Nicolas Hodges, Ilan Volkov / Basel Sinfonietta
Tania Léon / Linda Catlin Smith / Christian Wolff
Paul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco, Basel, 2021-01-24
2021-01-28 — Original posting
Geisterhafte “Botschafter der Erinnerung”: die Basel Sinfonietta im Paul Sacher-Saal des Kulturzentrums Don Bosco — Zusammenfassung
Die Pandemie erzwang die Durchführung eines weiteren Geisterkonzerts der Basel Sinfonietta, ohne Publikum, aber mit Live-Video Streaming für Abonnenten, und mit späterer Radio-Übertragung via Radio SRF 2 Kultur (2021-02-24, 21:00). Ort des Geschehens: der Paul Sacher-Saal des Kulturzentrums Don Bosco in Basel. Das Orchester wurde geleitet vom Israelischen Dirigenten Ilan Volkov. Drei Kompositionen kamen zur Aufführung:
Ácana für Kammerorchester (2008) ist eine Komposition der Kubanerin Tania Léon (*1943) und orientiert sich an einem Gedicht des Polit-Aktivisten Nicholás Guillén. Ácana ist ein in den mittelamerikanischen Tropen heimischer Baum. Die Musik beschreibt die komplexen, unsichtbaren Verbindungen, die dieser mit seinen weit ausladenden Wurzeln entstehen lässt. Lebendig und bilderreich, oftmals hinreißend.
Als schweizer Erstaufführung folgte Memory Forms (1995) der Kanadierin Linda Catlin Smith (*1957). Die Komposition handelt von Zeit, Erinnerung und Vergessen: leise, klagende Motive der Violinen in extremer Tonhöhe, kontrastierend mit Wellen ruhender Akkorde in den anderen Stimmen. Kollektives Gedächtnis, Bilder aus ferner Vergangenheit. Intime Musik, die zugleich an Sphärenklänge des Universums, der Unendlichkeit anzuspielen scheint: imaginativ einzigartig.
Als letztes schließlich eine Welt-Uraufführung: Mountain Messengers für Klavier und Orchester, des US-Amerikaners Christian G. Wolff (*1934). Dieser schrieb das Werk im Auftrag der Basel Sinfonietta. Am Konzertflügel saß der englische Pianist Nicolas Hodges. Die Komposition nimmt Bezug auf die älteste kalifornische Wochenzeitung The Mountain Messenger, die vor einem Jahr nur dank der Initiative des Privatmanns und Rentners Carl Butz dem sicheren Untergang entrissen wurde. Das Werk—das längste des Abends—ist keine leichte Kost: nahe bei serieller Musik, stark fragmentiert, konsequent atonal, rhythmische Kontinuität vermeidend, ohne erkennbare, größere Strukturen oder melodische Themen. Anspruchsvoll in der Ausführung, unergiebig als Hörergebnis bei der ersten Begegnung.
Das Orchester erfüllte selbst hoch gesteckte Erwartungen: wenn auch die Werke nicht alle gleichermaßen überzeugten, so ließ doch die Darbietung der Musiker und Musikerinnen kaum Wünsche offen, trotz physical distancing und Gesichtsmaske.
Table of contents
- Concert & Review
- Tania Léon: “Ácana” for Chamber Orchestra (2008)
- Linda Catlin Smith: “Memory Forms” for Orchestra (1995)
- Christian G. Wolff: “Mountain Messengers” for Piano and Orchestra (2021)
|Venue, date & time||Paul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco, Basel, 2021-01-24 19:00|
|Series / Title||Botschafter der Erinnerung (Messengers of Remembrance)|
|Reviews from related events||Concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta|
Previous concert in this venue
The orchestra in this concert, the Basel Sinfonietta (see also Wikipedia), needs no introduction. I have been a frequent visitor to their performances ever since 2015, and I have never been disappointed! In the majority of these encounters, the orchestra played under the direction of its principal conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, who was present at this concert, but merely as a listener.
Ilan Volkov, Conductor
For that evening, the orchestra was led by the Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov (*1976, see also Wikipedia). After initial studies in Jerusalem, Volkov received his main conducting education from the Royal Academy of Music in London. He started his performing career at age 19, when he was named “Young Conductor in Association” to the Northern Sinfonia (Newcastle upon Tyne). 1997, he became Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and in 1999, Seiji Ozawa named him Assistant Conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From there, his career took him to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (chief conductor, 2003, and 2008 – 2014, he was chief conductor with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
Nicolas Hodges, Piano
The last work in the program (see below) was a composition for piano and orchestra. The soloist in this (not so ordinary) concerto was the British pianist Nicolas Hodges (*1970, see also Wikipedia). He received his musical education in Oxford, Cambridge, and Bristol. Initially a treble boy singer, Hodges then studied piano with Robert Bottone at Winchester College, and subsequently with Susan Bradshaw and Sulamita Aronovsky at the Royal Academy of Music, also taking lessons with Jonathan (Yonty) Solomon. He further received training as Lied accompanist with Geoffrey Parsons and Roger Vignoles. On top of that, Nicolas Hodges also studied composition. The artist is now Professor at the Musikhochschule, Stuttgart.
As a performing artist, Nicolas Hodges puts a particular focus on contemporary music, while at the same time cooperating with notable orchestras, conductors, and chamber music formations.
As with most or all concerts that the Basel Sinfonietta organizes for itself, the program consisted of new and newest contemporary music exclusively:
- Tania Léon (*1943): “Ácana” for Chamber Orchestra (2008)
- Linda Catlin Smith (*1957): “Memory Forms” for Orchestra (1995)
- Christian G. Wolff (*1934): “Mountain Messengers” for Piano and Orchestra (2021, world premiere)
For details on the compositions see below. The performance of Linda Catlin Smith’s composition was the first one in Switzerland. Christian G. Wolff’s work for piano and orchestra is a creation for the Basel Sinfonietta and Nicolas Hodges. That part of the performance was a world premiere.
The concert stood under the title “Messengers of Remembrance” (Botschafter der Erinnerung). The motto and its realization need explaining—see my comments on the compositions below.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the orchestra to perform this concert without audience—another “ghost concert”. The musicians performed at their new “home”, the Paul Sacher Hall at the newly established Don Bosco Cultural Center. This now is the official address of the orchestra, and also its principal rehearsal site. The Basel Sinfonietta will likely perform regular concerts in this location in the future. Right now, with the requirement for physical distancing, the podium is too small for such repertoire. However, the absence of an audience allowed the orchestra to fill not only the podium, but also the entire floor of the nave in the former church.
The orchestra performed with live video streaming for subscription members. At the same time, the concert was recorded for subsequent broadcasting via Radio SRF 2 Kultur (2021-02-24, 21:00h).
It was a privilege to be invited to a ghost concert, for the second time already. The last instance was on 2020-11-22. This time, my wife and I indeed were all of the audience, apart from the radio & video technicians (and chief conductor Baldur Brönnimann). We had seats in the rear-most row of the ascending part of the auditorium, right in front of (and at the height of) the organ balcony. This gave us the best possible, unobstructed view, while at the same time featuring excellent acoustics, given the moderate size of the venue.
Concert & Review
Concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta always feature an introduction for audiences. Usually, the chief conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, offers explanations / introductions, typically with soloists, often jointly with members of the management team. Here, for the streaming and radio audiences, such concert moderation of course was a must. The pianist, music journalist, and radio moderator Moritz Weber took over this task, guiding the streaming and radio audiences through the program. For the introduction, Moritz Weber was joined by the orchestra’s managing director, Daniela Martin:
As these introductions reached the audiences straight through microphones, the text was virtually unreadable from the last row in the auditorium. That’s the one disadvantage of such ghost concerts. However, I was able to download the PDF version of a “would-be concert handout”. Information that I could not find via Wikipedia, or on artist’s or composer’s Websites I extracted from that handout.
Tania Léon: “Ácana” for Chamber Orchestra (2008)
The Cuban composer Tania Léon (*1943, see also Wikipedia) grew up in Havana, in a family with French, Spanish, and African roots. At age 4, she started playing the piano and received lessons at two Cuban conservatories. 1967, she left Cuba and joined New York University. 1969, together with Arthur Mitchell (1934 – 2018) she founded the Dance Theater of Harlem. She was music director for that ensemble, for which she wrote several ballet compositions. Tania León was very active within the American composers’ community. She also was a teacher at Brooklyn College in New York City, while at the same time pursuing a career as conductor. As such, she has performed not just in the Americas, but also throughout Europe, as well as in South Africa.
Tania Léon’s 2008 composition “Ácana” for Chamber Orchestra refers to a poem with that title by the Cuban poet, journalist and political activist Nicholás Guillén (1902 – 1989). The poem is about a tree that is native to the tropical regions of the Americas. It’s a tree characterized by its far-reaching roots. The music describes the linkage, the connections through these invisible roots in the underground of the American soil.
How does in Sound?
The whispered, soft sound of a Maraca (“rumba shaker”) called for silence (with a non-existent audience!), into which the two trumpets opened an extended, slightly melancholic, ornamented (pentatonic?) fanfare (the emergence of the tree?). When that fanfare ended, the strings responded with a series of trembling echo waves that moved through the voices (on a single note each). The trumpet fanfare returned into that trembling, now richer, and again, the strings responded with more trembling, but now in melody fragments / chords. The third fanfare seemed even richer, the two trumpets now playing a sort of canon, which stimulated even more string tremulating reverberations.
That was just the opening. Now, a flat cello tone signalled the propagation into wider spheres: a short eruption started a period in which short motifs formed lively responses that were passed around, bouncing between piano, percussion, wind instruments and strings: life emerging from the fringes of the Ácana roots? Keywords that sprang to mind: lively communication, correspondences, chattering interaction, an explosion of Latin life?
After mingling, gradually, the structures seemed to soften, turn more melodic, cave-like sounds led to a transition to lyric, chorale-like melodies in the strings, alternating with more of the rapid, virtuosic ping-pong of bouncing motifs. Traffic sounds, lively market scenes: fascinating, rhythmically enthralling! In the final segment, the music gradually returned to the opening fanfares, hereby closing the circle.
The Basel Sinfonietta showed itself in excellent form. The large physical distances didn’t appear to have any detrimental effect: to the contrary, the setting offered extra spatial resolution / dimensions, making the bouncing of motifs between the instrumental groups all the more effective: orchestral theater! The orchestra appeared to have no problem with the large distances: coordination and clarity were flawless. Ilan Volkov‘s conducting appeared firm, competent—factual, precise, not spectacular in his gestures. He received excellent support through the active, attentive concert master, Daniela Müller.
During the first, short intermission of a few minutes, Moritz Weber interviewed the conductor, Ilan Volkov:
Linda Catlin Smith: “Memory Forms” for Orchestra (1995)
The second composer in this concert, Linda Catlin Smith (*1957, see also Wikipedia), grew up in New York City, where she also started composition and music theory. Further studies took her to the University of Victoria in British Columbia and on to Buffalo, NY. She also studied piano, both at the State University of New York at Stony Brook as well as at the University of Victoria, where she also took harpsichord lessons. 1981, she moved to Toronto, ON, where she became artistic director of Arraymusic, one of Toronto’s major contemporary music ensembles. She held a number of teaching positions throughout Canada.
“Memory Forms” for Orchestra was written 1995. The composer’s Website states that the piece “is a succession of orchestral images – chords, fragments of melody, odd scales, occasional solo lines – which appear, recede and reappear in continuously changing forms.” I’m translating loosely from the (somewhat cryptic) additional description in the program notes:
In this composition, Linda Catlin Smith contemplates the fundamental experience of time, remembrance, and forgetting. She would like to allow the composition to “have its own amnesia”, by making the time “look bigger than it is”. She would like to write music that “she does not understand”.
If I understand the composer’s stenographic description “2222 2020 vb pn 87642, 18′” at her Website correctly, the work lasts nominally 18 minutes and is written for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, vibraphone, percussion, and strings (8-7-6-4-2). The actual instrumentation was slightly larger, with 5 cellos and 4 double basses (8-7-6-5-4).
The pieces starts with episodes of a soft resting chord (in the low strings) that form the basis for a pp / ppp high-pitch, minimal lamenting motif, a single, falling minor second. Very soft, but intense. That chord intensifies with every recurrence, the lamento motif spreads to other instruments. The chord shifts (again by a falling minor second); single tone interjections from the piano, brass instruments intensifying the chordal base, all in calm waves, separated by pauses: reflection, breathing, peace—softening, re-emerging. Tones, later also motifs propagate through the orchestra, the lamenting motif often returns, the violins mostly stay at extreme pitches.
Apart from the recurring, grinding second interval , the music does not feel dissonant, rather seems to depict the harmony of the spheres, evoking memories, pictures from the past or from far away. Time, “eternal memories / remembrance”, communication from present to the past and back. And at the same time I sensed a big, overarching organism, embracing present and past.
It’s intimate, reflecting music, with traits from minimal music (stretched). A solemn, almost religious atmosphere dominates the piece which also reminds of compositions by Arvo Pärt (*1935). The music seems to diffuse into infinity or eternity, evoking the wonderment about the width, the dimensions of the universe, the limitlessness of time…
The challenge here wasn’t in coordination and virtuosity. Rather, it required the conductor to keep the calm, breathing pace, staying in the atmosphere, and yet keep an eye on the overall dynamic arches. Ilan Volkov was excellent at all this. On the part of the orchestra, it was a matter of every instrumentalist merging into the “overall organism”, not to disturb the calm pace and atmosphere. Another excellent performance.
One little / minor quibble, in the second half of the piece, one could feel a slight effect of the physical distancing. There were momentary, very slight impurities in the violins at extreme pitches. The spacious setting and the face masks make it harder for the string players to maintain contact, maybe even to hear their own instrument. With this, the main challenge turned out to be intonation purity in this environment.
During the second, short intermission (also needed to set up the Steinway D-274 for the last—and biggest—work in the program), Moritz Weber interviewed the soloist of the evening, Nicolas Hodges.
Christian G. Wolff: “Mountain Messengers” for Piano and Orchestra (2021)
Christian Wolff is now known as an American composer. He was born 1934 in Nice, France, to the German literary publishers Helen and Kurt Wolff. 1946, he became an American citizen, and 1950, his piano teacher sent him to take lessons in composition with John Cage (1912 – 1992), with whom he became a close associate. Cage was a prominent member of the New York School, which included the fellow composers Earle Brown (1926 – 2002), Morton Feldman (1926 – 1987), and David Tudor (1926 – 1996).
As musician and (almost entirely self-taught) composer, Wolff was highly innovative. Wikipedia states that his early works “included a lot of silence and was based initially on complicated rhythmic schemes, and later on a system of aural cues. He innovated unique notational methods in his early scores and found creative ways of dealing with improvisation in his music.“
The biggest work of the evening was Christian G. Wolff’s “Mountain Messengers” for Piano and Orchestra is from 2021. The composition had its world premiere in this concert. It is a piano concerto (of sorts), commissioned by the Basel Sinfonietta.
The title of the work refers to The Mountain Messenger, “California’s Oldest Weekly Newspaper”. That publication was established in 1853, in Downieville, California, a little community in the Sierra Nevada (2010 population: 282). It appeared as if the good days (or weeks) of that newspaper, which once featured notable authors such as Mark Twain (1835 – 1910), were long gone. In January, 2020, the publication was on the verge of going extinct. At that point, the veteran Carl Butz, then aged 71, was about to retire. Confronted with the impending death of the newspaper, Carl Butz took a spontaneous decision to rescue the newspaper by investing his savings to buy its remaining assets. Since then, he has kept publishing the paper almost single-handedly, as both owner and chief editor.
Inspired by this unusual story, Christian G. Wolff wrote the piano concerto “Mountain Messengers” which premiered in this concert. According to the program notes, the composer meant to depict “the connections between the individual and the collective, i.e., between soloist and orchestra, both of which depend on each other” (description freely adapted / translated from the program notes).
I referred to a piano concerto “of sorts” above. That reservation has nothing to do with the instrumentation. It is indeed a composition for piano and orchestra, and the orchestral setup is that of a typical romantic concerto. However, in terms of structure and musical language, it could not be farther from a conventional, classic, romantic, or late/post-romantic concerto:
The Listening Experience
Let me start by stating that this is a challenge for the listener—especially for the first encounter. Wolff is consequently resists using anything resembling a thematic structure (let alone of course classic concepts such as a sonata form). There are no recognizable themes, melodies, even substantial stretches of consistent rhythmic flow. Even though—as one could see from the conductor’s gestures—the notation appears to base upon a regular underlying meter.
Wolff’s writing is consequently atonal, avoiding harmony, and fragmented to the extreme: a seemingly endless sequence of disconnected, short motifs of a few notes, often just a trill. There are a few exceptions in lyrical string passages in the center of the piece. Typically, on a local scale, these motifs—mostly isolated by pauses—may be imitated: they often follow a call-response scheme, jumping around between the solo instrument and the instrument groups in the orchestra.
One can feel the heritage from Wolff’s teachers: serialism, trying to use all possible variations / combinations of pitch, duration, dynamics, and articulation. The original dodecaphony did that in the context of a “theme”—here, however, the extreme fragmentation prevents the notion of a recognizable “theme”, rather makes the music sound aleatoric.
Yes, there are momentary (even mellow, almost lyrical) melodic elements / moments, imitations between solo and orchestra. However, the constant jumping around, the constant, extreme switches in pitch and dynamics make it impossible for the listener to dwell in associations. There is no time to let one’s fantasy evoke pictures, grab a sense of “meaning”. Other than maybe the chaotic / erratic, whirling, if not overwhelming, even deafening, chattering flow of news snippets in a newspaper office?
Yes, that association is obvious (at least in connection with the description in the program notes). And I concede that I would find any segment of, say, 5 – 10 minutes interesting, fascinating (occasionally even “nice”!), and within such stretches, Wolff is definitely able to build up and maintain a sense of expectation, tension (even suspense?). However, in its totality, the music leaves the impression of “technical”, constructivism. The sheer length (more than half an hour), the overwhelming number of fragments / motifs in the end defeats the tension, cause the listener to lose any sense of a large scale structure. If that even exists.
As outlined above, Wolff’s music is challenging—definitely to the inexperienced listener (who my even find it tiring). It definitely is also a major challenge to orchestra and soloist. No, not in terms of conventional virtuosity, but in coordination and orientation.
I don’t think one can criticize any aspect of the performance (certainly not in a first encounter, and not without a score). Nicolas Hodges and the Basel Sinfonietta are highly experienced, even specialized in contemporary music, and there wasn’t ever any notion of uncertainly, lack of coordination, etc.—the main challenge here was in the music itself.
The “constructivist aspect” of this composition left me with a sense of regret: any performance involves interpretation—but where was that here? Is there even a recognizable amount of interpretative freedom? Weren’t the musicians just mostly busy performing the notes in the score and keeping track of the composition? And, with all the challenges in coordination and orientation across the myriad of fragments, wasn’t Ilan Volkov‘s role forcibly reduced to that of a bookkeeper, setting and maintaining the (underlying) pace, staying oriented and indicating bar or segment numbers to the musicians in the orchestra?
The performance notes and the ratings above obviously just describe my own, personal impressions—”al fresco“, so to say. Similarly, the performance photos above are not meant to be spectacular or glossy (besides the video recording, the orchestra hired their own photographer for “action photography”). The pictures should only just give an idea about the visual part of my personal concert experience.