Simone Zgraggen, Baldur Brönnimann / Basel Sinfonietta
Martirosyan / Nigmatullina / Ammann

Stadtcasino, Basel, 2022-05-26

0.5-star rating

2022-06-07 — Original posting, concert pictures yet to be added



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeStadtcasino, Basel, 2022-05-26 19:00h (Pre-Concert: 18:00h)
Series / TitleSechzig Jahre im Groove (60 Years in the Groove)
Celebrating Dieter Ammann‘s 60th Birthday
OrganizerBasel Sinfonietta
Reviews from related eventsPrevious concerts with this orchestra
Previous concerts with Baldur Brönnimann

A Concert to Celebrate Dieter Ammann’s 60th Birthday

The fifth of the Basel Sinfonietta‘s subscription concerts celebrated the 60th anniversary of the notable Swiss composer Dieter Ammann (*1962, see also Wikipedia, or the musinfo.ch Website). On this occasion, the format was slightly different. In virtually all concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta, there is a pre-concert with on-stage discussion. This typically involves the conductor and a composer (or several composers), plus additional people, e.g., from the orchestra’s management team, or soloists.

For this concert, however, the Basel Sinfonietta cooperated with the Hochschule für Musik (Academy of Music) FHNW (Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz) in Basel. And it was the director of the section contemporary music of that institution, Uli Fussenegger, who did the interview with the celebrant, Dieter Ammann. Surrounding that interview (not discussed here) pupils from the FHNW performed two extra works by Dieter Ammann—see below for details on the program for the pre-concert and on these additional artists.


The Composers

Dieter Ammann

The Swiss composer Dieter Ammann grew up in Aarau, in a musical family. He did his first musical studies (conducting, school music) in Lucerne, while also attending classes at the Swiss Jazz School in Bern. In the 1980’s and the early 1990’s he toured Europe with concerts featuring Jazz / improvised music.

Dieter Ammann then turned towards music theory and composing, which he studied at the Musik-Akademie Basel. His main teachers were Roland Moser (*1943, see also Wikipedia) and Detlev Müller-Siemens (*1957). Ammann complemented this education through master classes with Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) and Witold Lutosławski (1913 – 1994). Consequently, in the mid-1990s, Dieter Ammann shifted his activities towards composition, where he made an astounding, international career. He won numerous prizes and was composer-in-residence in various, national and international festivals. Dieter Ammann is currently Professor of Theory and Composition at the Lucerne School of Music, and he is also lecturing at the Bern University of the Arts.

For the celebration of Dieter Ammann’s 60th birthday (which actually was on 2022-05-17), the Basel Sinfonietta commissioned compositions by two of Dieter Ammann’s pupils at the Lucerne School of Music:

Aregnaz Martirosyan
Aregnaz Martirosyan

Aregnaz Martirosyan

The Armenian composer Aregnaz Martirosyan (*1993) completed her education as pianist at age 19. At that time, however, she already knew that she didn’t want to be performing artist, but rather composer. She finished her bachelor studies in composition in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan (Erevan, Երևան). She also attended master classes with Krzysztof Penderecki (1933 – 2020), Wolfgang Rihm (*1952), Georges Aperghis (*1945), Heinz Holliger (*1939), and Simon Steen-Andersen (*1976).

Aregnaz Martirosyan is about to complete her studies in composition with Dieter Ammann at the Lucerne School of Music. In the short duration of her stay in Switzerland so far, she has already received commissions for compositions from The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Armenia. Her composition Kraft” (Energy, 2022) premiered in this concert. It was the first work in the official / main program.

Alsu Nigmatullina
Alsu Nigmatullina

Alsu Nigmatullina

The Russian composer Alsu Nigmatullina (*1989) grew up in the Republic of Tatarstan. Her primary musical education at the College of Music in Nizhnekamsk (Түбән Кама) covered conducting and chorus master. 2015, she completed her studies in composition at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where she studied in the classes of Aleksandr Mnatsakanyan (1936 – 2013) and Grigoriy Korchmar (*1947).

2020, Alsu Nigmatullina began studying composition with Dieter Ammann at the Lucerne School of Music. She has already won prizes in Russian and international competitions. She has been invited to notable festivals for contemporary music in Iceland and Switzerland. In addition, Alsu Nigmatullina participated in international courses in Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, as well as at the Choir Laboratory—XXI Century in Saint Petersburg. Her compositorial oeuvre ranges from piano miniatures to instrumental chamber music, from Lied and choir cycles up to symphonic works.

Alsu Nigmatullina’s composition Alexithymie” (2022), also a commission by the Basel Sinfonietta, premiered as second work in the official / main program of this concert.


Program

With two exceptions, all compositions in this concert were by Dieter Ammann.

Pre-Concert

Main Concert


The Artists

In order to keep the overall text length at bay, I’m limiting the amount of detail on the artist’s biographies. For details see the links in the section below.

Soloist: Simone Zgraggen

The soloist in Dieter Ammann’s “Unbalanced instability” for Violin and Chamber Orchestra was one of the orchestra’s concert masters, Simone Zgraggen (*1975). She performed on a 1692 violin by the Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller (1659 – 1742).

Orchestra, Conductor

I’ll skip introducing the Basel Sinfonietta (see also Wikipedia) and its Principal Conductor, Baldur Brönnimann (*1968, see also Wikipedia). Within my concert reviews, the Basel Sinfonietta is the most-reviewed orchestra, Baldur Brönnimann the most-reviewed conductor (see also the links above).

As Simone Zgraggen was the soloist of the evening, the lead position at the first desk was occupied by Daniela Müller, the other of the orchestra’s two concertmasters.

Chamber Music Pre-Concert

The concert opened with Dieter Ammann’s String Quartet No.2, performed by the Moser String Quartet, consisting of the following four musicians, all students of the Academy of Music FHNW:

The ensemble emerged a mere two years ago, in 2020, “from love and interest in chamber music, and a strong feeling for playing together and bringing them to everyone” (see the ensemble’s biography page). Yet, the quartet has already won prizes at competitions.

For the second piece in the pre-concert, Dieter Ammann’s d’accord(s) for two alto saxophones (2004), the audience experienced two more students of the Academy of Music FHNW:

  • The Spanish saxophonist Álvaro Rodríguez Cabezas (*1998, Getafe / Madrid, for details see the artist’s biography page)
  • Like Álvaro Rodríguez Cabezas, the saxophonist Miguel Fernández de la Fuente currently studies with Marcus Weiss (*1961) at the Academy of Music FHNW. He is about to complete his Master Degree.

Setting, etc.

It was good to see that the concert was fairly well-attended—almost back to pre-pandemic levels, I would claim. The balconies were not open for the audience, as the concert was recorded, both for French TV stations, as well as for a CD production with Naxos Records. My wife and I had seats in the center of row 19, in the acoustically best area in the hall.


Concert Review

General Remarks

For the most part, the work descriptions below are excerpts from the program notes or from Web sites, translated either by the author, and/or with the help of the Deepl translator utility. These translations are not exactly word-by-word. Rather, I tried keeping the original meaning / content, while at the same time aiming for a readable English.

A recent newspaper article on Dieter Ammann (Frei, 2022) quotes the composer as stressing that his “music is not a bearer of extra-musical content”, and “My sounds themselves are worth being played well and listened to carefully. They are the real content.”

For none of the works on that day, I have external references (scores, recordings) that I’m referring to. My descriptions of the music are based on notes that I take during the concert. These describe spontaneous impressions and associations from the listening experience. My performance remarks therefore focus on describing my personal experience, with cursory notes on how I view the artists’ performance.


Pre-Concert — Ammann: String Quartet No.2, “Distanzenquartett” (Distance Quartet, 2009)

The Work

In the String Quartet No.2, “Distanzenquartett (Distance Quartet, 2009), as the title suggests, the composer is concerned with bridging distances that arise in the clash of different register positions and volume ranges. These “are conveyed through the antitheses of harmonically organized sound and complex noise textures. Or, they play out in the tonally precisely crafted juxtaposition of energetic-moving passages and quiet zones. The work finds its most exciting moments, however, where Ammann handles the quartet ensemble like a single large instrument with 16 strings, while contrasting this collective sound with moments of isolation.” (Adapted from a text by Stefan Drees, via Kammermusik Basel). On his own Website (freely translated, with the help of Deepl), the composer writes:

At the beginning, clearly separated elements are exposed, with a maximum distance between them: noises, quarter-tone glissandi, and rhythmic, strongly percussive figures. There is a juxtaposition of

  • passages in which exclusively certain intervals are used,
  • full chromaticism,
  • lead tone harmonics,
  • echoes of “spectralism”, i.e., music from overtone series.

The Music

A violent pizzicato starts the piece. More pizzicati follow, rapidly densifying, moments later leading into waves of a narrow sound cluster—the eerie resonances of cluster of big cowbells, gradually transforming into falling, “sad” glissandi. A short episode uses rhythmic noises (col legno, tapping etc.), then, from an eerily mysterious, subtle ppp, the music gains momentum and volume through percussive elements (pizzicato, beating on wood, col legno, etc.). More, such build-ups follow, different in colors / sounds. Short, unison motifs with percussive accompaniment.

ppp, flageolet tones, moving into ppppp, imitation of 2 – 3 tone motifs. Then again bursts, competing meowing, flat, vibrato-less tones vs. scratching vs. pure intervals, even gentle, soft and intimate moments, leading into polyphony emerging from a chorale-like fragment. “Affirmative statements” transforming into flageolet and ppp tremolo, which again swell into glissandi, turning into an obstinately rhythmic segment, lively discourse vs. homophonic sections. After an apparent “affirmative closure”, the piece resumes from the finest ppp tremulations, melodies far in the distance, finally sporadic, percussive flashes.

A highly interesting sequence of diverse rhythmic segments—enthralling! There is an aleatoric aspect in the overall structure—yet, the composition follows a compelling course, covering the entire spectrum in sounds and colors that a string quartet is capable of achieving.

The Performance

The Moser String Quartet’s performance was outstanding in discipline / precision, engagement—and, of course, musically and technically. Compelling, convincing, firm, masterful, fascinating!

★★★★½

Pre-Concert — Ammann: d’accord(s) for two alto saxophones (2004)

The Work

Dieter Ammann created d’accord(s) for two alto saxophones (2004) as commission for the “swiss saxophone day 2004”. The composer describes the work as follows (loosely translated from the composer’s Website):

The title has two meanings. On the one hand, over long stretches, the pitch material originates from a chord chain, placed horizontally to form melodic lines (d’accords = from the chords). On the other hand, there are textures in which both instruments act in unison, i.e., in great agreement. This can lead up to (mostly fast) homorhythmic passages.

The Music

Not unlike the “Distanzenquartett“, this duet starts with a percussive “bang”, followed by ppp tones and noises (e.g., through tone-less key clapping). Percussive bursts, leading into a rhythmic pattern that slows down while descending in pitch. Individual, alternating tones with very percussive articulation. Loud, single-tone horning (ship horn?) vs. gentle, soft melody fragments that accelerate into lively rhythmic pattern.

Extreme dynamic contrasts, virtuosic polyphony that feels like many more instruments in a lively discourse. Tension building up to alarming, tense moments, flat tones moving into rapidly undulating pattern, intense, ear-piercing sirens vs. whistling sounds. Percussive impulses triggering resonances that move up and away. Aeolian sounds forming microtonal pattern, a brief tonal motif, “pfffhhhhh” noises, a microtonal dialog, smooth, gentle tones vs. “rough” coloring, breathing, clapping noises, pppp breathing, end. Simply put: shorter, but as fascinating and enthralling as the preceding quartet!

The Performance

Albeit formally still students, the two artists presented a compelling performance: firm, secure unfailing, virtuosic, in control of the entire spectrum that their instrument is capable of: excellent!

★★★★½

Main Concert

Aregnaz Martirosyan: “Kraft” for Orchestra (2022, World Premiere)

Basel Sinfonietta @ Basel, 2022-05-26: Aregnaz Martirosyan; photo © Zlatko Mićić
Basel Sinfonietta @ Basel, 2022-05-26: Aregnaz Martirosyan; photo © Zlatko Mićić

Kraft (Energy) for Orchestra is a commission by the Basel Sinfonietta, for this concert. The composer, Dieter Ammann’s pupil Aregnaz Martirosyan states that her teacher’s 2016 work “glut” (glow) has had a strong influence on her development as composer. The title “Kraft” (physically strict translation: “Force”) is referring to the colloquial meaning of the word, i.e., “Strength”, “Power”, or “Energy”.

The Description below is loosely translated from the program notes. I’m translating the full text, as it also sheds light on Dieter Ammann’s quality as teacher:

The Work

Why “Energy”? Because this work was created through hard work during the day and night. I have invested a lot of time and energy to achieve a powerful result-and used all my potential, all the compositional tricks and techniques that I was allowed to learn over the years from Dieter Ammann.

The prerequisite for my success as a composer is unconditional work, love and dedication. This results in a great energy, a multitude of musical colors, through which difficulties can be overcome and battles won.

This work is my great thanks to Dieter Ammann, who trusted me and shared his knowledge with me. I hope that listening to my music, time will fly by and the audience will be given a lot of strength in the process.

Aregnaz Martirosyan

Basel Sinfonietta @ Basel, 2022-05-26: Aregnaz Martirosyan; photo © Zlatko Mićić
Basel Sinfonietta @ Basel, 2022-05-26: Aregnaz Martirosyan; photo © Zlatko Mićić

The Music

A stark contrast to the chamber music in the pre-concert: Aregnaz Martisosyan’s composition asks for the impressive size of a full symphonic orchestra for contemporary music, including an large percussion section, harp, and piano. Not unlike the two chamber music works by her teacher that we heard in the pre-concert, Aregnaz Martirosyan starts her piece with an accent (as opposed to “sneaking in): pair of “percussive” pizzicati. These impulses reverberate in the orchestra whirring string tremolos, scarce percussion echoes. These responses pick up rhythmic “internal” structure, percussion textures of growing rhythmic complexity, building up to densely structured waves, culminating in powerful eruptions above grumbling in the low percussion, such as drums, gran cassa (bass drum).

Similar to her teacher, Aregnaz Martirosyan does not work with “themes” and their evolution. Over large parts, there are no melodies—short motifs at best. Rather, the music is a sequence of sounds / colors / noises, forming question & response, trigger and echo, waves of pattern, complex textures vs. sound planes. At a small scale, the pattern may feel aleatoric, even chaotic—but still, Aregnaz Martirosyan manages to organize this into an evolving structure.

Fragments of a chorale-like melody emerge in the low brass, shortly before the piece builds up to a abruptly ending, dissonant climax. A purgatory? Out of pp, the piano wakes up with harmonious melodies / chords below a plane of high-pitch violin sounds. This mutates into a somber march in brass and low strings, motoric ostinato pattern, polyphonic swelling build up a menacing “war scenery”, and after several climaxes, the piece runs into a sudden void—and the end is a sudden, isolated clapper beat.

The Performance

Aregnaz Martisosyan’s highly complex (and masterful) orchestration is a challenge for both the conductor and his musicians. The near-chaotic rhythmic layers around the climaxes require utmost attention, oversight, and excellent coordination. However, this is the orchestra’s home turf. Similarly, I have always admired Baldur Brönnimann‘s ability to familiarize himself and work with complex, intricate contemporary scores. In this concert, the concertmaster, Daniela Müller was a very efficient help, through her lively gestures / body language.

★★★★½

Alsu Nigmatullina
Alsu Nigmatullina

Alsu Nigmatullina: “Alexithymie” for Orchestra (2022, World Premiere)

Also the 2022 composition Alexithymie for Orchestra by Alsu Nigmatullina is the result of a commission by the Basel Sinfonietta on the occasion of this concert. The Description below is loosely translated from the program notes. As above, I decided to translate the full text:

Basel Sinfonietta @ Basel, 2022-05-26: Alsu Nigmatullina; photo © Zlatko Mićić
Basel Sinfonietta @ Basel, 2022-05-26: Alsu Nigmatullina; photo © Zlatko Mićić

The Work

What is my music about?

Not knowing what you feel. Happiness, anger, excitement, shame, love, disgust, fear? Under the mask of normality, one ignores and suppresses feelings and eventually loses the ability to recognize one’s own feelings. Not understanding what is going on inside. There are no words to express feelings.

All this is alexithymia, or emotional blindness, a concept in psychosomatic disease theory. It refers to the inability to adequately perceive one’s own feelings and describe them in words. A psychological state of the personality that I set to music in my symphonic composition, […].

Alsu Nigmatullina

The Music

This composition starts out of silence, with soft, undulating, high-pitch tones. Impulses from the low string pizzicati cause these tones to split up into multiple threads, and momentarily, violent beats, banging, then somber, sonorous waves dominate. Their ending in silence creates a feeling of numbness. The high-pitch undulations start again, split into neighboring intervals. The tinnitus-like drone resumes, now above a complex, if not chaotic mingling of melody fragments in the low brass. A description of sensory overload?

Basel Sinfonietta @ Basel, 2022-05-26: Baldur Brönnimann; photo © Zlatko Mićić
Basel Sinfonietta @ Basel, 2022-05-26: Baldur Brönnimann; photo © Zlatko Mićić

This suddenly breaks off. The response is grumbling in the double basses and low percussion with growing intensity. Intruding elements (first melody fragments from the woodwinds, brass with accents from bells / metallophones) reinforce each other, build up to a “crowded feeling”. With another rupture, a joint fanfare in “false / discordant unison” sets in, but again, extra melodic fragments / motifs (e.g., from the trumpet) bring back wild polyphony and chaos. The fanfare returns with force, but the chaos prevails, builds up to an impressive, overwhelming climax with a myriad of voices.

And again, the climax suddenly breaks off. Marimbas and piano introduce a new element / pattern, joined by drums. Into this, the violins and piccolo add high-pitch chit-chat, like a discourse between birds. After fanfare calls in the brass, the chit-chat (now in the high clarinets) thins out—and vanishes into nowhere. There appears to be no healing, no salvation from alexithymia?

The Performance

Another, huge challenge for the orchestra—and an impressive, compelling performance!

★★★★

Ammann: “Unbalanced instability” for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (2013)

The central work in this concert, “Unbalanced instability” for Violin and Chamber Orchestra is from 2013. It premiered in Witten on 2013-04-28, with Carolin Widmann (*1976) as soloist.

Score / performance material: (Ammann, 2013)

The program notes for this composition consisted of a small excerpt from the composer’s German commentary on the publisher’s Website. For the reader’s convenience, I’m giving an approximate translation of that excerpt:

The Work

The title […] refers to the manner of the compositional process, but also to the resulting multi-layered […] progression of the form. The work is characterized by a high density. There are almost no formations of variations, let alone repetitions of syntactical sections. Rather, the unique exposition of constantly regenerating musical material prevails at almost every moment. This leads to a strong compression of diverse characteristics in a small space—a kind of “conversation comprimée“. The resulting labyrinthine dramaturgical progression is mobile and active down to the last detail, and therefore difficult to hear in advance.

[The program notes omit the two middle paragraphs]

The relationship between solo and tutti is similarly ambiguous. The violin, for example, begins alone, but entirely without a bow. After a short time—formally conventional—it triggers the first resonances in the orchestra. However, the orchestra soon develops its own sound spaces. This can get so much out of hand that it sometimes reduces the actions of the solo instrument to their visual aspect. It may even lead to the silencing of the solo voice. One may be tempted to speak of a “concert movement with solo violin”.

Also in the further course, the relation of individual and collective remains unpredictable. However, it always lives from the most diverse kinds of mutual interpenetration and concise changes of perspective. This also includes the formation of short-term alliances with individual instruments. The energetic forward momentum of the movement is to be absorbed toward the end, in a kind of solo cadenza. A convention, therefore: even the instability is just not effective throughout, but is itself “unbalanced”.

The Music

I don’t want to duplicate the composer’s description or “steal his words”. Still, some parallelism with the two paragraphs above is unavoidable.

Intro: the “entirely without a bow” isn’t just conventional pizzicato, but includes pizz above the bridge, banging on the body of the instrument, gaining rhythm. The orchestra picks this up and responds with gentle, colorful eruptions, mostly percussive, with underlying droning resonances. Emerging harmonious, lyrical tunes provoke eruptive responses, still gentle, though. Strong additional solo pizzicati cause the orchestral reactions to grow more violent, but also richer in colors and complexity.

The soloist then switches to the bow, first producing explosive swells that resonate in the orchestra, evoke an expressive, lyrical (and harmonious) cello solo. That again triggers a vivid response in the orchestra—a kaleidoscope of eruptive outbreaks, a multitude in colors, pitches and rhythmic pattern that almost appears aleatoric. Scratched pizzicati in the solo further agitate the orchestral response.

The solo introduces a melancholic vocalise, which soon attains rough components. The orchestral response takes these up: a vehement “shouting discourse” between solo and orchestra.

More Prominent Solo Role

The solo part takes up the orchestral complexity. Amidst the orchestral complexity, it re-emerges with a virtuosic solo, with rapid runs and passages across the range, arpeggiated chords, double-stop playing, but also subtle sul ponticello playing, intense flageolet, tremolo, and rough, violent passages. That segment ends by turning the cello section into a percussion group: rhythmic beating on the instrument body.

What about the “Unbalanced instability”? Well, that sounds like a partial pleonasm to me, as balancing implies at least some stability, and instability as such can barely be “balanced”. A play of words, maybe? One can certainly see the composition as being inherently unstable, or at least metastable, in that at any given moment, the current state / pattern / sonority can (and will) decompose into a new, apparently random pattern or soundscape. For example, after the section described above, the solo part “randomly” fluctuates between extremes—notes on the g string and highest, whistling flageolet tones.

Solo Cadenza

There is surprising, sudden tonality, emerging amidst apparent chaos, lyrical melody fragments under whistling heights, slow-down, followed by silence. Isolated pizzicati in the solo, melancholic melody fragments, the solo demanding priority through sonorous gestures.

The solo cadenza, which the composer calls a “convention”, is anything but conventional. It starts as a mysterious monolog, mostly pp / ppp whistling, ghastly, then soon intricate through multi-stop playing, highly virtuosic, rapid figures. Sure, it appears to allude to (occasionally even quote) motifs from classic and romantic violin solos. However, it is all embedded in Dieter Ammann’s contemporary idiom, or at least altered through refined alienation effects. The one, most direct reference to convention is the (partial) cadence at the end, when the orchestra sets in again. The cadenza as a whole is really beautiful, be it as contemporary work, or as reminiscence of late-romantic violin phraseology.

The ending of the piece is mostly devoted to the solo violin. Apart from a short burst, it is all harmonious, gentle, intimate, cosy, turning inwards—and abruptly ending in a loud, final pizzicato.

The Performance

For the orchestral parts, Baldur Brönnimann focused on keeping the orchestra “in line with the score”. The soloist, Simone Zgraggen, followed the conductor either through peripheral vision or via occasional visual contact. At the same time, the concertmaster, Daniela Müller, served as an efficient, additional link between soloist / conductor and the orchestra (primarily the string section, naturally). Not surprisingly, with the soloist being one of the orchestra’s two concertmasters, the result was a compelling and coherent performance, competent and authoritative.

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Solo Encore — Cadenza from “Unbalanced instability”

Judging from the lasting applause, “Unbalanced instability” undoubtedly was a full success. Simone Zgraggen decided to offer a solo encore. This turned out to be the cadenza from “Unbalanced instability”. Hearing it a second time was really beneficial: not only did this get more focus than in the context of the concerto, but through partial familiarity, the “second pass” offered new, additional insights, made listeners aware of additional details. And it confirmed that the cadenza alone is beautiful music that could easily stand as extra movement next to any of the Solo Sonatas op.27 by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931).

In addition, the cadenza now gave the opportunity to enjoy the superb sonority and projection of Simone Zgraggen’s Goffriller violin, with extra focus and attention. And, of course, it confirmed the soloist’s excellent technique and musicality.


Ammann: “Core” for Orchestra (2002)

The 2002 composition “Core” for Orchestra was commissioned by the Lucerne Festival. There, it also premiered in a performance by the Basel Sinfonietta under the direction of Peter Rundel (*1958).

Score / performance material: (Ammann, 2002b)

The program notes quote the composer’s German commentary on the publisher’s Website. For the reader’s convenience, I’m giving an approximate translation to English:

The Work

[…] the aim was to use mutual interpenetration for shaping a homogeneous, indissoluble unity from musical material that was by nature completely heterogeneous. The building blocks used were largely taken from the orchestral work Boost, composed the year before […], and from the recordings of the improvisation trio Koch-Schütz-Studer. Material, in other words, that was partly created under aspects completely different than those of composition.

The aim was not to create “crossover music”, but to create a sonically homogeneous piece with “work character”. Through selection, weighting, and transformation, these “objets trouvés” were made structurally suitable in order to connect with their own material. In other words, to have the ability to form components of the work without them appearing as foreign bodies.

Therefore, first and foremost, the transformation processes aimed at divesting the various musical cells of their (geographic and temporal) origins, thus “de-limiting” them, so to speak. The aim was to subsequently describe them anew, i.e., to disfigure them to the point of recognizability—to the recognizability of their own musical language. On the functional level, the transformation could go far enough that […] previously hard-programmed samples of the original could be transformed into living nuclei for formal developments. […] On the other hand, what was originally freely improvised could become fixed, static formulas.

Music and Performance

Heterogeneous, indeed! The piece starts with a mix of grinding noises and thunder, double bass pizzicato, a “chatty” bass tuba, followed by undulating figures in the strings. After a violent eruption/explosion, bells are added to the mix. A melancholic melody line in the strings and woodwinds, more beats, and all adding up to a complex mix and a climax. Only now, the percussion starts adding distinct rhythmic structures. Sound planes against wild percussion, acceleration, more complexity.

Multiple, layered melodic components are clashing, retract, fighting each other: incredible complexity in an intense climax—industrial noise multiplied by extreme traffic hodgepodge: not a description of a concrete scenery, of course (see above), but still a reflection of reality for large parts of the world population?

In this hardly imaginable mix, the voices gradually coalesce, coherence grows, and even though it remains polyphonic, the orchestra appears to form a “common language”: intense, enthralling! More clashes, intermittent howling / whistling sirens, gradually forming a solemn chorale-like tune of amidst a crescendo of secondary melodies, dissonant drones. After a last climax, the piece gradually returns / retracts to the initial grinding noises, hereby closing the circle. Fascinating, enthralling!

★★★

Ammann: “Turn” for Orchestra (2010)

Commissioned for the Lucerne Festival, “Turn” for Orchestra (2010) is conceived as an Adagio. It stands on its own as a single composition, but its Adagio character is designed to be performed together with Boost and Core. The two earlier orchestral compositions, for their part, have Ammann’s own springy resilience and exploding sonority, which create an exciting framework around the Turn in the middle. Yet Core, as the composer explains, is “somewhat more tonally massive, more robust compared to the more graceful, agile Boost.”

Score / performance material: (Ammann, 2010)

The program notes quote the German commentary by Marie Luise Maintz on the publisher’s Website (this includes the paragraph above). For the reader’s convenience, I’m giving an approximate translation to English:

The Work

The title “Turn” denotes a formal concept. This alone represents a singular process for Dieter Ammann in the composition of his new orchestral piece, for normally the composer develops his works without a previously delineated idea of form. […] “I have developed a formal concept that exposes a deliberate overloading of the orchestral movement in order to create a musical aura. This is then subjected to a fundamental change or completely broken. At the same time, I have given strong importance to the vertical.” Hence: an Adagio, that organizes dense action in a quiet tempo and is tonally fixed on central notes. These often also ground the movement as bass notes. Gradually the music thickens into a pulsation, culminating in a violent, homorhythmic pendulum movement.

“Exactly where the music becomes quite clear, easily graspable for the listener, the turn happens. This is a turning point at which the previous sonority completely implodes and abruptly changes into another sound image. It’s comparable to a scene on a stage, where lighting and technology abruptly create a new atmosphere.” Static, as if from a distance, slow-motion empty string sounds, micro-intervallically distorted, ground a stoically ascending scale movement of the winds. “From there, the music wants to free itself once again and wants to go back. Fragmentarily, earlier chordal patterns reappear, but the rupture remains effective to the end.”

Music and Performance

A slow progression of colorful drones that resonate with the sound of a tam-tam. This forms the foundation for a series of crescending tones and motifs, commented by percussion instruments (such as woodblock, etc.). Solemn atmosphere, changing colors. At times, after “Core”, the music feels like “naked tones”. Of course, they aren’t—rather, Dieter Ammann uses artful instrumentation / mixing of sounds. Temporarily, the music indeed retracts into single tones, the fading sound of a triangle, momentary silence. Complexity, even chaos break in again, but don’t prevail.

A crescendo of “infinitely ascending sequence” of dissonant chords builds up to a collapse: breathing out, relaxing, fading. Mysterious, colorful, wondrous soundscapes with interesting effects, such as cellos treating the strings with the frog of the bow, double basses “treated” with a drumstick. Thunder in the percussion, and finally the fading sound / resonances of a lonely bell, silence. A compelling masterwork!

★★★★★

Ammann: “Boost” for Orchestra (2002)

The 2002 composition “Boost” for Orchestra was conceived as last part of an orchestral triptych “Core — Turn — Boost”. The ensemble of these works premiered at the Lucerne Festival 2010.

Score / performance material: (Ammann, 2002a)

The program notes included the following description by Dieter Ammann (approximate translation, for the reader’s convenience):

The Work

Boost—increasing the pressure, or increasing the tension? Experience shows that programmatic titles can influence the listener’s expectation and attitude towards a work. Therefore: the piece could just as well be named differently. Hints at symphonic sounds gain prominence, are broken by extreme highs and noises. Sound planes confront motoric features, standstill against thrusts, transformations against ruptures. A dramaturgical course emerges. The emotions turn more violent, the resting points less and less, until the accumulated tension is discharged. All that remains of the prior complexity of the movement is a fading pulsation, which ends the piece.

Music and Performance

Bells and other percussion instruments start the piece with resonating sounds, crescending and fading, commented by brass, growing complexity, sirens, horns. Industrial soundscapes, associated with distant melody fragments, and suddenly farm sounds such as cowbells, animals perhaps? Highly entertaining, polyphonic percussion sequences, involving also cellos and double basses (banging on the corpus, touching the strings on either side of the bridge, etc.).

Momentarily, the peaceful sounds of marimbas and xylophones above resting sound layers reminded me of the “pasture scenes” in Symphony No.7 by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911). Ammann is confronting diverse themes, e.g., a marimba tune, a repeated trombone pattern and lively melody fragments in the trumpets. Silence, flashes of melody fragments / percussion motifs, fading resonances, emerging tremolo themes in the low strings, violin tremolos, ascending up whirring heights. Waves or percussion noise, alternating with motoric repetitions of short motifs. Bangs separating repeated echo sequences, altogether fading out, into silence.

I would not want to evaluate which of the pieces in this triad is “best” or “most interesting”: a comparison is pointless, and altogether, they form a highly interesting, enthralling and fascinating ensemble—a masterwork, no doubt!

★★★★★

Conclusion

I had of course heard of Dieter Ammann before. However, I concede that this was my first encounter with his music. A highly interesting, fascinating experience that made me regret that it took me so long to make this discovery. The two chamber music works in the pre-concert were an excellent complement to the main program. Moreover: the works by Aregnaz Martirosyan and Alsu Nigmatullina reflected and confirmed the qualities of Dieter Ammann as composer and teacher.

As expected, the performance by Baldur Brönnimann and the Basel Sinfonietta left very little, if anything, to wish for. And in Dieter Ammann’s violin concerto “Unbalanced instability”, Simone Zgraggen, one of the orchestra’s concertmasters, proved her excellent qualities and technical superiority as soloist.

The one, minor reservation I have about the concert is that together with the pre-concert, it was simply a lot of music (over 1 3/4 hours, excluding breaks etc.). Excellent music, of course, but also a challenge for the listener. For myself, I found the 25-minute “Unbalanced instability”—albeit fascinating and interesting—hard to conceive in the first encounter. It seemed a challenge not to get lost in the many facets of this composition. For a full appreciation of its qualities, I think that one needs to listen to this piece more than once.


Literature / Scores

  • Frei, M. (2022, May 17). Seine Musik drängt in die Welt hinaus. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, p.31. https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/dieter-ammann-zum-60-geburtstag-seine-musik-draengt-in-die-welt-hinaus-ld.1684304
  • Ammann, D. (2002a). BOOST für Orchester (Rental / hire material, Vol. BA09750—72). Bärenreiter-Verlag Karl Vötterle GmbH & Co. KG.
  • Ammann, D. (2002b). CORE für Orchester (Rental / hire material, Vol. BA09751—72). Bärenreiter-Verlag Karl Vötterle GmbH & Co. KG.
  • Ammann, D. (2010). TURN für Orchester (Rental / hire material, Vol. BA09768—72). Bärenreiter-Verlag Karl Vötterle GmbH & Co. KG.
  • Ammann, D. (2013). unbalanced instability, Konzertsatz für Violine und Kammerorchester (Rental / hire material, Vol. BA11117—72). Bärenreiter-Verlag Karl Vötterle GmbH & Co. KG.

Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to the team of Basel Sinfonietta, in particular Werner Hoppe (PR & Marketing), for the press tickets to this concert, for information on the program, and for access to the concert photos. All concert photos are by Zlatko Mićić.



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