Wu Wei, Baldur Brönnimann / Basel Sinfonietta
Rudolf Kelterborn / Bernd Richard Deutsch / Isang Yun
Pantheon, Basel / Muttenz, 2019-05-05
Spannende Neue Musik im Oldtimer-Museum — Kurze Zusammenfassung
Eine hochinteressante, bereichernde, und zugleich sehr unterhaltsame Begegnung mit der Sheng, einem über 3000-jährigen Instrument, welches aussieht wie eine Kleinst-Orgel, aber ähnlich funktioniert wie eine Mundharmonika. Es wurde hier präsentiert von Wu Wei, einem wahren Meister seines Fachs. Genauso interessant wie Wu Wei’s Spiel war indessen Bernd Richard Deutschs Komposition Phaenomena für dieses Instrument und Orchester. Die Sheng war dem Komponisten vorgängig nicht bekannt—er musste ihre Möglichkeiten erst gründlich erforschen / ausprobieren.
Den Anfang machte Musica luminosa des Basler Komponisten Rudolf Kelterborn, einer wichtigen Figur im Musikleben der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Leider vermochte die dritte Komposition des Konzerts, Isang Yuns zweite Sinfonie, den beiden vorangehenden keineswegs die Stange zu halten. 35 Jahre nach ihrer Entstehung wirkte diese Musik verbraucht, ohne wahrnehmbare Entwicklung, gemahnte gelegentlich an Filmmusik, zitierte Stilelemente aus Werken von Komponisten wie Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, Messiaen. Die Schwächen lagen in der Komposition, nicht in der Ausführung durch die Basel Sinfonietta: diese ließ kaum Wünsche offen.
The Basel Sinfonietta (see also Wikipedia) typically offers six subscription concerts per season. Some of these concerts traditionally took place in the Stadtcasino Basel. As the latter location is currently undergoing a renovation, the Sinfonietta was looking for alternative venues. The temporary, direct replacement for the Stadtcasino is the Musical Theater in Basel. This holds two of the Sinfonietta’s concerts per season. As soon as the Stadtcasino opens again in 2020, these two concert will move back to the traditional location.
For the remaining four of the subscription concerts, the Sinfonietta is looking for other alternatives, including open air locations and industrial venues in Basel or in the area / agglomeration (see my earlier reviews for past concerts in and around Basel). Ideally, the Sinfonietta seeks to match the theme of the concert to the venue / location. See also below for more of this in next season’s program).
The fifth subscription concert in the season 2018/2019 took place in the Pantheon in Muttenz / Basel (just outside of Basel city). This is a former industrial building with an interesting architecture: round with a large open space that receives light from a window / opening in the center of the roof, with a balcony all around which is spiraling up to (just under) the roof. The building holds a Museum for vintage cars. But it isn’t just a museum: at the same time, it is a forum, a marketplace for vintage cars. The floor space serves as a garage for cars & exhibits, especially in winter.
The Basel Sinfonietta performed under the direction of its principal conductor, Baldur Brönnimann (*1968, see also Wikipedia). Both orchestra and conductor are highly experienced, if not specialized, in performing contemporary music. The central work in this concert involved a traditional Chinese instrument, the Sheng—for details see below. And the orchestra hired a Chinese Sheng master, Wu Wei (*1970, see also Wikipedia.de), for this performance. See again below for details.
Most of the concerts of the Sinfonietta feature new and newest compositions in Swiss first of even world premiere performances. This also was the case in this concert: the central work was a world premiere of a composition that the orchestra commissioned from an Austrian composer:
- Rudolf Kelterborn (*1931): Musica Luminosa per Orchestra (1984)
- Bernd Richard Deutsch (*1977): “Phaenomena“, Music for Sheng and Orchestra (2019, World Premiere)
- Isang Yun (1917 – 1995): Symphony II in Three Movements (1984, Swiss Premiere)
The concert ran under the title “Leuchtende Garage“ (Luminous Garage), which for one refers to the location, which serves as a garage for vintage cars, and it referred to the opening piece, Musica Luminosa, a composition from 1984, by the Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn (*1931, see also Wikipedia.de).
For this concert, the ground floor of the Pantheon held both the stage for the orchestra (a slightly ascending podium), as well as the audience. There were around 550 people in the audience. That’s not unusual for concerts by the Basel Sinfonietta, but compared to other performances featuring exclusively contemporary music, it is an amazing audience size!
The Pantheon isn’t built for concerts: it lacks the usual dressing and rehearsal rooms for the artists. One could see orchestra members rehearsing in exhibition areas up on the spiral, behind glass windows:
Despite its unusual architecture, the Pantheon proved to have excellent acoustics in terms of balance, transparency, reverberation and support across the tonal range. A semi-circle of acoustic walls around the orchestra helped focusing the sound into the audience. The only negligible “snag” that I noted was that the sound from some of the percussion instruments in the back was hard to locate spatially, due to sound reflection by the walls.
My wife and I sat on the left edge of the front part of the audience, in row 8. This allowed me to stand up, even walk around during the performance, in order to take photos. All pictures in this blog post are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).
Rudolf Kelterborn: Musica Luminosa per Orchestra (1984)
Rudolf Kelterborn (*1931, see also Wikipedia.de) was born in Basel. He received education as conductor, musicologist and composer. 1960 – 1968, Kelterborn was teaching Music theory, music analysis and composition at the Nordwestdeutschen Musikakademie Detmold, thereafter at the University of the Arts in Zurich (now ZHdK) and later at the University of the Arts in Karlsruhe. He finally returned to his home town, in the position of director of the Musikakademie Basel. 1969 – 1974. And he also was the editor for the Schweizerische Musikzeitung. Plus, 1974 – 1980 he led the department of Music at the Swiss Radio (Schweizer Radio DRS). Further teaching activities took him to Lithuania, Japan, China (Shanghai), and Russia (St.Petersburg).
Overall, Rudolf Kelterborn was (and still is, through his pupils) a most influential personality in the world of music, not just in Switzerland. Unfortunately, his compositions aren’t performed too often, at least outside of his “home turf”: I haven’t come across a single one in the almost 300 concerts that I attended (mostly in the Zurich area, though) over the past 5 years. I do however, have vivid memories (at least visual ones) from a performance of his Opera Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon (An Angel comes to Babylon) in the Zurich Opera House, in the late 70’s (the composition premiered in Zurich on 1977-06-04).
Right before the performance started, I spotted Rudolf Kelterborn in the audience. People in the Basel area obviously recognize him:
After the performance, Baldur Brönnimann did a little interview with the composer (see the pictures below). When asked about the composing process, Kelterborn explained that in his case, composing happens entirely in his mind, and only when the composition is complete, he starts writing it down.
Musica Luminosa per Orchestra (1984)
As the concert booklet explains, Rudolf Kelterborn’s compositions (excluding his operas, evidently) don’t follow an underlying, hidden or openly declared script or program. He prefers people accessing his works without prejudice, without concrete expectations. In line with that, he doesn’t really like talking about, let alone explaining his compositions.
Musica luminosa is a work from 1983 / 1984, with a duration of around 10 minutes. In line with Rudolf Kelterborn’s intent, I don’t try explaining the single movement—rather, I’m merely describing my personal impression (which again one should not see as an “objective” description!).
High flute tones, then joined by a second flute, flutter tongue, violins joining in. Ethereal, sometimes reminding of Aeolian harp, floating, suspended, meditative, without a distinct rhythm, with a “tonal touch”. Then, other woodwinds join in, the sound starts to diverge into gentle, dissonant clusters.
High brass adds in, still with the flute hovering in heigh notes; whirring tones , coming and going. “Suspended”, “floating” horn sounds, high string whistling: swarms of insects, calming down again. A crescendo into unison—and suddenly a bass tone, followed by tamtam, dissonant woodwind exclamations above earthly grumbling, menacing. Giants stomping far away? Then a retraction to the initial, high tones—now a peaceful night scenery? Momentary flashes of dissonant clusters, but calming down, re-emerging again, fading away, silence —
It’s a timeless, contemplative piece which indeed doesn’t need a script: the pictures it evokes are individual, and the music leaves time for the mind to associate pictures, sceneries, emotions. Simply wonderful music!
The Sinfonietta gave an excellent performance: Baldur Brönnimann conducted with a firm hand, with clear gestures, supported by the concertmaster (as active and also with precise gestures, as soon as the violins were involved). And yet: if as a listener one closed the eyes, one didn’t have a sense of rhythm, of an underlying beat, the “internal, rhythmic framework”. Just as the composer must have intended!
After the performance, the stage needed some rearrangement for the orchestral setup in Phaenomena. During that time, Baldur Brönnimann did a short interview with the composer. Some of that information is included in the paragraphs above. As Rudolf Kelterborn explained, he just selected the title Musica luminosa with the intent to stimulate the listener’s fantasy, but freely, without alluding to a concrete “script”.
Bernd Richard Deutsch: “Phaenomena“, Music for Sheng and Orchestra (2019, World Premiere)
Bernd Richard Deutsch (*1977) is Austrian. He grew up in Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) and received most of his music education in Vienna, where he now still lives as freelance composer. Bernd Richard Deutsch is very active, cooperates with various orchestras and festivals, and from 1994 on he has received numerous awards.
Deutsch’s compositorial oeuvre up till 2018 featured 41 “numbers”. It ranges from works for piano or other solo instruments (such as bass clarinet, organ, or percussion) to chamber music (e.g., piano trio, string quartet, guitar quartet), and on to concertos, orchestral works, an oratorio, and a chamber opera, and other vocal works.
“Phaenomena“, Music for Sheng and Orchestra (2019, World Premiere)
Phaenomena is a work that Bernd Richard Deutsch wrote upon commission by the Basel Sinfonietta. A suggestion by the South Korean composer Unsuk Chin (*1961, now living in Berlin, Germany), that commissioned work turned out a concerto for Sheng. That’s a Chinese, mouth-blown free-reed instrument (see below) with a history that goes back more than 3000 years.
Deutsch had no knowledge about the Sheng. However, throughout the creative process, he was in close contact with Wu Wei, the artist in this concert. He asked the latter for a loaner instrument. With that, he started experimenting “from zero”. As he explained in the interview that preceded the concert, he needed to learn about the basic possibilities. He initially felt that one can do “almost anything” on a Sheng. However, gradually and successively, the instrument taught him about what is indeed possible.
Phaenomena features four movements, following each other without interruption. At the ruptures, the orchestra plays a loud minor chord with extra “disrupting tones”, signaling the next movement (translated description excerpts from the concert booklet):
- Calm, and initially just for Sheng solo. This movement presents most of the thematic material.
- “Hunt”: fast, with tone repetitions and semiquaver chains, wild eruptions in the orchestra: “the soloist appears hounded, driven, but stands also violent confrontations”.
- Canto exposes cantilenas, the “line”, the melodic possibilities of the instrument. The harmonies “originate from improvisations. These led to particularly contrariwise key combinations—objets trouvés—which the movement then gradually links, combines”.
- Finale, featuring a persistent quaver pulsation, partly straight, partly irregular, with frequent changes in the meter.
The Instrument — Sheng
Superficially, the Sheng looks like a very small portative organ without keyboard, the pipes (with a diameter similar to that of a human finger) rolled up to a circular “tower”. The sound is created though free-swinging reeds which are attached to bamboo tubes. The artist exhales or inhales into a mouthpiece. The (36 up to 42) reeds are actuated by covering a lateral hole in the respective tube. Some tubes have additional reeds that are actuated through keys / levers. Exhaling and inhaling produces the same pitch. The Sheng features an incomplete chromatic scale.
I would describe the sound of the Sheng (at least the model that we heard, presumably a soprano version, with 37 tones / reeds) as metallic, for the most part similar to that of 2′ or 4′ (reed) organ stops. The sound is not very loud, nor excessively piercing or sharp. Nevertheless, in combination with the traditional instruments of a symphony orchestra (as here), the sound of the Sheng is rarely in danger of vanishing within the orchestra sound, thanks to its unique, metallic quality, and the high pitch.
The Artist: Wu Wei
The artist on the Sheng was Wu Wei (*1970, see also Wikipedia.de), who also worked with Bernd Richard Deutsch in the creation of Phaenomena. Apparently, the Chinese expression wu wei translates to “doing nothing”! Wu Wei (the artist!) grew up in China and is a virtuoso on several, traditional Chinese instruments (primarily the Sheng, but also the Erhu) in improvisation, contemporary music, and Jazz. Through an academic exchange program, Wu Wei came to Germany in 1995, studying at the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” in Berlin. Since then, he lives in Berlin, with an additional professorship in Shanghai. Wu Wei cooperates with numerous prominent orchestras throughout Europe. Through his activities, he has given the Sheng new popularity, making the instrument known also in the Western world.
Impressions from the Performance
I can’t objectively rate the performance, due to a lack of experience and a score. I’m merely describing my impressions, i.e., how the music and the performance worked on me.
Loud tolling from tube bells opens the movement. As that fades away, the Sheng begins its solo with percussive sounds, little double-explosions, followed by crescendo tones: a first encounter with the metallic reed sound of the instrument. Tremolo / strong vibrato, rhythmic sforzati pulsations, crescendo whistling, ppp sounds similar to harmonica (also a reed instrument, after all!), then again sounds like overtones, harmonics, flageolet-like moments—very interesting!
After an interception, most prominently by the tube bells, most of the action moves into the orchestra. This came with very rich instrumentation, strong particularly in the high percussion instruments, flute, harp, intermittent, rapid figures in the woodwinds, structures that get dense, seemingly chaotic, until strong tamtam beats call the instruments to order. The Sheng remains active, but for a while is more accompaniment to the orchestra, illustration / comment, rather than a central function. That lasts up to the next solo, when Wu Wei starts long tones with accelerating pulsations. Then, an orchestral splash marks the beginning of the second movement.
Virtuosic, rapid tremolo pulsations on the Sheng, orchestral accompaniment with a rich instrumental palette (heavy on percussion and brass, but also involving harpsichord, motoric, sometimes almost jazzy rhythms, with syncopes. Intermittent moments with bird calls, highest register tones on the Sheng, then again very rhythmic, dissonant chords. Both entertaining, as well as highly interesting!
Trumpets imitate duck calls, the solo instrument rhythmically switches between alternating chords. I found it amazing how well Bernd Richard Deutsch acquired the ability to exploit such a rich palette on an instrument that was formerly completely unknown to him! In the “busy” segments, Deutsch’s music seems to have inherited elements from popular music, as well as elements that one finds in music by Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971).
Highest pitch bells on the Sheng, bumblebees in the strings, playful bird songs, whistling, sounds from harmonica, up to those of a tiny organ. A serene atmosphere, nature scenery, lovely singing in the solo, lively undulations.
Then, Wu Wei switches to “8′ mode”, starts singing into the instrument, creating a wide variety of noises and sounds, the howling of winds, supported by pizzicato from the orchestra, xylophone, soft wind instruments.
The final movement comes with jazzy beats, strongly rhythmic. Excited, almost nervous, rapid, virtuosic in all parts: the orchestra gradually picks up pace and momentum, a multifaceted series of pictures, from neo-classical to exotic. It’s all highly fascinating, enthralling, from Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” to Luigi Nono (1924 – 1990) and Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016)??
In all this, Baldur Brönnimann kept the control and the oversight, leading the ensemble with his very clear gestures, as firm as a rock in a rough sea: there was no doubt that the conductor knows the score inside out. And the orchestra not only followed his intent, but remained active and top-attentive throughout. Of course, I didn’t have a copy of the score, but I couldn’t make out a single failure / flaw: Congrats!
The audience was highly enthusiastic, kept applauding unto Wu Wei offered an encore.
Encore — Sheng Solo
As encore, Wu Wei quite obviously switched to “proper, genuine”, Chinese music for the Sheng. And with this, he proved all those wrong who believed that Bernd Richard Deutsch’s composition demonstrated most of what the Sheng can do! The encore showed that in Chinese music, the instrument is able to produce yet completely different sounds. It felt as if Wu Wei pulled a whole set of new “tricks” / options out of his sleeve!
It started with flageolet-like (2′, 1′ and higher) overtones above the main solo voice. Aeolian harp? high-pitch instrumental jodeling or Ranz des vaches? Also the melodies themselves instantly felt like the Chinese folk music that Western composers of the last century occasionally have adopted in their works. Moreover, Wu Wei moved on to polyphony. A legato melody with rhythmically different, rapidly pulsating, chordic accompaniment. There also seemed to be “low harmonics”. And all of course highly complex, virtuosic, multifaceted, fascinating, and strongly enthralling: a true master of the instrument!
Improvisation or original folk music? Does it matter?
Isang Yun: Symphony II in Three Movements (1984, Swiss Premiere)
Isang Yun (1917 – 1995) is a Korean composer who initially learned cello and composition in Korea and Japan. He then spent most of his life in (West) Germany. Initially, 1956/1957, he studied in Paris, 1957 – 1959 in Berlin. From 1959 on, Isang Yun lived in Freiburg, Krefeld, and Cologne. 1964, he settled in West Berlin. His life was turbulent: e.g., he got kidnapped by the Korean Secret Service, had to endure torturing, was threatened with the death sentence, then life imprisonment. 1969, through an international petition, he was ultimately released. He returned to Germany, then was teaching in Hannover and Berlin.
Even though he spent most of his life in Europe, he remains a key exponent in the Korean world of classical / contemporary music.
Symphony II in Three Movements (1984, Swiss Premiere)
With the selection of Isang Yun’s Symphony II, Baldur Brönnimann wanted to set a counterpoint to Rudolf Kelterborn’s Musica luminosa from the same year, 1984. The symphony features three movements without further title / annotation. The concert booklet describes the movements as follows (I’m quoting excerpts only):
- A monumental, composed crescendo, in three sections, whereby the first segment again features three phases. The second section includes ascending trumpet sequences, joined by the woodwinds, then strings, counterbalanced by the horns. In the third segment, the various “parties” try a unification, but ultimately fail, ending in a polyphonic tutti.
- A slow movement in dark colors. Upwards two-tone motifs, calm before the storm? “From the individual to the collective and back again, finally the muted brass instruments, followed by a violin solo.”
- Taking off with ascending strings, first joined by the wind instruments, which then separate off into contrariwise movements. Strings ascending into highest positions, then a switch to a slower pace, interaction with the brass instruments, finally some kind of peace, and a hymnic ending in unison.
From the first to the last movement, this symphony turned out somewhat disappointing. There was a smaller audience, too: did people anticipate the weaknesses in this composition, or did they just come for the exotic sounds of the Sheng?
Apart from the strong percussion elements, this music primarily seemed to feature late-romantic melodic fragments and post-romantic harmonies. Swelling tones, waves of swaying rhythms; moments that reminded of Debussy or Ravel? Isang Yun also seemed to have a tendency to over-use musical elements, such as the swelling tones, which soon felt “outlived”. Then, there were segments that sounded rather trivial, reminding of typical film music. Short, elegiac, melancholic moments, rapidly again feeling “abused”. A momentary night idyl, again erupting waves. Overall, in my mind, I kept a somewhat chaotic picture of music with many incoherent components, but without true development, and lacking both small- and larger scale intelligible structure.
To me, a “summer / nature idyl”, whirring sounds above melody fragments, serene and relaxed, sometimes evoking an atmosphere like in “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), maybe also as in Symphony No.7 by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911). Birds singing, trumpets with mutes, glissando in the strings to the point were they start feeling overused, then fading away—or transfiguration? Or falling asleep?
The final movement seemed to have inherited topoi from Jazz, as well as from entertainment music. 35 years after the composition, I felt that at the level of motifs, Isang Yun’s ideas rapidly feel “used up” (or again overused). In the harmonies, the music is pleasant (too pleasant), never provoking, occasionally bordering on trivialities. There were moments when the harmonic textures / progressions strongly reminded of the Turangalîla Symphony by Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992). Endless chains of trills …
Let me summarize my impression from this music as follows:
- Overall, Isang Yun appears to have left behind all Asian / far-Eastern aspects in his compositions.
- His symphony highly epigonal, with heritage from Debussy, Mahler, Messiaen, etc.
- The impression of film music might stem from a lack of perceptible structure / development, as well as from trivialities in melodic and harmonic elements.
- Epigonal elements, adaptations from earlier composers may be OK.
- However, my main disappointment was that after just 35 years, music can sound / feel that much “consumed” / “used”.
- Maybe it was the presence (if not abundance) of excellent contemporary music in today’s world that worked to the detriment of Isang Yun’s work? Is what may have been good music 35 years ago simply superseded by newer & better, more coherent works?
I wasn’t surprise that upon leaving the venue, I heard people from the audience state that the music after the intermission felt rather boring.
These negative impressions only refer to the music, not to the performance. The latter was once more flawless, maybe with the (negligible) exception of occasional, minor intonation issues (brass?).
Rating: ★★★(-) (music) / ★★★★ (performance)
An Outlook into the Coming Season of the Basel Sinfonietta
For the next season, 2019/2020, the Basel Sinfonietta’s subscription again offers six concerts, in interesting locations, and featuring five world premieres and 7 Swiss first performances. All concerts under the direction of Baldur Brönnimann, unless noted otherwise:
- Sunday, 2019-09-15, “Wir sind Meer” (can’t be translated, equivalent to “We are Sea”, in German alliterating to “We are more”), in the Güterbahnhof Wolf, Basel (a cargo train station). Compositions by
- Tōru Takemitsu (Swiss first),
- Katharina Rosenberger (World premiere),
- John Luther Adams (Swiss first)
- Sunday, 2019-11-03, “Auf zur Polonaise” (On to the Polonaise), Dreispitzhalle Münchenstein / Basel, with Łukasz Dłogosz, flute. Compositions by
- Cécile Marti (World premiere),
- Oscar Bianchi,
- Paveł Hendrich (World premiere),
- Piotr Roemer (World premiere);
- Sunday, 2020-02-02, “Tausendsassa” (Jack of all trades), Musical Theater, Basel; direction: Peter Rundel. Compositions by
- Heinz Holliger,
- Steffen Wick (Swiss first),
- Klaus Huber
- Sunday, 2020-03-22, “Kino im Kopf” (Cinema in the head), Kunstmuseum Basel; direction: Johannes Kalitzke. Compositions by
- Robert Wiene,
- Johannes Kalitzke (Swiss first)
- Sunday, 2020-05-10, “D’Zyt isch do” (Basel dialect for “It’s time now”), Musical Theater, Basel. Compositions by
- Harrison Birtwistle (Swiss first),
- Georg Friedrich Haas (World premiere),
- Michael Jarrell
- Sunday, 2020-06-14, “Pops im Park” (Pops in the Park), Kannenfeldpark, Basel. Compositions by
- Unsuk Chin,
- Guillaume Connesson (Swiss first),
- Samy Moussa (Swiss first),
- Max Richter,
- Louis Andriessen
You can download the Basel Sinfonietta’s official media announcement for the coming season as PDF. For additional information see the Basel Sinfonietta Website.