Nicolas Hodges, Baldur Brönnimann / Basel Sinfonietta
Ligeti / Hertig / Anderson / Steen-Andersen
Burghof, Lörrach DE, 2022-11-06
2022-11-24 — Original posting
2022-11-25 — Added comment by Mauro Hertig (thanks for the feedback!)
Klavier-Crash-Spektakel im Konzert der Basel Sinfonietta — Zusammenfassung
Die Saison 2022/23 der Basel Sinfonietta ist die letzte unter der Leitung von Principal Conductor Baldur Brönnimann—ab der Saison 2023/24 steht das Orchester unter der Leitung von Titus Engel—siehe meinen Konzertbericht vom Januar 2022. Das zweite Konzert dieser Abschiedssaison verlegte das Orchester in den Burghof in Lörrach. Und es zog diesmal (erneut) alle Register:
Ligeti, Hertig, Anderson: Klassische Moderne — Stille Post — Aufgang
Das Programm begann mit einem Klassiker der Moderne des 20. Jahrhunderts: das Orchesterstück “San Francisco Polyphony“, 1973/74 von György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) zum 60. Geburtstag des San Francisco Symphony Orchestra komponiert.
Das zweite Werk war eine Auftragskomposition der Basel Sinfonietta, aus der Feder des Schweizers Mauro Hertig (*1989), welches hier als Welt-Uraufführung erklang. “Losing the Red Queen’s Race” für Orchester (2022) schöpft aus der Idee des Spiels “Stille Post”, d.h., des Nacherzählens. Bis auf die jeweiligen StimmführerInnen spielen alle OrchestermusikerInnen nicht nur ohne Noten, sondern mit verbundenen Augen. Zwei Methoden kamen zum Einsatz: die StimmführerInnen spielen ihren Part, die andern MusikerInnen spielen nach Gehör das, was der/die vorangehende MusikerIn (vor-)spielt, in einer Kette bis zum letzten Pult. In der zweiten Methode spielt der/die StimmführerIn die Stimme vor, und alle anderen replizieren das Gehörte zeitgleich. Es gab lediglich zwei Proben—fehlerhafte Imitation gehört zum Stück, hat hier Methode.
Das dritte Stück vor der Pause hat der Brite Julian Anderson (*1967) komponiert: “The Stations of the Sun” aus dem Jahre 1998. Der erste Teil des Konzert-Titels “Aufgang und Absturz” bezog sich auf diese Komposition, die den Lauf der Sonne im Tages- und Jahresverlauf zum Thema hat.
Spektakulär gestaltete sich schließlich der letzte Programmpunkt nach der Pause: das 2014 komponierte Konzert für Klavier, Sampler, Orchester und Video des Dänen Simon Steen-Andersen (*1976) mit Nicolas Hodges (*1970) als Solist. Das Werk lässt sich in der Kürze der Zusammenfassung kaum beschreiben. Stichwortartig: in einer Video-Aufzeichnung verfolgen die ZuhörerInnen in extremer Zeitlupe den Absturz eines Konzertflügels aus 7 – 8 Metern Höhe. Das entstehende Wrack ist noch rudimentär spielbar. Seine Töne wurden aufgezeichnet (Ton und Video) und von Nicolas Hodges über eine aufgesetzte, zweite (elektronische) Tastatur abgerufen.
Zugleich spielte Hodges den Live-Part auf dem intakten Steinway. Das Orchester imitierte und untermalte die gedehnten Laute und Geräusche der Kollision mit dem Boden. Der Solo-Part kommentierte gewissermaßen die Kollision, die Samplings des teil-zerstörten Instruments karikierten (in einer separaten Leinwand-Projektion) den Solopart. Im Verlauf des Werks lief der Absturz auch rückwärts, sowie zwischendurch abwechselnd (in Fragmenten) vor- und rückwärts: die Kollision des Flügels als rhythmischer Tanz.
Table of Contents
- Concert & Review
- György Ligeti: “San Francisco Polyphony” for Orchestra (1973/74)
- Mauro Hertig: “Losing the Red Queen’s Race” for Orchestra (2022)
- Julian Anderson: “The Stations of the Sun” for Orchestra (1998)
- Simon Steen-Andersen: Concerto for Piano, Sampler, Orchestra, and Video (2014)
|Venue, Date & Time||Burghof, Lörrach, Germany, 2022-11-06 19:00h|
|Series / Title||Aufgang und Absturz (Rise and Downfall)|
|Reviews from related events||Concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta|
Concerts with Baldur Brönnimann
Previous concert with Nicolas Hodges (2021-01-24)
Neither the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann (*1968, see also Wikipedia), nor the orchestra, the Basel Sinfonietta require an introduction in this review. I have written about both conductor and orchestra in numerous reviews in the past, see the links above.
Also in the case of the soloist, the pianist Nicolas Hodges (*1970, see also Wikipedia), this concert was not my first encounter. He performed in an earlier concert with the Basel Sinfonietta, on 2021-01-24. Hodges 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 in London, 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. At the same time he is cooperating with notable orchestras, conductors, and chamber music formations.
The Basel Sinfonietta is often performing at the Stadtcasino Basel, or, more recently, the Paul Sacher Saal at Don Bosco, Basel, the orchestra’s new home since 2021. Just as often, however, it is exploring concert venues outside of the “beaten paths”. The renovation of the Stadtcasino (2016 – 2020) further propagated the search for “other” venues. Even the pandemic may have contributed to this. Many of these alternate venues can be seen as experimental. More than that, they are almost always stimulating, and an enrichment to the concert experience. Many of the past concerts with the Sinfonietta that I reviewed (see the link above) are from such venues.
The venue in this concert is not experimental, but still novel for the Sinfonietta. It is located in Lörrach, Germany, close to the Swiss border. The name “Burghof” appears to evoke pictures of a courtyard in a medieval castle. However, it is a modern concert venue. It opened 1998, featuring two concert halls. It stands at the location of the medieval castle of Lörrach, which was destroyed back in 1638. The big hall (used for this concert) supports audience sizes up to 885.
- György Ligeti (1923 – 2006): “San Francisco Polyphony” for Orchestra (1973/74)
- Mauro Hertig (*1989): “Losing the Red Queen’s Race” for Orchestra (2022, commission Basel Sinfonietta)
- Julian Anderson (*1967): “The Stations of the Sun” for Orchestra (1998)
- Simon Steen-Andersen (*1976): Concerto for Piano, Sampler, Orchestra, and Video (2014)
Baldur Brönnimann explained the goal of the program in the introduction. The idea was, to present a program with four pieces that are all vastly different from each other in musical language, expression, and philosophy.
Back to pre-pandemic audience sizes! At least at a first glance, there must have been just as many people in the audience as in the previous decade. Reaching such audience sizes outside of the orchestra’s “home turf” may seem extraordinary. However, the venue is still only a few kilometers from Basel. My journey with public transport, and the familiar faces in the audience made it clear: there was substantial “pilgrimage” from the city of Basel and surroundings. The program (minus Julian Anderson’s composition) will be repeated twice in Belgium: Antwerp on 2022-11-30, Ghent on 2022-12-01.
My seat was on the left-hand side of the central block in parquet seating, in row 7. Factually, it was in row 6, as row #1 had been removed in favor of a larger podium.
Concert & Review
As usual in concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta, the evening started with a “pre-concert event”. In this case, this was a half-hour podium discussion. Baldur Brönnimann interviewed two of the composers of the evening. Mauro Hertig and Simon Steen-Andersen, the creators of the second and fourth work in the concert, respectively. In the work descriptions below, I use information from the program notes, as well as from this introductory discussion.
My ratings below describe my “sensory, emotional gain” as a listener. In other words: the pleasure, the richness of the experience, both auditory, as well as visual. I have not heard any of these pieces before. Without a score at hand, I can hardly judge the quality of the performance / execution. In that sense, the ratings refer to both the compositions, as well as the overall experience from the performance.
György Ligeti: “San Francisco Polyphony” for Orchestra (1973/74)
Composer & Work
Apart from three concertos, the “San Francisco Polyphony” from 1973/1974 is the last “purely orchestral” work by György Ligeti (1923 – 2006). Ligeti wrote it on the occasion of the 60th birthday of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The program notes quote the composer with the following description (approximate translation by the author):
«My music in the late ’50s was primarily based upon micropolyphony, i.e., a technique of narrow and dense mixing of instrumental voices. Starting around the mid-’60s, however, I was aiming in the direction of a polyphony that is more transparent, more clearly structured, more diluted, more “brittle” [austere?].»
Baldur Brönnimann described “San Francisco Polyphony” as a “classical standard in contemporary music”. A work that is meticulously written down in every detail and for every voice—an extreme contrast to Mauro Hertig’s piece! In its complexity, it is hard, if not impossible to perform exactly as written.
The composer’s description sounds rather abstract, almost academic, austere. Nevertheless, in my impression, it wasn’t just consisting of sounds, colors, pattern. It was definitely triggering the fantasy, evoking pictures, sceneries. As often with Ligeti, it is a music with extremes:
The beginning is indeed highly polyphonic. A “chaos parody”: strong, initially unstructured droning, into which soon the first violins inject melody fragments. Imitations, a multitude of melodic themes (tonal and atonal) throughout the orchestra. Complexity in waves, waves of coherence and decoherence, retracting into the distance. A wind parody, thinning out, then leading into a soft dialog interaction in the woodwinds. Narrowly intertwined woodwinds, forming narrow clusters, then again emerging wind melodies.
Reminiscence & Wildness, Melody vs. Complexity
A distant, standing, droning cluster reminds of the beginning—and again, a polyphony of melody emerges out of the cluster. This is interrupted by sudden bursts, an eruption of wildness in the strings. This soon dissipates into motif fragments, mutating into a “woodwind discussion” above a droning sound—birds, animals? Into this, the violins burst out with a wide-spanning melody, which is imitated in the brass section. Rising complexity leads into near-chaotic, ascending “traffic noise”, growing urgency, density, which finally dissolves.
Deep humming / roaring, into which the violins inject highest, ear-piercing flageolet tones: tingling bells. A rapid fff bass descent in the piano initiates loud grumbling, mixed with ascending, extreme flageolets and the sound of cowbells. Loud splashes, tingling. Rapid, repetitive pattern in percussion and piano, later also winds and strings remind of minimal music. A beautiful melody emerges in woodwinds and brass, growing polyphonic density (near-chaos), eruptions—then again softest whispering, chatting xylophones. Waves of minimal music chatting (strings, piano), moving into distance, returning in waves, finally a strong crescendo—and an abrupt ending.
In short: a highly interesting masterpiece, full of action, tension, suspense, covering a wide & rich scope in colors, pitches and sonorities—excellent!
Mauro Hertig: “Losing the Red Queen’s Race” for Orchestra (2022)
Mauro Hertig (*1989, see also neo.mx3.ch) grew up in Zurich, but now lives and works in New York. His main teachers are prominent names in the area of contemporary music, such as Isabel Mundry (*1963), Beat Furrer (*1954, see also my review from 2018-09-16), and Klaus Lang (*1971). His compositorial oeuvre mainly includes solo pieces, chamber music, as well as music for specific formations. “Losing the Red Queen’s Race” is an orchestral work commissioned by the Basel Sinfonietta.
“Losing the Red Queen’s Race” for Orchestra (2022, commissioned by Basel Sinfonietta). In the pre-concert podium discussion, Mauro Hertig explained the title of the work: it refers to a scene in the 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898). It’s the scene (“Alice behind the mirrors”) in which the Red Queen tells Alice that in that part of Wonderland, one must run as fast as possible, just to stay in the same place. If one runs less fast than that, one will inevitably lose / be left behind [quoted approximately from Mauro Hertig’s explanation].
The above, however, just is the initial idea. Hertig’s composition revolves around the concepts of “following” (trying to follow, racing) and “imitation”. Hertig describes his piece as a “social experiment” (80 orchestra musicians as a “village”) dealing with “imitation”. Concrete: with the exception of the conductor and the lead musician in every voice (concertmaster, first player in every first desk / every voice), all orchestra musicians have no sheet music (rather: an empty sheet of paper). Moreover, they are wearing a blindfold. None of the musicians with blindfold has seen a score or even parts thereof—they perform entirely (and forcibly) by ear, by listening, by imitation.
String voices form long “imitation chains”, whereas the wind section (woodwind, brass) typically feature two players per voice—one leading, one imitating.
Hertig also referred to a popular children’s game, “Stille Post” (silent mail), in which children form a chain, the first is told a short story, then whispers that to his/her neighbor, who again passes it on by whispering, etc. (and the fun part is to compare the last version with the initial story).
Variants of Imitation
The conductor of course has a full score, featuring the “backbone” of the piece, and the musicians without blindfold of course also have sheet music.
One scheme that Hertig uses requires the lead players to perform their voice, and (almost) simultaneously, the next player starts to imitate, followed by player #3, and so on, in a chain.
In a second block, the led player first performs his/her voice / theme, then all remaining players in the voice imitate at the same time what they have heard (in the string voices, already the distance from the lead player will play a role in the amount of deviation in the result). In this mode, the memory from rehearsals will of course also influence the result.
Inevitably, the imitating musicians will deviate from the original, and these inherent deviations, the resulting “fuzziness” are part of the composition. The piece has gone through two rehearsals, and for the musicians with blindfold, the memory from these rehearsals helps maintaining at least some coherence. That coherence grows with every rehearsal or performance. At the same time, the “errors”, the inherent deviations won’t be the same every time. Hence, the piece will never sound the same—ever again.
For completeness, I’m translating a section of the composer’s explanations in the program notes:
«I see this piece (created upon commission by the Basel Sinfonietta) as a parody on the so-called “Red Queen Hypothesis”, which refers to a statement by the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice Behind the Mirrors”. The hypothesis is part of a theory in evolutionary and economic sciences, stating that in order to survive, a group or a species is forced to improve itself continually, or to adapt to a continually changing environment.
Transferring this problem onto the individual causes an overload. In my opinion, this does not lead to a stand-still (or worse, extinction), but to a playful continuation: by default, survival is granted. Not a survival of the stronger, though. It’s the acceptance of a collective sound body, which does not get its shape through continuous improvement, but rather via a simple, albeit impossible task.»
“Impossible task”? True, it is impossible for the musicians to imitate perfectly, especially given that everybody else around you is trying to imitate as well! However, that impossibility (i.e., the resulting imperfection) is part of the composition, hence required and intentional!
The piece comes with “subtitles”: every now and then, one of the percussionists (see the picture above) was holding up a poster with one or a few words, or occasionally just chaotic scribbling. Most of the subtitles (incomplete, some possibly incorrect), are listed below (from my scribbled notes). As Mauro Hertig explained, these posters combine structuring (like the numbers in a circus), explanation / illustration (entertainment?), triggers for the listener’s fantasy / imagination.
I Push — They Fall — (Scribbling) — (Aluminium Foil) — Children’s Song — A Byte on an Apple — A Stuffed Suitcase — A Bedtime Story — A Canon — A Cannon — A Flashback — A Presto — A Largo — A Lost Thought
The first (type of) imitation can be described as “overlapping sequential imitation throughout the members of a voice”. It starts with a theme presented by the concertmaster (Daniela Müller). A “wavy sequence of narrow intervals”, later also including glissandi, mostly around the a’ string. However, for the listener, it was impossible to follow the complete theme. Moments after the beginning, the concertmaster’s neighbor started to imitate, then the musicians at next desk, and so on. That imitation soon broke off, giving way to a new “theme”, consisting of scarce high-pitch noises sul ponticello. The initial theme (?) returned, expanded and propagated to other voices. New episodes involved short signals in the brass section, followed by (more or less) simultaneous imitation chains throughout the orchestra. The episode ends vaguely, in a vague, whispered “discussion”.
Around “Children’s Song”, a harmonious, chorale-like melody set in, but broke off very soon. It gave way to a set of short imitations in percussion and brass. Short themes / motifs, voice-by voice imitation chains, each very short, given the very small number of instrumentalists in these voices, often just an exchange of short motifs.
“A Bedtime Story” was a short clarinet melody, with imitation in brass and other wind instruments in unison—a natural expansion of the preceding “paired” imitations in the wind section. The clarinet repeated its call—subsequent responses expanded into the strings, then to the timpani alone. Around the subtitle “A Canon”, the concertmaster presented a harmonious, tonal melody with scarce cello accompaniment. The subsequent imitation response by entire voices / instrument groups was the most coherent so far—almost a romantic orchestral piece with “disturbances”.
“A Presto” began in the bass instruments, made its way up to the high violins, then all the way back again. “A Largo” started as pizzicato in double bass and cellos, with intermittent episodes of the initial theme, not in the brass section. Stepping bass pizzicato, with a narration in muted brass and percussion, shortly building up to chaos, then returning to order.
” A Lost Thought” consisted or errand motifs flashing up, migrating through the orchestra, seemingly losing orientation, vanishing / getting lost in space.
Mauro Hertig’s piece is a very interesting “composition”, for several reasons. The primary attraction may not be so much musical, but rather visual. There is of course the spectacle with the action of imitations through the orchestra, the “subtitles”, the blindfolds. To me, the most striking “live / visual” aspect was that one could see and watch how every musician in the orchestra was listening with highest possible attention.
I find Mauro Hertig’s idea and its realization brilliant. However, in my opinion, it does have substantial limitations. One is in the fact that the piece evolves with every rehearsal—and this sequence (the “imitation of imitations”, in a way) can’t be prolonged / extended / repeated ad infinitum with a given orchestra. New ensembles can start this process anew, of course. The other limitation that I see is, that this performance works in a live concert, and it may well work on video / streaming. However, in pure audio experience (radio / audio streaming or via CD, i.e., without the visual component), the aspect of spontaneity, the intentional “real-time / random deficiencies” can hardly have the desired effect on the listener.
A Response by the Composer
Maybe my wording above with “substantial limitations” sounded harsh. I did not mean this to be deprecative. I merely meant to specify fundamental characteristics that differentiate this composition from pieces such as György Ligeti’s or Julian Anderson’s—limitations in the sense of how the composition can be made available to general audiences.
Here’s what Mauro Hertig stated on Facebook:
“Thank you for the detailed review, and the kind words. I would like to point out that your two points of concern regarding my piece Losing the Red Queen’s Race—that a) it changes shape with every performance—and that b) it would be futile to audio-record it—are both 100% intentional. The piece is made to be generated live, every time it is played. For the audience, this can create an immediacy that they do not get from a piece that always sounds [more or less] the same. My piece reacts to the body that plays it—and to the level of acquaintance by the musicians—but performance No.1 is as valid as No.99. The growth of the piece with time is like that of a plant—I equally care for it as sapling & as tree.”
Julian Anderson: “The Stations of the Sun” for Orchestra (1998)
The British composer Julian Anderson (*1967) grew up in London. He studied composition with John Lambert (1926 – 1995), Alexander Goehr (*1932), and Tristan Murail (*1947). Anderson’s career breakthrough came in 1992 with the composition “Diptych” for orchestra. He continues to work as composer, while also holding a Senior Composition Professorship at the Royal College of Music (1996 – 2004). The following years till 2007, he was professor at Harvard University, and since that, he is professor for composition, as well as composer-in-residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, while also working as concert organizer and moderator.
2002 – 2011, Anderson was artistic director of the series “Music of Today” at Royal Festival Hall, and 2013 – 2016, he was composer-in-residence at Wigmore Hall. Anderson’s oeuvre comprises opera, orchestral works, chamber music, piano and other instrumental music, vocal, as well as choral works.
The topic of “The Stations of the Sun” for Orchestra (1998) is obvious: the course of the sun in the sky throughout the day, as well as across the seasons. Anderson states that the inspiration to “The Stations of the Sun” came from a book with that title, by the English historian Ronald Hutton (*1953). That book is about the origins of British folk traditions and rituals over the course of the year. Anderson states that his piece is not strictly programmatic, i.e., the seasonal solar cycle remains secondary.
The composer describes the structure of the piece as simple: four connected segments, plus a coda. Across the composition, there is a growing number of interruptions and cross-references, which causes the actual form of the piece to appear ambiguous.
The program notes included a 1-page description by the composer. I decided not to include that here. Rather, I’m describing my unbiased “third party impressions” below.
Performance and Music
The beginning felt like a kind of Scherzo: very simple (1 – 2 tones) “motifs” in the violins (pizzicato and arco), chatty responses in the woodwinds, followed by rapid, busy interaction between woodwinds (flute) and pizzicato in the violins. The complex pattern are gaining coherence, turn more melodic. The awakening of nature, bird songs prior to sunrise? Colors and pattern / textures, rather than lasting (let alone catchy) melodies. The piece builds up to a rumbling / droning first climax. It then relaxes into calm serenity: aeolian sounds with harp support, vanishing into ppp—the sunrise? Or rather, a reminiscence of “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune“ by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)?
From Textures to Melody and Polyphony
The second segment opens with a solemn, expressive melody in the violins (g / d’ strings), elegiac, above calm, slow and somber drum beats. It felt semi-tonal, not unlike one of the “endless melodies” by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911). This mutated into medieval modes / tonalities. Gradually, polyphony and polytonality evolved, up to a dense, mesmerizing climax, attaining rhythm and structure (woodwinds and harp). A long melody again, in unison (strings and brass), rhythmicized in the bongos. Further livening up, leading into an intense discourse between voices (brass and very active percussion). Almost a “semi-chaos”, complex, but rhythmically structured. Solemn polyphony in brass melodies, culminating in dense clusters in glossy high brass.
A canon-like segment in the strings, jazzy elements in the percussion, growing density, intensifying polyphony, culminating in clusters, a web of semi-tonal melodies, finally erupting in the low percussion, collapsing.
The last section recalled “Debussy moments” and the polyphonic nature / bird sounds from the first “movement”. A whirring flock of birds, bright sunshine (woodwinds and percussion, amplified in high brass. Two intense climaxes / waves (the coda?), finally a rapid decrescendo, a pizzicato “blip”—and silence, end.
As expected, Baldur Brönnimann conducted this with firm, clear movements and gestures, never losing oversight. He got very active support by the concertmaster, Daniela Müller.
An interesting piece—though for the unprepared first-time listener it is not easy to grasp the structure: the “four segments + coda” were hardly recognizable. What holds the composition together is the reminiscences to the first part in the final segment. There are also concrete / descriptive elements, sure. However, after the “on-stage action” in Mauro Hertig’s composition, this was perhaps simply a bit too abstract?
Simon Steen-Andersen: Concerto for Piano, Sampler, Orchestra, and Video (2014)
The Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen (*1976, see also Wikipedia) studies composition with Karl Aage Rasmussen (*1947) in Aalborg (DK) and with Mathias Spahlinger (*1944) in Freiburg (D). He continued his studies with Gabriel Valverde (*1957) in Buenos Aires / Argentina, and finally with Bent Sørensen (*1958) and Hans Abrahamsen (*1952) in Copenhagen. 2016, he became a member of the Academy of the Arts in Berlin, and 2018, he was accepted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Since 2018 Steen-Andersen is professor for composition and music theater at the University of the Arts in Bern (HKB), while also being guest professor at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus/Aalborg.
Steen-Andersen has won various prizes in composition. He has worked with the most prominent ensembles and institutions for contemporary music in Europe. His key topics in composition include the confrontation with established concert rituals, the inclusion of scenic elements and choreographic concepts, live visuals, and complex feedback mechanisms. His recent works incorporate concrete elements into music, with focus of physical and choreographic aspects in instrumental performances. As the work in this concert demonstrates, he also likes to work with amplified acoustic elements in connection with sampling and videos.
In the program notes, Simon Steen-Andersen’s work was listed as Concerto for Piano, Sampler, Orchestra, and Video (2014)—but it was also referred to simply as “Piano Concerto”. Neither this nor the full title give a remote idea on what the concertgoer is experiencing. In fact, what Steen-Andersen appears to be aiming for is a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, i.e., a work of art that combines audiovisual, musical, and philosophical contents. Just in the way in which Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) tried combining drama, opera / music, and mythology in (some of) his operas.
In the introduction, Baldur Brönnimann called this an actually romantic concerto, “containing a little Beethoven, a little Ragtime”. The composer, Steen-Andersen, stated that the most romantic part is the crash. And he stated that there is also irony in this piece. He may have referred to the “dancing grand” segment mentioned below.
Rather than offering a step-by-step description of the work, let me try separating out the audio-visual components:
Video — The Falling Piano
The most spectacular aspect of Steen-Andersen’s piano concerto is the idea of the falling concert grand, which is presented on full-screen video projection. The grand piano was dropped onto a concrete floor, from a height of 7 – 8 meters. As Simon Steen-Andersen explained in the introduction, the height was chosen such that the concert grand was indeed destroyed. However, in a way that resulted in a “corpse” that was still somehow playable (more on that below). That event was filmed with high-speed cameras. In the performance, the last part of the fall, particularly the crashing onto the floor, was projected in extreme (100x) slow motion, and in all detail, with tail and feet breaking off (the legs holding, though), the keyboard lid bouncing away, the music rack jumping up, etc.
The slow motion video also featured the “stretched” (mostly very low pitch) noise from the collision. In the performance, that noise was then pickled up / imitated / echoed by the orchestra. That event was projected not just once, but several times, at various speeds, ultimately also backwards (a reverse destruction, the fictional reconstruction of the instrument). In one sequence, the projection was rhythmically switching between forward and backward motion, resulting in the concert grand “dancing in the act of (self-)destruction”. Quite obviously, the makers had fun playing with that material.
Needless to say that this idea is highly controversial. Some will find the idea of destroying a grand piano (especially filming the act in all detail) disgustingly destructive, despicable, fatalist. Others will find it highly spectacular, fantastic, etc., though.
A Double Concerto
Apart from the canvas for the video projection in the rear of the podium, the setup indeed resembled that for a piano concerto, with the concert grand at the front of the podium. There was, however, a second keyboard in the pianist’s reach, in front of the music rack with the sheet music. Then, to the right of the concert grand, there was a strangely shaped projection canvas, big enough (exactly fitting) the broken piano corpse—plus space for the pianist (his own Doppelgänger) sitting at (remainders of) the keyboard. So, the corpse was not physically present in the performance. Nevertheless, it appeared very much “alive” through pre-recorded projection and playback sound.
The damage that the fallen piano suffered was substantial, even though Simon Steen-Andersen claimed it is “still working”. Major damage happened to the housing (lid, keyboard cover, note rack, tail, feet, pedal). The cast iron frame, though, appeared at least partially intact, and even the mechanics and the keyboard seemed to be partially functional. Damage to the pinblock caused substantial detuning, and there was a severe mis-alignment between hammers, dampers, and strings. The “tones” typically consisted of noise only, or of a short, “suffocated bling” with vaguely defined pitch, mixed with “body noise”.
Pianist and Doppelgänger
The part of the Doppelgänger was not just a videotaped recording of the second piano part. The recording rather consisted of snippets—some longer (the pianist just waiting for his entry), some more complex (tremolos, short glissandi, or clusters), but mostly just playing one single “note”. Snippets covering most or all “features” still usable on the broken instrument.
These snippets were not just played in pre-programmed sequence. Nicolas Hodges was performing his “real” part, and in-between he reached up to the second / upper keyboard with one hand, and there, the keys were triggering the pre-recorded snippet for that respective note (some maybe also longer snippets / snippet sequences). In pauses, the “second pianist” appeared frozen, and in sequences of tones, the Doppelgänger appeared as discontinuous motion in (single-tone) snippets.
The second part consists of individual notes only, i.e., it is neither polyphonic, nor full-fingered chordal. Moreover, the individual notes were well-separated, and in the projected snippets, Nicolas Hodges was touching the key(s) with a large, distinct and visible motion, such that it was always obvious when the broken instrument was playing. At the same time, the Doppelgänger projection distracted from Nicolas Hodges’ (more discreet) “triggering action” on the upper keyboard.
Performance and Music
With all of the description given above, I’m limiting my live impressions to highlights. The sections below contain links to a video recording of a live performance, with the soloist in this concert, Nicolas Hodges. This allows readers to watch this piece as a live audio-visual experience.
The fall of the piano forms a prologue to the piece. Initially silent (during the fall), the collision and the sound of the destruction—stretched in time—leads into a loud, long droning noise, which is instantly picked up, imitated, amplified, extended and illustrated by the orchestra. A collision with endless reverberation, diluting into ppp, pppp.
Solo and Double Concerto
The solo (live, on the intact instrument) opens with a descending sequence of large intervals across the keyboard. This repeats in circles, though gradually, the beginning of the next sequence moves forward, as if it was trying to overtake the preceding instance. It gradually loses the rhythm, turns complex, if not a little chaotic (an image of the destruction?). The orchestra picks this up, in parts “helping ” the solo part, in parts responding with ascending sequences, at times deliberately out of tune. Then, the broken piano sets in, with ascending sequences—a one-soloist double concerto, indeed. The apparent, gradual loss in synchronization also appears to reflect the destruction.
The solo part as such does not appear highly virtuosic / challenging. However there was the task of simultaneously operating two keyboards much farther apart than on multi-manual instruments such as organs. And the challenge of emulating a loss of synchronicity between voices and between the two keyboards, the often sporadic nature of the solo interjections, following orchestra and conductor while also reading the complex score—all this definitely rendered the “double solo part” a rather intricate “multitasking job”.
Some of the piece has aspects of musique concrète, other times it appeared to turn stochastic. These elements were mixed with the concepts of imitation and caricature (between solo/solos and orchestra, and vice versa), and of challenge—response (and back-responses). Oftentimes, sequences are taken apart into isolated “events”, often also interrupted by bursts (tremolos, glissandi). The flow is momentarily rhythmic (partly regular), but typically erratic, rarely continuous. The exception is the central part, where sequences of motifs are repeated / imitated in close circles, forming a “larger scale rhythmic structure”, accelerating, slowing down. This is not just interesting, entertaining, fun, but enthralling to watch.
At one point, the chord exchange (pianos & orchestra) gradually turns louder and tonal, ending in a loud D major (?) chord. Now tonal, the music builds up to a classical half-cadence (Beethoven), as if a solo cadenza was to follow. The latter, though, is mostly on the broken piano, and sounds rather unusual. Even though it imitates / caricatures segments from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58. Only momentarily, the real piano adds some amount of “classical order”.
Schubert and the Dancing Piano, “Coda”
After a sequence that appeared to allude to a Schubert song, the big-screen projection showed the fall and its reversal at actual speed, followed by cycles of fall and reversal. Steen-Andersen took this a step further, showing the piano dancing, in accelerating up- and down-movements. At the same time, the solo mutated from Schubert (?) to a jazzy sequence (Boogie?).
The final sequence started with a total view into the industrial hall, showing the fall and the associated noise in actual time, from a distance. The solo instruments followed up with scarce tones and pattern at the extremes of the keyboards. The orchestra mostly just illustrated, using silent pizzicato and soft noises, scarce notes. All this was gradually thinning out, ending in a timelapse video, showing construction and subsequent clean-up of the “collision site”, as well as the transport into the studio for the recording of the sampling snippets.
The page describing the piano concerto on Simon Steen-Andersen’s Website also features a video recording of the work, with Nicolas Hodges as soloist and Doppelgänger. This is from a live streaming performance in Helsinki on 2021-02-04, with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of André de Ridder (*1971).
The concept of the falling piano is not new (if I’m not completely mistaken, a few years ago, a famous coffee brand had an ad featuring a grand piano falling down onto a street, narrowly missing the protagonist), but it surely still is spectacular. However, while one can definitely enjoy Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk operas also in a pure audio recording, Simon Steen-Andersen’s piano concerto can only possibly work in a live (audio-visual) performance, and maybe on video. An audio recording of this work would be utterly pointless, I think.
Finally, performances of this piece are tied to Nicolas Hodges as soloist: he (presumably) is the only one familiar with the intricacies of operating the sampling keyboard along with the regular one. Plus, he is featuring on the pre-recorded samplings: another soloist would require re-doing all the samplings, unless one were to abandon the idea of the Doppelgänger.
The video recording mentioned above from a performance on 2021-02-04 (live streaming only, due to the pandemic) is also available on YouTube.
Both interesting and fun, caricature, philosophy and gag?
Undoubtedly a highly interesting concert. There was a philosophical underpinning in both Mauro Hertig’s as well as Simon Steen-Andersen’s compositions. However, in parts, that aspect was overshadowed by the spectacle / fun (if not entertainment) aspects.
The author would like to express his gratitude to the team of Basel Sinfonietta (in particular Werner Hoppe, PR and Marketing, as well as Sarina Leuenberger, Ticketing) for the press tickets to this concert, and for providing access to an extensive set of photos from the concert, all created by (©) Zlatko Mićić.