Jojo Mayer, Baldur Brönnimann / Basel Sinfonietta
Frank Zappa / Oliver Waespi

Stadtcasino, Basel, 2021-06-27

4.5-star rating

2021-07-12 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeStadtcasino, Basel, 2021-06-27 19:00
Series / TitleBasel Sinfonietta, 40th Anniversary — “Jojo, Zappa, Rock’n’Roll
OrganizerBasel Sinfonietta
Reviews from related eventsPrevious concerts with this orchestra
Previous concerts with Baldur Brönnimann

Reopening after the second wave of the pandemic also for the Basel Sinfonietta! The orchestra planned its last concert of the 2020/2021 season as streaming-only event. Now, at less than two weeks notice, the orchestra was able to perform the concert with audience. The allowance was a maximum of 2/3 of a venue’s capacity, and a maximum of 1000 people. The remaining provisions include the requirement physical distancing, and wearing masks.


Program: “Jojo, Zappa & Rock’N’Roll”

The past season meant to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Basel Sinfonietta. The pandemic of course had a substantial impact on that season. Luckily, the orchestra managed to perform the planned concerts as streaming events. Moreover, as mentioned above, for this final anniversary concert, there were effectively no more restrictions. Still, the orchestra wants to celebrate its 41st anniversary instead, in the coming season.

The program ran under the title “Jojo, Zappa & Rock’N’Roll“, where “Jojo” referred to the soloist:

I probably was somewhat of a peculiar listener in this concert. This needs an explanation. For the past 50 years (almost 60, actually), I have (deliberately and consciously) completely avoided all of Pop, Rock, and all related genres. I had of course heard the name Frank Zappa. However, I wasn’t aware of the fact that he was more than “just” a Pop musician.

Also the name “Jojo Mayer” was barely more than hearsay to me. With that, I hesitated considering this concert at all. However, Oliver Waespi’s composition made me curious. And luckily, some reading revealed more about the nature of this concert!


The Artists

Neither the orchestra, the Basel Sinfonietta (see also Wikipedia), nor its Principal Conductor, Baldur Brönnimann (*1968, see also Wikipedia) need an introduction here (see the links above).

Jojo Mayer

The Zurich-born drummer Sergé “Jojo” Mayer (*1963, see also Wikipedia) allegedly (sorry about my ignorance!) is one of the best-known Swiss virtuoso drummers. He made a career in the Jazz scene, where he performed at major festivals, with notable Jazz musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie (1917 – 1993), Nina Simone (1933 – 2003), and others. 1997, he founded the live electronica trio Nerve. Jojo Mayer now lives in New York.


Setting, etc.

I arrived some 35 minutes early, from the previous concert in Basel. The COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted only very recently. Moreover, many people are still cautious well beyond the past official restrictions, therefore hesitant to attend major, public events. With this, it didn’t surprise me to encounter a virtually empty foyer in the newly renovated Stadtcasino (see the first picture above). However, I was there before the doors officially opened. In the end, to my delight, I realized that my first impression was wrong. Within a few days, the Basel Sinfonietta managed to mobilize an audience of around 300 people. This shows how well the orchestra is rooted in Basel!

My seat was in the center of row 11. This turned out to be row 7: four parquet seating rows were missing. In order to fulfill the requirements for physical distancing, the podium had been enlarged. However, that left plenty of room for the 300 people that attended, even with loose seating.


Concert & Review

The concert opened with a short introduction, jointly presented by the orchestra’s managing director, Daniela Martin, and Elisabeth Baureithel, presenter at Radio SRF 2 Kultur. The introduction had the form of an interview, covering the past and the coming seasons, as well as of course the program for that night’s program.


Frank Zappa (Jean-Luc, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)
Frank Zappa (creator: Jean-Luc, via Wikimedia Commons)

Frank Zappa: Dupree’s Paradise (1984)

The Composer

There is no doubt: Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) is a cult figure. One can see this already from the fact that his Wikipedia entry competes with those for composers such as Bach, Beethoven, etc. in length. That entry describes Zappa as “American singer-songwriter, musician, activist, and filmmaker”. Most will know him as Pop songwriter, singer, and artist at the guitar. I’m probably one of a small minority not familiar with Frank Zappa as Pop artist. Therefore, I refrain from excerpting his Wikipedia entry.

Actually, I suspect that some readers will not be aware that Zappa was also a composer of contemporary classical music. In fact, in his youth, he encountered music by Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007), Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971), Anton Webern (1883 – 1945), Edgard Varèse (1883 – 1965), and others. He “consumed” their music along with the popular genres of the time. “Classic composing” became one of his many activities. In this, he used techniques introduced by Arnold Schönberg (1874 _ 1951), Alban Berg (1885 – 1935), as well as others.

The three pieces in this concert are classical orchestral compositions for Pierre Boulez and his Ensemble InterContemporain (Paris), and (in one case) for the Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt).

The Composition

Dupree’s Paradise (1984), is part of the 1984 album “The Perfect Stranger”. In that album, Pierre Boulez conducted the Ensemble InterContemporain in three out of seven tracks, among them “Dupree’s Paradise”. These three tracks also include the title piece “The Perfect Stranger”, performed here at the end of the first part of this concert.

For the description of the piece, let me quote a text that Thomas May wrote for a performance of the piece by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel (*1981). The same text (translated to German) was also part of the concert handout:

Dupree’s Paradise wasn’t an entirely new work written just for Boulez. It began as the jazzy, meter-shifting tune we hear at the opening of the piece, which Zappa used in concerts starting in 1974 to introduce his band as they improvised around it. In his liner notes to the album (whose cover art portrays a dog wearing a dress and sunglasses, seated in a high chair), Zappa describes the quintessentially beatnik scene he had in mind: “Dupree’s Paradise is about a bar on Avalon Boulevard in Watts at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday in 1964, during the early morning jam session. For about seven minutes, the customers (winos, musicians, degenerates and policemen) do the things that set them apart from the rest of society.”

The Orchestral Setting

For the “Zappa part” of the concert, the orchestra used a split setup, with a grand piano, a celesta, a violin, a violas and a cello on either side. There was a cymbalom on the right-hand edge of the podium. Each of the two halves had its own (not exactly identical) set of woodwind and brass instruments. There was a rich percussion setting in the rear. Finally, the “pivotal” positions in the center included the concertmaster (Simone Zgraggen), directly facing the conductor, and a harp, further back.

Sound

Not surprisingly, Zappa’s music describes the world he lived in. I experienced it as highly pictorial description of a lively (!) early morning street scene. Busy, but not (yet) overcrowded or chaotic. The music to me sounded like a mix of styles, resembling compositions by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), George Gershwin (1898 – 1937), Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971), and others. Jazzy in the rhythmic foundation, catchy, moderately dissonant motifs. Fragments in a complex, multi-faceted mix, initially in a “virgin” state, an almost serene atmosphere. This grows into “everyday’s chaos”, traffic noise, streams of people & vehicles passing by.

In my view, Zappa was creating colors not primarily by mixing instrument sounds. Rather, he uses a multitude of voices / instruments individually (maybe combining 2 – 3 only), with a variety of meters, motifs, and playing techniques. There are also moments that almost seem taken from the Turangalîla Symphony by Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992). Without the Ondes Martenot, of course.

Music, Performance

It’s not radical avant-garde / experimental music, nor obsessed with dissonances. Yet, not retrograde, nor trivial. Personal, yet alluding top a variety of styles. In my notes I wrote “conventional modern”, which I did not mean as deprecating. Rather, it’s fun music that takes the listener along a highly colorful world, through a kaleidoscope of images, scenes. As usual, Baldur Brönnimann conducted the orchestra with firm, clear gestures. The complexity of Zappa’s intricate sequence of rhythmic structures did not pose and challenge to orchestra and conductor.

The “everyday’s chaos” includes what I pictured as construction noise. Periodic outbreaks of “chaos”. This contrasts with the “popular tune” that Zappa was referring to, which was wandering around the ensemble often in the brass. As this tune was wandering, so was the multitude of motifs, percussion noises. A complex, multi-layered structure. Not polyphony in the conventional sense, of course, but parallel streams of events / voices. Like in a busy traffic scene, leading / building up to the big, thundering percussion splash that ends the piece.

Rating: ★★★★½

Frank Zappa: Get Whitey (1992)

1992, Frank Zappa wrote Get Whitey, a piece for chamber orchestra, for the Ensemble Modern. Their performance appeared 1993 as part of the album “The Yellow Shark”, one month before the composer died of prostate cancer.

Let me again quote the text that was also used as basis for the (German) description in the concert handout. The original was posted by France Musique, in connection with a performance by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, directed by Matthias Pintscher (*1971):

Written for the album Yellow Shark in 1992, Get Whitey is one of Zappa’s rare works where no external influences are made evident, allowing a glimpse of Zappa’s true and pure musical creativity. The work is proof of Zappa’s musical understanding and mastery, notably through his use of complex rhythms and polyrhythmic structures.

Music, Sound, Performance

Mostly a tonal piece (in my perception), in which the mix with cymbalom, acoustic guitar and mandolin creates a “glassy” sound. Initially, I heard a “stochastic, multi-layered migration” of tones through the ensemble. Tonal, in a way, simple harmonies in a kind of “random walk”, not trivial in any way. Melodic fragments, motifs appear to happen through mere coincidence.

Baldur Brönnimann appeared to beat a regular meter. However, this was essentially covered / hidden by the “random walk” through the many layers. Gradually, longer melody fragments appear, especially in the woodwinds, without forming actual “themes”. Overall, one felt a big, calm “swaying without obvious rhythm or metric structure”. Highly artful in its own way. Serene, peaceful, and beautiful, for sure!

As Baldur Brönnimann explained on the next piece, “Perfect Stranger” was inspired from music by Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965). Frank Zappa heard this in his youth, and it fascinated him. The text above states that there are “no external influences” in “Get Whitey”. However, I find that similarities to Varèse’s music are also present in the textures of this piece. Harmonically, though, it is of course far from Varèse.

Rating: ★★★★½

Frank Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (1984)

The Perfect Stranger (1984) is one of three pieces in the album with that name. Pierre Boulez conducted the Ensemble InterContemporain (along with “Dupree’s Paradise” and “Naval Aviation in Art?”).

A detailed musical analysis of the piece is found in a posting on Frank Zappa’s musical language. In the description to the piece, the concert leaflet quotes Zappa’s description. I did not find the original text, except for the opening sentence (in italics below). The rest is back-translated to English, from the German concert handout:

A door-to-door salesman, accompanied by his faithful gypsy-mutant industrial vacuum cleaner, cavorts licentiously with a slovenly housewife. We hear the doorbell, the raised eyebrows of the housewife when she spies the vacuum cleaner nozzle through the ruffled curtains, the sound made when the small bag of «demonstration dirt» is sprinkled on the carpet, and various bombastic interjections representing the spiritual qualities of chrome, rubber, electricity, and a properly cleaned household. The whole event is observed from a safe distance by Patricia, the dog in the high chair.”

Music, Sound

Let me start by saying that one may picture the story / scene that Frank Zappa refers to in this music. However, only if one knows about the description beforehand. I did not try reading the script into the music. Rather, I tried capturing my “genuine impressions”.

I sensed this as very descriptive music, almost musique concrète, though it didn’t (spontaneously) evoke the underlying “story”. Predominant features include frequent glissandi and crescendi, a stochastic aspect. The latter isn’t in the rhythm, rather in the organization, the seemingly random appearance of pattern & pitches, especially early on. From watching the conductor, there is a regular underlying meter, but the “stochastic aspect” largely covers this up.

While I didn’t “see” the underlying action / “script”, I would certainly state that Zappa conveyed the absurdity of the tale! As for the “visual aspect”: at times, the music made me think of paintings by Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956).

Somehow, though, to me, “The Perfect Stranger” seemed the least attractive / interesting of the three pieces. Was this the length of the composition? A lack of structure, of structural clarity?

Performance

As expected, the performance by Baldur Brönnimann and the Basel Sinfonietta was flawless. Not neutral, of course! One could sense the focus, the attention, the concentration: precision and control.

Rating: ★★★½

Oliver Waespi: Volatile Gravity (2021)

The following piece required an entirely different stage arrangement. While the orchestra’s team emptied the front part of the podium, then set it up for Oliver Waespi‘s piece, Baldur Brönnimann engaged the composer and the drummer Jojo Mayer in a podium discussion, led by Elisabeth Baureithel.

The discussion initially was about Frank Zappa’s influences, significance. It then moved on, to Oliver Waespi’s composition, and about Jojo Mayer’s involvement in it. If I’m not mistaken, this was the drummer’s first appearance / cooperation with a symphony orchestra.

Oliver Waespi (source: musinfo.ch)
Oliver Waespi (source: musinfo.ch)

The Composer

The Swiss composer, arranger, conductor, and lawyer Oliver Waespi (*1971, see also Wikipedia) grew up in Zurich. He received his musical education from the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) and from the Royal Academy of Music in London. Courses with Klaus Huber (1924 – 2017), as well as with Alfred Reed (1921 – 2005) completed his education as composer. Oliver Waespi teaches at the Hochschule der Künste Bern. For more information see the composer’s biography at the musinfo Website.

Oliver Waespi’s oeuvre includes works for orchestra, for wind orchestra and brass band. He wrote some chamber music, as well as works for choir, for piano, guitar, and for organ.

The Composition

Volatile Gravity, for Drumset and Orchestra (2021) was a world premiere performance. Therefore, there is no literature on this piece yet. So, let me try translating excerpts from the description in the concert handout. The text presumably was (at least in parts) provided by the composer:

On the one hand, “Volatile Gravity” is a concert for drumset and orchestra in the classic sense, consisting of three linked parts. At the same time, it symbolizes a kind of musical exploration of a city. The form of the piece articulates itself along an imaginary urban space with multiple centers. It spans from built to undeveloped, from structured to open areas.

  1. High Frequency Trading — […] characterized by frenetic tempos and a rugged, often block-like orchestral part. The soloist confronts this with energetic, groove-oriented rhythmics. After moments of dissolve and again forward-driving beats, the first part ends with a free cadenza by the soloist.
  2. Wastelandsfragmentary motif cells slowly condense to large-scale sonic planes above freely improvised gestures by the soloist. With this, new musical energies gradually evolve from musical wasteland. Later, with the help of the soloist, free interjections by the woodwinds condense to joint pulsating.
  3. New TownsIn contrast to the first two parts, the drummer’s solo part is more tightly interwoven with the orchestral structure. The latter articulates itself less in compact blocks, but rather in pulsating layers, and in constantly evolving rhythmic cells. A development towards brighter, more open harmonies leads into another, free solo cadenza. The piece ends with a ghostly shimmering epilogue.

The Composer on the Title

From the podium discussion: according to Oliver Waespi, “Gravity” refers to the “weight” of tradition and history in orchestral music, in musical language, including percussion. Waespi stated that “Volatile Gravity” is a contradiction in terms, a paradox: gravity is a force downwards, volatility its opposite. He mentioned that in his piece, one can sometimes sense the weight of gravity (tradition). And then again, the forces are “drifting apart” (volatility).

The Performance

Here, we were back to the full orchestra, with 8+7+6+5+3 (estimated, around 30 total) string instruments. The one non-conventional part was the central “void”, a corridor between the conductor and Jojo Mayer, some five meters in the back. This allowed for direct contact between the two musicians. It also gave Jojo Mayer “room” for his performance. And it highlighted the drummer’s pivotal role in the performance.

Jojo Mayer did not compete with Baldur Brönnimann’s role as conductor, but his central function in the piece was evident. And, of course, the two halves of the orchestra each had their own “assistant leads”. These were the concertmaster, Simone Zgraggen, on the left, and the first cellist, Martina Brodbeck, on the right.

I. High Frequency Trading

Right from the beginning, Jojo Mayer’s drummer part depicted the busy “machinery”, the pulsating life in a city. It was striking to observe how he kept close contact with conductor and orchestra. He obviously is a highly interactive and open personality, far from a “driver” that is “just steaming ahead, no matter what”. On top of the drummer part, the orchestra performed a seemingly endless sequence of overlapping, ascending crescendi. To me, this symbolized the volatility in the ascending motion. At the same time, there was gravity in the sense of constant intensification. A pull towards density, even narrowness and anxiety?

All of this seemed to lay out the overwhelming noise of a cityscape. Criss-cross traffic, the pulsating life at rush hour. It all seemed to drive towards a giant funnel. And all of a sudden, the “moments of dissolve”: the scene clarifies, vanishes up into the air.

Night?

Ethereal sounds (metallophone, violins), wondrous silence, surreal: the brief recovery after midnight? Jojo Mayer’s soft brushing on the snare drum indicated that life is just half-dormant for a while. Momentarily, the city appears to wake up. Or, has life just gone underground? Suddenly, like an avalanche, life returns—another day! The drummer gradually takes the lead, goes into a crashing climax, the scene dissolves again.

This time, the brief moment of silence leads into a virtuosic, free cadenza. Jojo Mayer “pulled all the registers” at his disposal! It was fascinating to observe how he played with dynamics, pitches and colors. He even used his right foot to alter the tension & pitch of the snare drum during a long, continuous roll. At the same time, his hands and left foot maintained the flow!

II. Wastelands

Melody fragments, glissandi, narrowing and expanding intervals. A void of sorts, “what am I?”. A short intervention by the soloist leads to an exchange, a dialog with the orchestra. The latter appears aimless: beautiful melody fragments emerge, individual tones, wistful, forlorn, seeking, looking around. Periodically, the soloist takes over, contrasting with a driven, targeted “machinery”. Order vs. void? Gradually, the orchestra coalesces into gentle singing, serene melodies. Gaining perspective, looking up again?

III. New Towns

The transition is seamless. It felt as if the soloist was now trying to lead the orchestra towards organization, “order”, back to life? Spurred by the solo, the orchestra picks up rhythmic structure, drive and momentum. Lyrical string melodies growing into a dense, polyphonic web above a strengthening rhythmic base from the solo. Gradually, the music builds up, gets busier, faster. Glorious, beautiful culminations.

After a majestic climax, an extended drum roll leads into the second, longer cadenza. Long, intense, virtuosic. What can I say? “The guy with the five hands and three feet”? Jojo Mayer kept moving on with a irresistible, polyrhythmic drive, at times almost like in trance. The solo built up to a dense climax, then relaxing, slowing down, retracting.

The orchestra wakes up to serene, soft, gentle flute and string sounds. A beautiful New World? Shiny, new facades? Or a world beyond? Jojo Mayer ends the piece with a short, determined crescendo and a terminating beat.

Rating: ★★★★★ — A fascinating masterpiece, no doubt!

Encore & Conclusions

Oliver Waespi’s composition with Jojo Mayer’s solo were the clear highlight of the concert. Interesting: I noted people with earplugs in the audience. Obviously in the expectation that the concert would / might be loud, noisy. This fear proved pointless: never, the solo (nor the orchestra) were ever just “loud” or “noisy”. There was power, but it remained controlled at all times.

The applause once again revealed Jojo Mayer’s open and modest personality. He skated to the front of the podium, with a friendly smile. Drummers aren’t just loud! It felt as if Jojo Mayer wanted to prove this in the solo encore. He placed his snare drum on the conductor’s podium. The drummer “painted” a fascinating piece, just with two metal brushes. “Stirring in a pan”, subtle, tension, suspense. Rain, the waves at a seashore, disruptions with sudden, stomping beats, emerging rhythm, returning to whooshing noise…


Author: Rolf Kyburz

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