Kaleidoscope String Quartet, Baldur Brönnimann, Basel Sinfonietta
Bates / Heggendorn / Mazzoli / Glass
Altes Kraftwerk, Basel, 2018-06-10
In the season 2017/2018, the concerts of the Basel Sinfonietta under its Principal Conductor Baldur Brönnimann ran under the general theme “Fluss” (flow). In line with this general theme, the motto for this last concert of the season was “Panta Rhei”. That is ancient Greek for “everything flows”, one of the central ideas in the philosophical concept of Heraclitus of Ephesus (Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος, c. 535 – c. 475 BC). The initial concept was, to perform this concert at the water, in a cargo area of Basel’s Rhine harbor in Klein-Hüningen, north of the city center. Unfortunately, the harbor authorities turned that idea down at short notice. They were not able to keep the space free for the concert.
So, the Basel Sinfonietta was in immediate need of an alternative location. Such a venue was found at the east border of the city, in an old industrial facility, called “Altes Kraftwerk”, next to the river Birs. So, the motto “Panta Rhei” was still fitting. At the same time, the outdoor event changed into an indoor one. This was somewhat reassuring for potential visitors, as the weather around the concert was not exactly stable. It turned out OK in the end, though, except that the air was very warm and damp on the day of the concert.
The name of the alternative venue is “Altes Kraftwerk” (“old power plant”). It is an industrial building from 1895, essentially in its original state. Not really a power plant / power station, but at least a building in which power distributors and insulators were built and tested. Meanwhile, the operator of the facility has moved into a new location. The building was left largely deserted, though some of the installations and selected utilities are remaining there, as decoration. Most notably a heavy crane with a lifting capacity of 40 metric tons, the walls with raw lime paint, old ducts, pipes. Apart from that, the building has been transformed into an event venue with bar, facilities, several halls for celebrations, restaurants. It has become a really fashionable / “in” place.
The concert was given in the main hall. The orchestra occupied the two-story part of that hall—they played under the industrial crane. The audience was placed in the lateral parts of the hall, under a gallery, which limits the room height to about half that above the orchestra.
Is this a Good Place for Concerts?
Yes! Actually, there is a downside: the visibility was limited, as orchestra and audience were setup at the same level. Plus, for most of the audience, several pylons obstructed the view to the orchestra. As the high part of the hall occupies major parts of the west side, the arrangement was sideways, i.e., distances were smaller than in conventional concert venues. Most important, though: the acoustics were excellent, clear, transparent, without an excess of reverberation, let alone echoes. The only minor, acoustic drawback: locating specific instruments by ear was not always easy.
I was pleased to see that the concert was essentially sold out.
I don’t need to introduce the Basel Sinfonietta (see also Wikipedia) and its Principal Conductor Baldur Brönnimann (*1968, see also Wikipedia). I have already discussed several concerts with this orchestra in this blog. The primary focus of this ensemble is in contemporary music, and this concert was a prime example for this. At the center of the performance was the Kaleidoscope String Quartet, led by its first violinist, Simon Heggendorn:
The Kaleidoscope String Quartet was founded by the violinist and composer Simon Heggendorn. It now consists of the following members:
- Simon Heggendorn (*1982, founding member), violin
- Ronny Spiegel (*1982), violin
- David Schnee (*1980, founding member), viola
- Sebastian Braun (*1990), cello
The quartet released its debut CD, “Magenta”, in 2011 (see below for details), featuring 9 pieces by Simon Heggendorn. A second CD, “Curiosity”, appeared 2015, featuring 7 pieces by Simon Heggendorn and 2 tracks by David Schnee, see again below for details.
The original program for this concert featured three world premieres by Simon Heggendorn, combined with three Swiss first performances of pieces by Mason Bates, Missy Mazzoli, and Philip Glass. During the concert, Simon Heggendorn announced the addition of yet another world premiere (“Simply that”, for string quartet, see below), and prior to the last of his pieces, the quartet inserted “Choral”, for string Quartet, from their 2015 CD. Overall, the program ended up as follows:
- Mason Bates (*1977): “Mothership” for Orchestra & Electronica (2011, CH-Premiere)
- Simon Heggendorn (*1982): “Simply that” for String Quartet (2018, World Premiere)
- Simon Heggendorn: “Cascades” for String Quartet and Woodwinds (2018, World Premiere)
- Missy Mazzoli (*1980): River Rouge Transfiguration (2013, CH-Premiere)
- Simon Heggendorn: “Lava” for String Quartet and String Orchestra (2018, World Premiere)
- Philip Glass (*1937): Dance from “Akhnaten” (1984, CH-Premiere)
- Simon Heggendorn: “Choral” for String Quartet (2014)
- Simon Heggendorn: “Horizons” for String Quartet and Orchestra (2018, World Premiere)
The pieces for string quartet with accompaniment were all commissioned by the Basel Sinfonietta. Simon Heggendorn was happy about the opportunity to compose for bigger formation: most of his output so far was for string quartet, in particular his own.
Bates: “Mothership” for Orchestra & Electronica (2011)
The US-American composer Mason Bates (*1977, see also Wikipedia) has written a fair number of works, from chamber and vocal music to large orchestral works—or works for large orchestra. This includes a violin and a cello concerto, works for voice / chorus and orchestra. Bates has also worked as DJ, and so, mixing sounds and genres is one of his specialties. A fair number of his orchestral works combine orchestra and “electronica”.
“Mothership” for Orchestra & Electronica (2011, performed here as Swiss premiere) is one example of a work for orchestra and electronica. The latter part amplified and modified parts of the orchestral sounds, changed the acoustic balance, the color of the soundscape. However, overall, it was rather inconspicuous. At least, it’s not a composition “for electronica and orchestra”, but rather an orchestral work with moderate electronic alterations / expansions. The electronics made one specific appearance in a continuously ascending crescendo towards the end.
“Mothership” opens with a fanfare, a big gesture, a short sequence of chords. After this opening, the piece largely maintains a constant, basic pulse, though the percussion, supported / alternating with staccato and pizzicato in the strings, the wind instruments defining the harmonic progression with broad chords. I sensed an “industrial feeling”, especially in moments with motoric percussion, some times alluding to the sound of Techno music, though the repetitive pattern also reflect strong influences from Minimal Music. Memories of film music, and I also found allusions to music by George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) and Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990).
Especially in the first part, the soundscape reminded me of paintings in large planes / blocks, such as by Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970). Then, there was also a longer lyrical, more melodious segment. Here, the melodies mostly remained short, fragmentary, more like motifs. From there, the music builds up to an ending in a final splash. A fascinating composition, for sure, enthralling in its rhythmic drive.
Heggendorn: “Simply that” for String Quartet (2018)
The piece begins with a simple pizzicato ostinato pattern in the cello, which drives parts of the music. That pattern is recurring throughout the composition. The high strings chime in with soft, syncopated crescendo chords. Something strongly reminded me of a piece in my collection, which took me a while to locate: in his recording of the Violin Concerto No.4 in D major, K.218 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), in the first movement, the British violinist Nigel Kennedy (*1956) plays a Jazz cadenza, where the bass accompaniment initially consists of a very similar pizzicato pattern.
In line with the recurring ostinato bass pattern, there is very little harmonic progression. However, at some point, the dynamic pattern in the high strings appear to get reversed, now with diminuendo in lieu of crescendo. Intermittently, there is a jazzy violin solo, typical in its portamenti and syncopated swelling notes. It’s a gentle, atmospheric Jazz piece that does not pretend to be a huge masterpiece, but proved to be the ideal (5-minute) introduction to the next composition, which followed immediately:
Heggendorn: “Cascades” for String Quartet and Woodwinds (2018)
Simon Heggendorn‘s second piece (and second world premiere in this concert), “Cascades”, from 2018, is written for String Quartet and Woodwinds: the picture of water cascades fits the title of the concert, “Panta Rhei” (everything flows, see above).
The beginning of “Cascades” sounded like a col legno after-play (a “postludium“) to “Simply that”: other than for a short general rest, the transition was seamless, even though the rhythm changed, became more rapid, playful. Jazzy / Country sounds emerged in the violins, which gradually changed into a play with extreme heights, later with the addition of scratching and other noises. The (around 10) woodwinds chimed in with a solemn chorale, which gradually gets harmonically distorted.
A “One, two, three” command starts a jazzy segment, with allusions to Dixieland. After a solo by the contrabassoon, a polyphonic, rhythmically complex, dense texture follows, strong reminiscences of Minimal Music, more jazzy playing, with Country music in the violins. My notes also have a remark “nice dissonances”, referring to moments when the musicians seemed to indulge in harmonic frictions. Very well done, very rich in fantasy, interesting and entertaining—anything but shallow entertainment music, though!
Mazzoli: River Rouge Transfiguration (2013)
According to the program notes, the US-American composer Missy Mazzoli (*1980, see also Wikipedia) grew up with the music of David Bowie, while she retained strong ties to the music by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856). Overall, she tries linking Rock and music of the romantic period. Her music has been performed by notable international artists, ensembles and orchestras, her oeuvre includes three operas.
River Rouge Transfiguration (2013, CH-Premiere) was triggered by a photo series that documented Henry Ford’s car factories in Detroit, around 1927. Smoke stacks and other industrial structures reminded her of a giant organ. In “River Rouge Transfiguration” she tries to depicting the transformation of trash and noise into “something huge/heavy, reverberating, unexpected”.
Back to a purely orchestral performance before the intermission. “River Rouge Transfiguration” started with sound planes in the tube bells that expanded into sound cluster waves in the orchestra. These were soon joined by ostinati in harp and piano, later pizzicati—again inspired by Minimal Music. Rolling thunder grows into whipping chords/clusters. There isn’t much harmonic progression, though the piece is clearly tonal, sticks around the same chord for longer periods. Crescendos, rhythmic shifting, periodic waves of swelling tones, an almost constant trail of ostinato pattern in harps and metallophones.
The performance by Baldur Brönnimann and his Basel Sinfonietta was flawless, firm and masterful. As composition the piece is excellent, well-written. I can’t point to real weaknesses. However, in the context of this concert, Mazzoli’s music in parts appeared to lack contrast, which made it sound slightly uniform, in comparison to the other pieces.
Heggendorn: “Lava” for String Quartet and String Orchestra (2018)
After the intermission, the concert continued with another world premiere by Simon Heggendorn: “Lava” for String Quartet and String Orchestra (2018). The “Panta Rhei” this time is not about water, but rather molten stone. The composer’s program notes talk about streams of lava, slowly, but steadily flowing, until the molten matter finally solidifies. I did not read that part of the program notes prior to the performance. My notes reflect solely my personal impressions, the pictures that the music evoked.
The music grows out of silence, first in tremolos, then as rapid, airy arpeggiandi in the quartet. Initially a swarm of insects came to mind, then baroque arpeggiando playing, then again Minimal Music (a constant / recurring feature in this concert!). Then, the pitch flows down into the bass: definitely now lava. the high strings spread out flat panes, under which a (now slow) bass ostinato may stand for the base flow of lava. Melting chords in the string quartet, highest pitch tweeting like from birds.
Now, a placid pizzicato in the cello forms the base for a somewhat melancholic, jazzy violin solo. The accompaniment is enlarging, moving into the orchestra, the solo then follows suit. Harmonium / harmonica sounds initiate a segment with post-romantic soundscape, sound planes, the melodies broaden, the flow comes to an end, vanishes.
The audience responded strongly and very positively: it’s music that is inherently abstract, but still pictorial enough to talk to people’s mind. Entertaining, multi-faceted, never flat, let alone boring.
Glass: Dance from the Opera “Akhnaten” (1984)
Philip Glass (*1937, see also Wikipedia) is the central figure, if not even the inventor and forefather of Minimal Music. That is a music style / compositorial technique which emerged in the late 1960’s. This style was adopted by numerous other composers, most notably prominent figures such as Steve Reich (*1936). The Stuttgart Opera commissioned a stage work from Philip Glass (*1937, see also Wikipedia). Glass wrote this Opera in three acts, “Akhnaten”, 1982/1983, it premiered in 1984.
The Dance is from the third scene in act II of the opera. The Wikipedia text on the dance reads “After a brass fanfare, the completion of the city is celebrated in a light-hearted dance, contrasting with the stark, ritualistic music with which this act began.” As the Stuttgart State Opera was in renovation when the opera premiered, Glass left out the violins. This way, the orchestra was fitting into the reduced size orchestra pit in the temporary opera venue, the Stuttgart State Theatre. With this, the orchestra sound is unusually dark.
Also this piece (like the initial one by Mason Bates) starts with a fanfare, this time by the brass band, broad, solemn. The low strings then form the harmonic base to the repetitive pattern in the woodwinds, rhythmically structured by a woodblock, a triangle, and a tambourine. that central part was dominated by shifting pattern, forming complex rhythmic overlays. The music is entirely tonal, though there is very little harmonic progression. The harmonies themselves form one of the repetitive pattern. The piece evolves in two waves, with a fresh start in-between. It’s music that seems largely static—yet is constantly evolving, full of tension / expectation.
As aspects of Minimal Music were present in many of the other compositions in this concert as well, Philip Glass’ music seemed like a natural, ideal fit for the program. One should note that while the musical pattern may be easy to play, Minimal Music requires the full concentration of every member of the ensemble: realizing the shifting rhythmic pattern is anything but easy, and Baldur Brönnimann’s firm conducting was key to success in this.
Heggendorn: “Choral” for String Quartet (2014)
Simon Heggendorn announced that prior to the final piece, “Horizons”, the quartet would play yet another piece for string quartet alone, “Choral” from 2004, which is also featured on the quartet’s second CD, “Curiosity”, see below.
“Choral” starts with discrete / isolated pizzicato pattern which, although separated by rests, form a rhythmic & simple melodic pattern that goes through this segment, gradually evolves into a more continuous rhythm & melody. The quartet then interrupts the pizzicato for a short, chorale-like segment. This chorale (in modern harmonies) remains a short episode, as the pizzicati return, now complemented by jazzy rhythms and an even more jazzy violin solo with distinct Pop elements. The accompaniment switches to rapid tremolo, but follows the pattern from the pizzicato section. The violin solo—still jazzy, with Rock elements—now goes fairly wild.
This is followed by another pizzicato section on the cello, accompanying by initially resting chords in the other instruments, which gradually liven up, now evolving into a Country / Pop-like segment with a solemn, calm ending. A quartet movement with an exceptionally broad spectrum in expression / pattern!
Heggendorn: “Horizons” for String Quartet and Orchestra (2018)
Simon Heggendorn‘s last piece (and another world premiere) in this program was “Horizons” for String Quartet and Orchestra. Here, the “flow” (from “Panta Rhei“) is more symbolic / indirect, maybe related to water in general. In the program notes, Heggendorn pictures a boat trip to an island—hence the title “Horizons”.
“Horizons” begins with post-romantic / expressionist sounds in the string quartet, in melancholic mood. The latter doesn’t last long, changes into vibrant, jazzy, syncopated rhythms on the cello, into which the orchestra chimes in, with blooming calls / scales in the flutes, evolving into enthralling Jazz rhythms, involving contrabassoon, bassoon, trombones, tuba. Music and conductor liven up: vivid, fascinating sounds! Thunder-like rumbling (tam-tam, drums) led to a segment that reminded me of music by Arvo Pärt, combined with a jazzy solo. Melancholic sounds from the brass band, a calm episode, after which the composition once more breaks out into catchy, enthralling Jazz rhythms, with obvious influx from composers such as Leonard Bernstein.
Within Simon Heggendorn’s compositions, only in this one piece there was a short period in the second half where I felt some loss of tension. However, this could also have been just my perception (though I don’t think I was getting tired of this music), or due to the length of the concert on the part of the musicians. Ignoring that minor quibble, I really liked all of Heggendorn’s music in this concert!
I can summarize my perception of Simon Heggendorn’s music as follows: it moves on the borders between classical music, Jazz / Jazz violin (with traits of Folk/Country, Pop/Rock), Minimal Music, experimental composing involving noises, even baroque textures, late- and post-romantic harmonies. Catchy music, easy to accept and get into, yet never drifting off into trivialities, and definitely much more than mere entertainment. This music is full of fantasy, and the CDs (see below) confirm that there is no danger that the composer is soon running out of imagination.
Of course, it’s not just Simon Heggendorn who carried the quartet part of this performance: the other quartet members (all of the same generation of musicians) were congenial partners to the composer, living in and with this music, feel totally at home with it.
As encore, the Kaleidoscope String Quartet and the Basel Sinfonietta repeated the catchy second part of the last piece, “Horizons”, by Simon Heggendorn.
At the end of the evening I asked myself, whether in this concert was letting contemporary classical music drift off towards Jazz, Country, or even Pop music (“populist classical music”), or whether this was rather an attempt to enrich classical music by expanding its spectrum through elements of Jazz and other elements. Both can be seen as one and the same, though the former is somewhat deprecating. Yes, cross-over aspects were definitely present. However, from the classical instrumentation alone, the latter aspect (enriching / expanding the scope) prevailed. It could be taken an as an attempt to stay in contact with newer, younger audiences, to make classical music sound less esoteric or elitist. The applause indicated that the audience appreciated the concept of this evening.
I don’t think that this concert presented any substantial challenges to the orchestra, the Basel Sinfonietta. In the past, the ensemble has successfully mastered much more complex and more demanding pieces—even before it gave itself a Principal Conductor. With Baldur Brönnimann’s conducting, his firm and clear sign language, thorough knowledge of the score and an excellent feel for rhythm and tempo, the challenge for the orchestra was even smaller.
However, this concert was not about artistic achievements of the orchestra. To me, key elements were the performances of the Kaleidoscope String Quartet, and even more so the impact of the music, especially in this special, inspiring environment. And the Basel Sinfonietta can call itself lucky to have found a venue with such atmosphere and such acoustics!
Unless noted otherwise, all photos © Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved.
Addendum 1: CDs by the Kaleidoscope String Quartet
CD #1: “Magenta”
Kaleidoscope String Quartet:
Simon Heggendorn, Tobias Preisig, David Schnee, Bruno Fischer
UNIT Records — UTR 4290 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2011
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—
Track Listing (all pieces by Simon Heggendorn):
- Silly Dance — 5’37”
- Groovy — 4’16”
- Naneman — 6’56”
- Squeeze — 7’45”
- A Long Time Ago — 5’51”
- Herbst (Autumn) — 4’13”
- Visions — 4’40”
- Bad Dream — 4’06”
- One Life? — 6’37”
2011, the ensemble brought out a first CD with the title “Magenta”. The music on this CD is clearly Jazz—of which I’m not a specialist. It has all attributes of Modern Jazz: syncopated melodies, jazzy rhythms, modern harmonies—occasionally alluding to country music, but also Pop/Rock, as well as hints of Minimal Music. There are no percussion instruments—these are substituted by pizzicato, percussive articulation styles, and accents. I don’t want to diminish the value of the music on this CD—to me, it falls into entertainment music—in any case, music that I don’t usually listen to at length (primarily for lack of time / opportunity).
For as much as I can tell, the music is really well-done, with a certain harmonic complexity, and certainly not devoid of dissonances (far from the harmonic triviality of popular music). I would clearly place this “on the Jazz side”, even though it does have experimental aspects. All music on this CD is by Simon Heggendorn.
CD #2: “Curiosity”
Kaleidoscope String Quartet:
Simon Heggendorn, Ronny Spiegel, David Schnee, Solme Hong
Traumton Records — Traumton 4264 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2015
Booklet: leaflet, 6 pp., just images
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—
Track Listing (pieces by Simon Heggendorn, unless noted otherwise):
- Sommer — 5’52”
- Winter — 4’03”
- Choral — 6’34” (featured in this concert as well)
- Lyric Song — 4’41”
- David Schnee: Triptychon — 7’16”
- Shadows — 4’09”
- No Bow — 2’15”
- Rhapsody in D — 5’46”
- David Schnee: Cyan — 5’40”
The quartet’s second CD appeared in 2015. It retains much of the “jazzy attitude” of the first CD—however, it shows much stronger influences from Minimal Music, and much less of the Country / folksy, or Pop/Rock influx. In other words: while “Magenta” often feels close to improvised Jazz, this second CD feels much more “composed”. In addition to the Minimal Music aspects, some of the pieces bring to mind composers such as Arvo Pärt (*1935): the music is often much less dense & busy, involves more “listening” / “mutual listening”, mutual response, and there is a distinct widening of the musical means (harmonic scope) and the compositorial and instrumental techniques.
Unlike the first CD, this collection is closer to contemporary, classical music than to Jazz, even though it retains some of the playfulness, at times also the fun aspects of Jazz, with only occasional allusions to country music. Instead, I find segments that seem to be inspired by baroque, but also from 20th century classical composers other than Arvo Pärt (expressionism?). Definitely interesting and worth listening to!
For this concert I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I created 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.