Valentine Michaud, Baldur Brönnimann / Lucerne Festival Alumni
Meierhans / Vassena / Bianchi

KKL, Lucerne, 2020-08-23

4.5-star rating

2020-08-27 — Original posting

Die Alumni der Lucerne Festival Academy überzeugen in Werken der letzten 14 Jahre— Zusammenfassung

Pandemie-bedingt reduzierte sich das Lucerne Festival auf eine Kurzversion von 10 Tagen. Das Festival stand unter dem Motto “Life is live”—ein Statement zugunsten von “richtigen” Konzerten mit Publikum. Der Morgen des letzten Tages bot einen Auftritt eines Ensembles der Alumni der Lucerne Festival Academy, unter der kundigen Leitung von Baldur Brönnimann.

Das Konzert eröffnete mit der Uraufführung von “Auf Distanz” der ostschweizer Komponistin Barblina Meierhans (*1981). Das zehnminütige, imaginative Werk thematisiert die Situation des Social Distancing: sieben instrumente auf dem Podium, ein Kornett auf der Galerie, eine Bassflöte ganz hinten im Saal.

Solistin in materia oscura von Nadir Vassena (*1970) war die französische Saxophonistin Valentine Michaud. Der Komponist versucht hier, das kosmologische Konzept der schwarzen (unsichtbaren) Materie (Dark Matter, materia oscura) auf die geheimnisvolle Beziehung zwischen dem (unsichtbaren) Klangs des Saxophons und der Klangwelt des Ensembles anzuwenden.

Oscar Bianchi (*1975) schließlich bezieht sich in seinem Werk Contingency (Kontingenz) auf abstrakte, philosophisch-intellektuelle Konzepte. Man könnte die Idee hinter der akustisch sehr reichhaltigen Komposition zusammenfassen als Versuch, den Kampf zwischen (zeitlicher) Ordnung und Chaos darzustellen—Zeit/Geschichte vs. Zufall/Chaos.

Table of Contents


Walking from the train to the concert hall was a somewhat ghastly experience. We expected to see the Lucerne train station far less populated than under non-pandemic circumstances. But then, on the side of the train station, the venue, the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL), at a first glance looked closed! It turned out that for this reduced issue of the Lucerne Festival, visitors were directed to a single entrance, near the lake. However, also there, there were unusually few people.

Visitors were offered face masks before entering the building. Wearing a mask inside the venue at all times was mandatory during the pandemy. Less than half an hour prior to the beginning of the concert, also the inside of the building looked almost deserted. And there were fewer than a dozen people in the stall seats. All balconies remained closed.

The hall became more populated during the minutes up to the concert. However, the organizers of course carefully and strictly ensured physical distancing during the entire event. The audience size was limited to around 1/3 of the stall seats. This felt reassuring for us as visitors. And it had the extra benefit of offering an unobstructed view onto the podium.

Lucerne Festival 2020

With the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organizers initially cancelled the entire Summer Festival, including all commitments and contracts with artists, etc.

Then, however, the authorities gradually started lifting the restrictions. With this careful opening / relief, the festival organizers swiftly organized a shorter, 10-days only, Festival with actual, live performances. Of course, they strictly observed the rules for physical distancing. And facial masks, disinfectant, reduced attendance, controlled seating, no intermission, no bar service, etc. helped maintaining protection. For the majority of the musicians, the short Festival offered the first live appearances in a concert hall with real (albeit reduced) audience. Consequently, the Lucerne Festival 2020 ran under the title “Life is live“. A celebration of the return of live concert events.

The Artists

Conductor: Baldur Brönnimann

I have encountered Baldur Brönnimann (*1968, see also Wikipedia) numerous times in concert so far, as chief conductor of the Basel Sinfonietta (see my earlier reviews). He has been holding that role since the season 2015/2016. At the same time, he also is Principal Conductor of the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música. With both these orchestras, Baldur Brönnimann has established a reputation as specialist in conducting contemporary music. Seemingly effortlessly, he masters the most complex, challenging contemporary scores and firmly guides orchestras through the rhythmic maze of modern works.

Ensemble: Lucerne Festival Academy Alumni

The Lucerne Festival Academy emerged 2003 upon the initiative of Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016). It remained under Boulez’ direction up till 2015. The Alumni is part of the Festival Academy. It’s an orchestra / ensemble specialized in contemporary music. In this concert, only a chamber ensemble, a small fraction (15 musicians) was present on the podium.

This was my second encounter with the Lucerne Festival Alumni. The first one (in this same venue) was on the occasion of a concert on 2016-03-20, in memory of the founder of the Academy, Pierre Boulez.

Soloist: Valentine Michaud, Saxophone

The French saxophonist Valentine Michaud (born 1993 in France) has very successfully launched a career as soloist and as chamber musician. I have once attended a performance of hers in that latter function, on 2019-05-26, in an remarkable presentation recital of the AKMI Duo. That duo (founded 2015) is a cooperation with the Lithuanian pianist Akvilė Šileikaitė (*1992).


The safety measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic restricted the size of the audience and the number of musicians on the podium. On top of that, they precluded any kind of social gathering at bars around the concert. And they precluded an intermission. This minimized social and physical interactions before, during, and after the concert. Consequently, the concert featured a program lasting just a little over one hour. It featured three works: the world premiere of a composition that the Festival commissioned for this occasion, plus two more contemporary works:

Setting, etc.

As mentioned above, only the stall seats in the White Hall of the KKL (Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre) were available, with seating in single seats of pairs of seats. My wife and I had seats 12 & 13 in the center of row 10.

Concert & Review

Lucerne Festival "Life is live", 2020-08-23: Chloë Abbott, Baldur Brönnimann, Lucerne Festival Alumni (© LUCERNE FESTIVAL / Priska Ketterer)
Lucerne Festival “Life is live”, 2020-08-23: Chloë Abbott, Baldur Brönnimann, Lucerne Festival Alumni (© LUCERNE FESTIVAL / Priska Ketterer)

Barblina Meierhans: At a Distance for bass flute and small ensemble (2020)

The composer Barblina Meierhans (born 1981 in the eastern part of Switzerland) studied composition, violin, viola, new music theater, and transdisciplinarity (yes, all of this!) at the Zurich and Bern Universities of the Arts, as well as at the Dresden University of Music. She received a commission from the Lucerne Festival, for a work relating to the current situation with the pandemic, and on how she (as a composer), the festival, maybe the music scene in general copes with this difficult time. The performance of her work “At a Distance” for bass flute and small ensemble (2020) was a World Premiere.

“At a Distance” of course refers to social (physical) distancing. This was not only obvious from the wide half-circle with seven musicians (clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, trombone, violin, cello, and double bass), but from the placement of the trumpet or cornet (Chloë Abbott) on the gallery above the ensemble, and of the bass flute (Matteo Cesari) in the rear of the hall, behind the audience. “At a Distance” also is a reflection on the situation which forced the composer to use her voice as sole or main means to imagining soundscapes on the podium. This composition is the result of translating this fictitious and humorous situation into an instrumental setting.

The composition consists of five short sketches for bass flute and small ensemble, with cornet ad libitum.

  1. Schnalzen (flicking)
  2. Kichern (giggling)
  3. Lauschen (eavesdropping) /
  4. Singen (singing)
  5. Atmen (breathing)

Actually, sketches 3 and 4 form one single movement / episode.

The Performance

Not only did “movements” 3 and 4 merge into a single episode, but all episodes followed in succession, just separated by (random?) intervals of silence. The only exception was with the last section, which was clearly standing apart, separated only by a short interval.

I. Schnalzen (Flicking)

The beginning of the piece consisted of (largely) intense silence, initiated by an isolated, percussive, soft and brief puffing sound from the bass flute in the back of the hall. An ingenious way to awaken everybody’s attention, to create expectation and tension immediately. At seemingly erratic intervals, more puffs from the flute, percussive noises from the wind instruments in the ensemble followed, alternating with breathing, the sound of wind. Soft, whirring, aeolian noises / tones. Melody fragments from flute “puffs”, and finally, the trumpetist joins in, singing into the detached mouthpiece. And always these long intervals of silence, which seemed to increase the suspense!

II. Kichern (Giggling)

The flute solo initiated the second episode, by opening an intense interaction / discourse. A hoarse, “airy” sequence, to which the saxophone responded loud and eloquently—”humanoid noises”. Not so much giggling (the tenor saxophone maybe isn’t the ideal instrument to imitate giggling), but lively chatter / multi-voice discussion that rapidly emerged, as if somebody had opened a window to a market scene. After a short climax, the chattering rapidly faded into scarce utterings. Only then, actual, loud giggling started in the clarinet, followed by another sequence of lively interaction between the wind instruments. When that discourse died off, silence led into the next episode:

III. & IV. Lauschen und Singen (Eavesdropping and Singing)

Silence, scarce, but highly eloquent, soft and distant breathing noises from the bass flute. Intense listening, indeed! Archaic, deep scratching and grumbling from the double bass lead over to the “singing” section. Initially a single, long tone, gradually widening up into nearby microtonal intervals from other voices.

The actual singing broke in at once, with a loud explosion of chaotic voices, forming a vivid interaction. I did not see this as a fight. Rather, it felt like a crowd protesting in agreement. Only gradually, that protest faded, giving room for soft melody fragments, motifs seemingly appearing at random, microtonal intervals and clusters, dying off, into more silence.

V. Atmen (Breathing)

The tenor saxophone opened, very slowly breathing on a single, soft tone, calling into the silence. That tone started moving in microtonal intervals. With the next, long breath, trombone and bass flute, then gradually also the other instruments joined in, again forming narrow, slowly moving clusters. Shades of tones, of colors. Reflection, holding, keeping the attention, shyly calling and listening into the silence, and ending in an open question mark, not giving in to a resolution.

An utterly intense, breathtaking piece! Breathtaking through silence and void rather than through oppressing sound. And a compelling, stunning demonstration / illustration of physical distancing! Key impressions: focus, attention, and an “invisible bracket” through silence / void!

Rating: ★★★★★

Lucerne Festival "Life is live", 2020-08-23: Valentine Michaud, Baldur Brönnimann, Lucerne Festival Alumni (© LUCERNE FESTIVAL / Priska Ketterer)
Lucerne Festival “Life is live”, 2020-08-23: Valentine Michaud, Baldur Brönnimann, Lucerne Festival Alumni (© LUCERNE FESTIVAL / Priska Ketterer)

Nadir Vassena: materia oscura for saxophone and ensemble (2006)

Nadir Vassena (born 1970 near Lugano/Switzerland, see also Wikipedia) studied composition at the Conservatorio di Musica “Giuseppe Verdi” in Milan, later at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg. He now is teacher for composition at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano.

materia oscura for saxophone and ensemble (2006) refers to the cosmological concept of dark matter, which was first postulated around the turn of the century. That’s matter which is not only dark / invisible, but indeed obscure, in that cosmologists still have no idea of what constitutes it, even though first proofs for its existence were found in 2007, just shortly after Vassena composed his piece.

In materia oscura, Nadir Vassena sees “dark / obscure matter” as the invisible (not mysterious, but audible) sound of the (alto) saxophone and its relation to the ensemble. The composer is “(re-)thinking” the sound of the instrument within and originating from its specific idiom.

Besides solo (Valentine Michaud at the alto saxophone) and conductor, the ensemble now featured piano, flute (piccolo & bass), oboe, clarinet / bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, percussion (including a marimba).

The Music

At the beginning, again from the soloist, breathing. Or, at least, a soft blowing noise. This was accompanied by the percussion coming to life with tapping. Suddenly, a splash of intense, incisive and dissonant whistling, slowly fading. Another splash, then the noise of wind blowing, scarce tones, aeolian sounds. Only gradually, the solo saxophone turns more articulate. A voice in darkness? I’m quoting from my notes (not strictly following the timeline):

  • Dreaming / reflection.
  • Pain, suffering (ear-piercing dissonances).
  • Calls into a labyrinth, multiple echoes, seeking, incoherent responses (in the music, not in the performance!).
  • Calls into a void?
  • Doubts, questioning
  • Aleatoric in the rhythm, though structured with a basic “bar beat” from percussion or piano, slow waves.
  • Moments of urging, anxiety.
  • Initially, the solo is occasionally shining through, but never dominates, is often inconspicuous.
  • In the middle section, it took a more active role. Initially seemed to tremble (rapid flapping), like seeking direction, calling, getting responses from the ensemble.
  • Time seems to attain shape, rhythmic structure, but the solo denies picking up that cue, returns to seeking, asking.
  • Finally, sudden silence, deep humming from the marimba, aeolian sounds / noises.

A highly imaginative, evocative composition (around 19 minutes). I spontaneously pictured observing city life, watching a cityscape through a glass window. Note: I deliberately listened to the performance before studying the composer’s description. I wanted to let the music work on my mind, watching out for emerging pictures and impressions.

The Performance

I have a good idea about Valentine Michaud’s abilities on her instrument. Therefore, I think that technically the work is not extremely challenging for her. Yes, she often had a leading role, but the composition is not a concerto. Rather, the solo part seamlessly integrated into the Alumni’s performance, temporarily emerging from it, then re-merged with the other musicians. Ensemble playing at its best!

Despite what I just stated, the composition is demanding on all the musicians. It requires precision, rhythmic accuracy, constant attention. The Alumni presented a highly professional performance. Expectedly, though, particularly under Baldur Brönnimann’s unambiguous, firm and always clear direction. Such music is in his blood, is his “daily bread”!

Rating: ★★★★★

Oscar Bianchi: Contingency for ensemble (2017)

The composer of the third and last piece, Oscar Bianchi (*1975), is not new to me. Last year, I attended a concert in Basel/Muttenz (2019-05-05) featuring his 2016 composition “Exordium” for Symphonic Orchestra. Not surprisingly, this was with Baldur Brönnimann conducting the Basel Sinfonietta.

The Composition

Contingency for ensemble (2017) was originally commissioned by the Collegium Novum Zürich. In his comments to this composition, Oscar Bianchi refers to philosophical concepts by Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), opposing history and fiction, and the role (rather, the non-existence) of time. Time is described as a function that tries giving testimony of time, to organize chaos / happenstance.

Oscar Bianchi also refers to the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux (*1967) and his theory of Contingency. Here, nothing is certain, only coincidence / arbitrariness is real. Bianchi raises the question whether diving into happenstance by means of art demonstrates the impossibility of certainty, into “speculative realism”. He asks whether the spirits that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) evoked might counteract the negativity of contingency, transcending it through the narration in art / music.

The instrumentation here included an accordion, piano, flute, oboe / cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, bass saxophone, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and two percussionists (vibraphone and a rich set of idiophones).

What to Read into This?

As in the other pieces, I listened to the performance without trying to analyze the composer’s description. That may seem negligent—however, Bianchi’s considerations about this composition are highly philosophical and (extremely / excessively?) intellectual. Moreover, I would claim that from a first reading, the majority of the listeners would have been unable to understand the underlying ideas, to draw sensible conclusions, let alone relate the text to the listening experience. To me, the keywords “history vs. fictions” and “organized time vs. chaos / happenstance” feel like the quintessence of the above.

The Music

From my spontaneous notes, roughly following the course of the music:

  • The beginning is a monologue by the double bass. Eloquent, contemplating, initially a single motif, then growing into pseudo-polyphony (or a discourse?) by adding additional “characters”.
  • Gradually wind instruments join in. Ethereal tones from the flute make the bass turn more expressive, excited, and
  • suddenly, we find the bass leading into an extended loud, strongly rhythmic segment, inspired by minimal music. This seemingly imitates machines, or an industrial scenery. Rhythmic clustering, waves. Brass interjections, percussion, rumbling, thunder. “Acoustic chaos” with strong rhythmic ordering!
  • A moment of silence, then the “ordered chaos” moves into the percussion and the high wind instruments, chattering from the cor anglais, again clustered waves, rhythmic and melodic ostinato motifs (or motif fragments even).
  • Multi-voice / polyphonic density.
  • Tone waves in opposition to chaotic (yet ordered) rattling, chattering, with a very rich, broad palette of colors and percussion sounds.
  • Periodic waves, slow, dynamic breathing, glissando, eruptions, sharp interjections
  • Microtonal clusters, crescendo, wind blowing, murmuring, chatter.
  • Constant / recurring fights between rhythmic order and chaos, between noise and tones.
  • The fight seems to move into the distance, leaving behind a calm, resting, low tone.
  • Finally, a series of hard percussion beats puts an end to the composition, and to the concert.

The Performance

When I mentioned “ordered chaos”, rhythmic clusters, etc., that strictly referred to the composition, not the performance. Actually, I experienced the performance as utterly coherent, compelling. Certainly, the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, played a key role in attaining such coherence. A highly professional performance, especially given the physical distancing on stage. Only in the second part, some of the sharp interjections involving instruments across the ensemble seemed not quite as synchronous as one might expect. Very slight signs of the physical distancing affecting the coordination? However, that’s looking for the nitty-gritty detail, the hair in the soup…

As with Nadir Vassena’s composition, I listened to the performance without studying the composer’s description in detail (actually, just knowing the title!). I felt that ideally, one ought to be able to enjoy the music even without that background. Indeed, when comparing my notes to the composer’s explanations, I believe that my spontaneous thoughts did grasp the composer’s intent. At least, at a simple, non-philosophical level. That not only (strongly) speaks for the composer, but it also demonstrates that the musicians (Baldur Brönnimann in particular) were successful in conveying that message.

Rating: ★★★★½

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