppie” (“Game of pairs”, Allegro scherzando), played by the brass instruments. Giger was referring to this as a “very old chorale”. Now, Bartók wrote his “Concerto” in 1943, so the music is not exactly old, let alone ancient. However, the chorale does sound like it was inspired by (or even adopted) from a pre-baroque era.

Giger cut this melody into small fragments, which he then spread all over his 10-minute composition. These “quotes” may not be easy to recognize for a lay listener, unless one has heard Bartók’s original before; I have added a link to a YouTube video with the proper segment in the addendum below.

How Does it Sound?

The piece starts in silence. The first thing that one notices are hollow sounds, the flapping noise from the valves of a contrabassoon. In the background, there is a slowly growing sound, gradually widening up in microtonal intervals, growing in volume, into a dissonant cluster of melody fragments. Shivering, whirring sounds from the strings, chaotic, possibly aleatoric segments. The sound reaches a climax, followed by a decrescendo. Small fragments are flashing up from the darkness of the a microtonal sound background. Waves dominate the scene, but at the same time, there is a multi-faceted world of small fragments, strong dynamic contrasts.

The middle part reminds me of a stutterer who wants to express a thought. Then, the piece calms down again, disappears into silence, with a scale of natural harmonics (reminds me of the playing of alpine horns), and at the very end, we are back at the flapping noises from the valves of the contrabassoon. The musical flow, the underlying, regular meter is often hard to perceive. However, interestingly it is definitely there, as one can easily see from the movements of the conductor’s baton.

Toshio Hosokawa (*1955): Ferne Landschaft III — Seascapes of Fukuyama (1996)

Composer and Work

The Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa was born 1955, in Hiroshima. He studied with Yun Isang at the Berlin University of the Arts. Starting in 1998, he was Composer-in-Residence with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. Since 2001 he is a member of the Akademie der Künste Berlin, and in 2004, he became guest professor at the Tokyo College of Music. His compositorial oeuvre spans from vocal works (oratorio, opera, songs), symphonic works and concertos to chamber music.

Hosokawa wrote “Ferne Landschaft III—Seascapes of Fukuyama” (Distant Landscape III) in 1996.

How Does it Sound?

“Seascapes of Fukuyama” takes the listener to an entirely different soundscape. The piece starts with metallophones, tamtam and percussion instruments from his home country, adding in individual bell-like sounds from the piano. For a long time, silence, darkness dominates: gradually, tremolos and flageolett, harmonics are setting in. Noises at the limit of what the human ear can detect, both in volume, as well as in extreme height. Changes are often hardly noticeable. Then, slowly, big waves move ashore, spuming. It’s a world without (visible) life, maybe even artificial. If there is life, then it is in the underground at most — worms in the soil, or at the bottom of the sea perhaps?

I experienced this as fascinating piece of music (yes, it is music!). As in the piece above, one can’t feel a regular meter in this piece—even though it is there, as one can see by observing the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann.

Andrew Norman (*1979): Unstuck (2008)

Composer and Work

Andrew Norman, born 1979, based in Los Angeles, describes himself as a composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music. His piece “Unstuck” for orchestra was written in 2008. The title describes process of creation, and at the same time the music itself. It is about the process of getting out of a blockage (the composer’s blockage, or being stuck in a one-way street).

How Does it Sound?

Norman’s piece formed a strong contrast to Hosokawa’s work. It is lively, very busy music, with a large rhythmic diversity, strongly structured, also in the tempo. The music alternates between noise, tonal, and polytonal fragments. Almost “industrial”, garrulously busy sections alternate with calm, measured segments, then again disrupted by talkative, eruptive interjections. Elegiac, melancholic atmosphere alternates with sections under pressing tension. Repetitive fragments indicate the state of being stuck in the narrowness of an impasse. The final part features flageolet tones from the cellos, moving up / flying away into the very highest positions. Just to get stuck ultimately, in a scratching fall. Interesting music, very diverse, multi-faceted, and pictorial.

Brett Dean (*1961): Amphitheatre — Scene for Orchestra (2000)

Composer and Work

The Australian Brett Dean was born 1961 in Brisbane. He is conductor, violist, and a prolific composer of works for the stage, orchestra, of chamber music, choral and other vocal works. He first studied violin, then viola at the Queensland Conservatorium, graduating in 1982. 1985 – 1999, he was violist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. But then, he returned to Australia, to work as freelance artist and composer.

In 2000, Brett Dean wrote “Amphitheatre — Scene for Orchestra“. The inspiration for this composition was the ruins of an antique amphitheater in the first chapters of the novel “Momo” (“Momo, or the strange story of the time-thieves and the child who brought the stolen time back to the people“, 1973), a book for children by the German author Michael Ende (1929 – 1995). In this piece, he tries describing the architecture of the monumental building and its history.

How Does it Sound?

The piece begins with a sforzato in the percussion and brass sections, followed by the imitation of the sound of Didgeridoos on the four horns. Dean combines reminiscences from the Old World with sounds of Australia’s aboriginal population. There is a descent into deep grumbling, followed by long build-ups / waves. There is a climax with an explosion of overflowing wildness on the solo violin (Daniela Müller), lively dissonances, traffic noise. The composer explores very interesting sound / noise effects and colors: at one point, muted trumpets are playing into the bell of a bass tuba (each). The tuba player does not blow, but by operating the valves, he is modulating the resonances of the soft, squeaking sound of the trumpet with mute.

Kevin Volans (*1949): Strip-Weave for Orchestra (2002/03)

Composer and Work

Kevin Volans was born 1949 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He now is an Irish citizen. He studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007) in Cologne. 1979, he started using African composition techniques. Volans has since produced a large number of compositions, covering stage, orchestra, chamber music, piano, organ, choral music, and also electronic and electro-acoustic works. For additional information on Kevin Volans see also Wikipedia.

The composition “Strip-Weave for Orchestra” was written 2002/03. It can best be characterized as Minimal Music, though not in it’s most extreme form. Volans is trying to describe repetitive schemes of interwoven strips of patterned tissue.

How Does it Sound?

The music features a set of apparently independent, rhythmic and tonal, melodic fragments and pattern. These are moving against and crossing each other, gradually appear to organize themselves. In the subsequent, second build-up, the piece is very rhythmic and percussive. the music is extremely demanding. I noted some minor difficulties in the coordination within the ensemble—even though Baldur Brönnimann had substantial support by the (again) very active concertmaster (Daniela Müller).

Arturo Márquez (*1950): Danzón No.2 (1994)

Composer and Work

The last piece was by the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, born 1950 in Álamos, Sonora. The only on of nine siblings to become a musician, though both his father and grandfather were musicians. He received most of his musical education (piano and music theory, 1970 – 1979) from the Mexican Music Conservatory. He later moved to the U.S. and in 1990 obtained an MFA in composition from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Márquez now lives in Mexico City.

His Danzon No.2 is one of a set of composition that has its origins in the music of Cuba and the Veracruz region in Mexico. Danzon No.2 has become famous since Gustavo Dudamel (*1981) took it onto his tour of Europe and the U.S. with the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela.

How Does it Sound?

Sure, Danzon No.2 is a very popular (too popular, perhaps) piece. It is full of swinging tango and samba rhythms, entertaining, enthralling in the lively sections, melancholic in the slow samba parts. To me, it moves between carnival and popular music, a too-obvious last dance. From the point-of-view of musical depth, it can’t reach the level of any of the preceding composition, in my opinion.


In summarizing the entire concert: I felt that after a mere, single week of cooperation with the Basel Sinfonietta, Baldur Brönnimann has taken and reached full control of the orchestra. He is a seasoned conductor with plenty of experience in contemporary music, firm, showing no signs of uncertainty.

As already in an earlier concert, I found it striking how focused and concentrated all of the musicians in the orchestra are at work. Of course, that’s not the strained concentration of a beginner, fighting with the difficulties of the score, but rather the concentration of professionals with the absolute will to create an extraordinary result as a team.

The repertoire in this program was highly demanding, and there were certainly moments where the coordination wasn’t perfect. However, after this concert I had no doubts that the cooperation between the Basel Sinfonietta and Baldur Brönnimann will yield many, very interesting, gratifying performances over the years to come.

Addendum 1

The chorale from the second movement (“Presentando le coppie” / “Game of pairs”, Allegro scherzando) in the “Concerto for Orchestra” (Sz.116 / BB 123) by Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) that Jannik Giger is referring to in “Came Adrift” can be heard in the following video:

Addendum 2

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

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