Peter Rundel / Basel Sinfonietta
Heinz Holliger / Klaus Huber / Steffen Wick

Musical Theater, Basel, 2020-02-02

4.5-star rating

2020-02-12 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

Back to Basel, for a concert with the Basel Sinfonietta (see also Wikipedia), at the Musical Theater Basel. It’s well over a year since the last one that I witnessed in this location (on 2018-10-21). After having attended and written about 13 concerts with that orchestra (since fall 2015), I don’t need to introduce the ensemble. Here, we experienced it in its full formation:

Not all of the past concerts were with the orchestra’s chief conductor, Baldur Brönnimann (*1968): in three of the concerts, the orchestra was hired by choirs. Also, at the time of the first concert that I attended in 2015, the ensemble did not have a permanent conductor yet. Baldur Brönimann became chief conductor in 2016 and has since led most concerts with the orchestra. However, in his activities as conductor Brönnimann frequently travels to places such as the Iberian peninsula, the Americas, as well as Scandinavia and other locations. So, for this concert, the orchestra worked with a guest conductor:

Conductor: Peter Rundel

The German violinist and conductor Peter Rundel (*1958 in Friedrichshafen) is focusing on performances of contemporary music (see the German Wikipedia for additional information on the artist’s bio). Peter Rundel’s activities don’t just focus on Germany, but span major parts of Europe. For me, this was the first encounter with the artist.

Program

There are no “standard” concerts with this orchestra. And this evening was no exception! The title of the concert was Tausendsassa (the German for “Jack of all trades”). This refers to the well-known Swiss oboist, composer and conductor Heinz Holliger (*1939). Holliger turned 80 last year, and this concert served as a late celebration of this anniversary. So, two of the compositions in the program were by Heinz Holliger. This was complemented by a key composition by the late Swiss composer Klaus Huber (1924 – 2017), plus a new composition that the orchestra commissioned from the German composer Steffen Wick (*1981, see also the German Wikipedia). The official program was as follows:

As usual, there was also an introduction (45 minutes prior to the beginning), featuring interviews with the two living composers. In addition, after the intermission, a new online platform for sharing and discovering contemporary music and associated resources among musicians and composers. The concert was very well-attended (definitely for an event with only contemporary music!).

Setting, etc.

My wife and I were offered excellent seats near the center of row 16 (parquet seating). As I received permission to take photos, we took the opportunity to switch to seats farther to the left, with a less obstructed view, and at the same time offering the possibility to mount a tripod without disturbing people behind us.


Concert & Review

Introductory Interviews

Essentially all concerts with and by the Basel Sinfonietta feature new and newest music only, i.e., music for which a score is not available yet (definitely not as free download). Therefore, I always try to attend the introduction that precedes the concerts. These introductions feature interviews with composers and/or artists. The information offered by these interviews may largely duplicate what is also in the concert booklet. However, it is still helpful to hear it from the people themselves, as they indicate the most relevant points about the background of the piece. This is particularly important in instances where a composition is new, and/or (as is frequently the case) not described in resources such as Wikipedia and/or the composer’s Website.

Usually, these interviews are performed by (or in the presence of) the principal conductor, Baldur Brönnimann—who wasn’t present in this concert. In his place, Florian Hauser, presenter and moderator at Radio SRF 2 Kultur (culture channel of the Swiss Radio), conducted the interviews (he also led the discussion after the intermission).

Interview with Heinz Holliger

I’m not trying to produce an ever so sketchy transcript of the interview with Heinz Holliger. Some of the information I have used in the texts about Holliger’s two compositions below. Much more important to me was the actual encounter with the composer. I must say (shame on me!) that this was my first live encounter with Heinz Holliger. And I was delighted to note the composer’s vitality, his mental and emotional presence at age 80—most amazing! The pictures here give an impression about this great musician’s lively gestures and body language.

Interview with Steffen Wick

The interview with Heinz Holliger understandably occupied most of the time in this introductory session. For the segment with Steffen Wick, Heinz Holliger grabbed his plastic bag and watched the interview with the younger colleague from one of the seats in the orchestra’s cello section.

Also here, I haven’t tried collecting a transcript, but I’m using information from the interview (as well as from the concert booklet) in the section about Steffen Wick’s composition below.


Holliger: Two Liszt Transcriptions for Large Orchestra (1986)

Heinz Holliger mentioned that it was his teacher, the Hungarian composer Sándor Veress (1907 – 1992), through whom he learned about two late compositions by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): Nuages gris (Gray Clouds), S.199 (1881) and Unstern! — Sinistre, S.208 (allegedly from 1886). Holliger described these as “erratic blocks” in the late 19th century piano repertoire. They really are! Mysterious, dark, menacing, using visionary, avant-garde harmonies. Pieces from the future in many ways, anticipating features used only by 20th century composers. Holliger mentioned Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945), and he described the late Liszt as far more revolutionary than his father-in-law, Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). The Wikipedia entry for Unstern! states that (mostly dissonant) chords no longer define harmonies, be merely serve to create colors, atmosphere. An excellent performance of Liszt’s S.208 is available on YouTube.

Heinz Holliger stated that in some ways, Liszt’s late piano compositions are far more revolutionary than, say, the twelve-tone technique (dodecaphony) as used by Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951). He called dodecaphony “deeply rooted in conservative thinking”. The Liszt transcriptions are Holliger’s first go at “transforming” works by other composers. Only later (out of respect for these composers), he worked with compositions by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) and by another visionary / revolutionary, Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918).

Transcription?

On the occasion of Sándor Veress’ 80th birthday, Holliger took up the above two pieces by Franz Liszt and transcribed them for orchestra. He described his technique as “over-painting”. In other words: Liszt’s compositions are preserved in their entirety (Holliger “didn’t change a single note”). To this—sometimes “in the shadow”, in background, sometimes above the original—Holliger added his own layer. So, this composition is definitely more than a mere transcription: Holliger took the meaning of “transcription” apart: “trans” = through, over, and “scription” obviously from the Latin scribere, to write. Transcription as a means to transfer Liszt’s originals from sub-conscience into Holliger’s own sound world, like through the filter of a dream.

As the title states, the transcriptions are for large orchestra. They feature instruments that weren’t even known at Liszt’s time: five flutes, down to the bass flute, similarly five clarinets, down to the bass clarinet. He also uses new techniques of creating sounds on brass instruments. In Nuage gris, of course retained Liszt’s prominent intervals, fourth and diminished fifth, yet, he interpreted the silence between the notes as the “key message” in this music. With this, Holliger stated that he “added / changed much more” in that piece than in Unstern! (though he reconfirmed that he didn’t omit a single note, retained the original structure bar by bar).

The Performance

Nuages gris

In Holliger’s transcription, the two pieces by Liszt form two successive parts of a single movement, starting with Nuages gris. The performance confirmed: Holliger’s transformation of these pieces is ever so subtle and masterful! Yet, while it does indeed leave Liszt’s text unaltered, it completely alters the character of these pieces! The originals are rather austere, somber, dark, mysterious—like playing in a big void. In the transcription, already the first bars of Nuages gris are completely changed in character. That’s not just an effect of the (scarce) instrumentation, but it takes a single, ppp drone voice underneath (bassoon?) to change this from “hollow, empty” to a (still mysterious) “question mark”.

Throughout the first half, Holliger’s additions are subtle, mostly just adding colors, then gradually adding extra voices, later also dissonant harmonies, without disturbing Liszt’s backbone. In the end, the solo violin continues Liszt’s ascending line in the descant, taking it to heavenly heights… It feels like Liszt’s deliberately raw, scarce skeleton if filled with emotion, warmth, atmosphere…

Unstern! — Sinistre

Holliger’s transformation of Unstern! feels stronger, more direct, more expressive, and more colorful, e.g., through strong brass voices. The transcription also fills Liszt’s empty octaves with dissonant chords (not the stepping bass voice, though), and the triple punctuations in the original are filled with rhythmic doublings. Holliger changes the almost unbearable tension in the original’s two crescendo build-ups now turns into urgency and drama—the latter especially at the second climax (fff).

After the long pause that follows, the atmosphere changes dramatically: the F♯ section is a touching chorale, an intense lament that gradually brightens up, undergoes purification, ultimately transcending into silence. Holliger may have made mocking remarks about Liszt’s father-in-law, Richard Wagner. Still, in its intensity, the chorale section reminded me of the Funeral March in Wagner’s opera “Siegfried”. Touching, if not even heart-wrenching!

To summarize: to me, Holliger’s transcription is timeless, not bound to a specific style, emotionally very much accessible, and highly fascinating!

Orchestra & Conductora

A word on the performance as such: I’m sorry not to write more about the musicians. The focus here is on the music. With an orchestra such as the Basel Sinfonietta, there is never the slightest doubt about the ensemble’s competence and engagement. That’s an observation I made in just about every single concert with this orchestra that I attended.

Peter Rundel’s conducting style, his gestures and body language look entirely different from that of the chief conductor. However, there was never any doubt about his thorough knowledge of the scores, his rhythmic firmness. His conducting gestures were clear, active, both harmonious / natural and accurate at all times. Of course, Peter Rundel is not alone. Throughout the concert, he had substantial help from the very active concertmaster (Daniela Müller) and from the other first desks.


Huber: Tenebrae for Large Orchestra (1966/1967)

Heinz Holliger had close personal / family ties with his colleague, the Swiss composer Klaus Huber (1924 – 2017). As composer, Huber often cooperated with Heinz Holliger. For example, 1961, Klaus Huber composed Noctes intelligibilis lucis“, for oboe and harpsichord for Heinz Holliger, who regards this the most important piece for oboe at that time.

Klaus Huber wrote Tenebrae for Large Orchestra in 1966/1967, in response to a commission by Paul Sacher (1906 – 1999). With Tenebrae (Latin for darkness), Huber was thinking of solar eclipse and the darkening of life. In fact, when he wrote this composition, Huber was experiencing extreme “internal pressure”, anxiety, internal terror. Writing Tenebrae (according to Holliger) was sheer necessity for the composer’s survival. Huber referred to a vision by the German Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763 – 1825), where a messenger guides the poet through the unlimited cosmic space(s). The human experienced this space / time travel with terror and anxiety—but also with hope. That vision fitted Huber’s situation / feelings, and it inspired Tenebrae.

Holliger called Klaus Huber a “huge inspiration” in his life at the time. Holliger received most of his musical / artisanal foundations from Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016). However, spiritually and intellectually, he was much closer to the world of Klaus Huber. In fact, he called Tenebrae one of the most relevant orchestral works of the late 20th century. He deplored the fact that it is performed very rarely, if at all, by most conductors. “A work of high structural complexity, yet with utmost lucidity. Complex, but at the same time highly communicative.”

The Performance

Klaus Huber’s music “sneaks in”, as subtle noise from silence. Highest pitch noises, myriads of voices, rapidly growing in volume. Like talking, chatting, chit-chat / chattering, interaction, coming, going. The high-pitch background is interrupted by “sudden events” in brass and percussion. Between these “events”, the music seems unstructured, except for the “invisible pulsating” that the listener mostly gathers from the conductor’s gestures.

Huber was very inventive and refined in the noise generation techniques. Prominent in this piece: fingers tapping on the body of string instruments, col legno effects, highly differentiated and subtle. At the same time, Huber asks for an extreme dynamic scope, from silent intervals, unhearable noises to poignant, wild and incisive brass voices, eruptions from percussion, tam-tam, etc.; then, there’s singing / humming in the orchestra—a distant choir / monody.

A strongly wobbling cello starts an intense lamento, and suddenly, there’s an extreme eruption. Another silent interval follows, in which “the loudest noise is the conductor’s baton”! Whispering, chit-chat—the wind machine in action. Despite the noisy eruptions, Huber forces the listener into hyper-sensitive hearing in “ultimative silence”, as in total darkness. Imagination or reality? To me, it’s definitely in the quiet, silent, “distant” segments, when this music is most imaginative—and most communicative. I certainly now understand Heinz Holliger’s statement about this music being a key composition in the second half of the 20th century.


A Web Platform for Contemporary (Swiss) Music: neo.mx3.ch

For a while, mx3 (mx3.ch) has existed as a Web platform, “meeting place for Swiss contemporary music. A crossroad where musicians, professionals, fans, labels, clubs, festivals, associations and radios interact“. Here, “contemporary music” stands for genres such as pop, rock, and the like.

This concert also was the launch even for mx3’s “little sister”, neo.mx3 (neo.mx3.ch), a new, equivalent platform for contemporary classical music. In analogy to “mx3”, neo.mx3 defines itself as “a crossroad where swiss composers and performers meet organisers, researchers, festivals, music conservatoires, associations and radio stations“. In other words: a place for composers and performers (organizers, agencies) to meet, exchange information, offer, seek and find resources. This concert was selected for the platform launch (for the German-speaking part of Switzerland) because the Basel Sinfonietta is Switzerland’s most prominent orchestra for new, newest and experimental, contemporary classical music.

neo.mx3 is focusing on Swiss composers and performers, but certainly also has the intent being open to international contacts. The platform resides under the auspices of the Swiss Radio (such as Radio SRF 2 Kultur). It therefore was just logical that it was Radio SRF 2 Kultur which did the launch of neo.mx3:

neo.mx3 Launch Presentation

Naturally, it was again Florian Hauser from Radio SRF 2 Kultur who presented the launch, in the form of a joint interview with

I don’t want to produce a transcript of the launch discussion—just so much: since its installation a few months ago, the number of compositions on neo.mx3 has gone up from around 100 to over 1000, and the visitor numbers have almost exploded (certainly on a Swiss scale), with some works gathering several thousand visits.


Wick: Autobiography (2017)

Steffen Wick (*1981, see also the German Wikipedia) wrote his work Autobiography in 2017, in response to a joint commission by the Basel Sinfonietta and the Cottbus Philharmonic Orchestra. The latter orchestra also did the world premiere on 2017-11-17. This concert represented the Swiss First Performance.

In this composition, Steffen Wick describes a near-death situation, or the (alleged, hypothetical) thoughts in the seconds prior to a fatal accident. He pictures the subject’s life passing by in the person’s mind in seconds, with “seemingly insignificant moments appearing oddly stretched, once importantly assumed stages rolling by as in a time lapse. What was long forgotten re-emerges and pivotal human encounters pass by the mind’s eye.”, and further: “Time as a definitely directed, irreversible constant is suspended by a simultaneous experience of past and present. In a stream of consciousness of the instant all impressions permeate and form the quintessence of one’s whole life. A flash of insight within seconds prolonged to infinity.” (quotes from the composer’s Website).

Of particular interest to the composer was this temporal simultaneity, the compression and at the same time magnification / expansion in a singular, extremely condensed experience that some of us may go through in the last conscious moment of our lives.

In the text below, I’m trying to shape my sketchy notes (merely describing my impressions) into sentences…

The Performance

After an initial percussion splash, piano/percussion and flutes start a rapid & dense, canon-like, close imitation. The passing of time in fast mode?? For a while, this persists in background, like a cantus firmus (a Chaconne?), while brass and strings produce sound planes. Eruptions. Cantilenas in the violins—beautiful memories, serene moments, all embedded in the multi-layered chit-chat / polyphony. The latter is accumulating over time, getting dense and denser. However there are always these moments with beautiful melodies emerging from the stream of events.

Another percussion “bang” reverberates in the orchestra, then fades away, giving way to a calm melody in the brass. A simple tune on the piano, noises, whispering, wind—shrieking explosions, chaos, a reflective moment in the woodwinds, building up, loud chaos.

A melancholic melody on the trumpet resonates in the rest of the orchestra, evoking spiccato chit-chat in the violins. A giant build-up. Was there a Mahler-allusion, or was this just my imagination? Finally, a decrescendo into silence. The very end is a swiping noise, when the entire orchestra simultaneously retracted their feet back under the chair—unseen and unheard of!!!


Holliger: (S)irat(ó), Monody for Large Orchestra (1992)

Holliger wrote his “(S)irat(ó), Monody for Large Orchestra” in 1992, in memory of his highly appreciated teacher Sándor Veress (1907 – 1992). The Hungarian word Sirató is a keen, a lament for the dead. Holliger starts off with a chord E♭ – A – C – D – E, i.e., Es – A – Do – Re – E (German and solmisation), alluding to the teacher’s name: (E)sAnDoR VerEss. From this chord, cellos and double basses filter out tones symbolizing mourning, grief: a “chord that starts sighing”.

Further, Heinz Holliger referred to Sándor Veress’ composition Threnos in memoriam Béla Bartók from 1945. Holliger called this a monody. He applied the same term to his own composition, because even though the writing is polyphonic, he made it sound like a single voice. Thereby, the many voices play the same melody, but slightly shifted against each other in time—heterophony, a texture characterized by the simultaneous variation of a single melodic line.

Rhythmically, Holliger also embedded Veress’ birth date (1 – 2), i.e., 1st of February (1907) and the day of his passing (4 – 3), i.e., 4th of March (1992), which is used as ostinato basis. The piece begins in the lowest bass notes, and gradually works its way up into the highest possible pitches, when the orchestra performs a five voice chorale (based on the above five notes from the dedicatee’s name), including the above rhythmic elements, i.e., Veress’ life dates.

Irato

The title actually is a word play: the “S” is in parentheses, leaving irato—Italian for irated, angry. Why angry? Well, Veress was living in Switzerland for 19 years, and only three months before he died, he received the Swiss citizenship, which made Holliger utterly angry. Holliger premiered (S)irat(ó) at the 1992 Lucerne Festival (then still IMF, Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern), with the Schweizerisches Festspielorchester (the Swiss Festival Orchestra, which also commissioned the piece), a conglomerate of the best Swiss orchestra musicians. That same year was the last season of that orchestra. In Holliger’s words, the orchestra was “murdered”. Holliger saw this as a big, missed, integrative opportunity in the Swiss music scene, and this, too, made him very sad and upset.

The Performance

(S)iratò begins with a short, high-pitch “event”, instantly followed by a sad, slow, hesitating, melancholic contemplation, building up to almost violent, rebelling declamation. The wind instruments fall in with close imitation, though the cello remains the most important / leading voice, while percussion add their comments in close association, a cimbalom adds a layer of Hungarian folk tone. The music builds up to a highly complex mix of voices which imitate each other in very close succession—friction, growing emotionality, drama—anger, rebellion. At the peak, the peace evolves into an “asynchronous multi-canon”, in which the melody of the monody is largely hidden within the multitude of voices.

Very gradually, the atmosphere changes from anger into melancholy, to overwhelming sadness, desolation. In the end: a high-pitch tone / noise above the melody of the monody in the low percussion, slowly retracting: persistence? Resilience? Hope?

Impressive, strong music, for sure! A composition that leaves a lasting impression, despite (or because of?) the absence of joy and happiness.


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