JWR Articles: Live Event - Basel Sinfonietta (Conductor: Stefan Asbury) - September 13, 2010 id="543337086">

Basel Sinfonietta

4.5 4.5

New Music from Switzerland is as varied as the countryside

[Note: As the extensive program notes for this concert were entirely in German, purposely, a translation was not sought prior to the performance, wanting the music to speak entirely for itself.]

In the midst of the Lucerne Festival in Summer’s “Moderne” series (surrounded by choral, chamber, improvisation, theatre music, dance music and late-night “swing band”) came the Basel Sinfonietta to perform four works (three of them world premières commissioned by the Festival, Pro Helvetia and other sponsors) for a surprisingly large Sunday-morning audience in the Kultur and Kongresszentrum Luzern’s concert hall.

Conductor Stefan Asbury is one of today’s composers finest, most dedicated allies. With somewhat of a deferring demeanour, he led his equally-talented charges in committed, detail-rich readings over a couple of hours that would have left many other maestros at the starting gate.

Martin Jaggi’s Moloch for Large Orchestra (2008) was infused with copious amounts of snap, growl and siren-like bluster (the bass flute added a delectable breath of exotic air; the contra-bass clarinet melded its own distinctive hue into the music’s cavernous sub terrain).

With so much power unleashed (the cellos’ C strings were pulled on vigorously with abandon), it took on the aura and persona of an orchestral monster. Fascinating as that was, there were so many emotions in the mix (joy, sadly absent as is frequently true in many twenty-first century works: a reflection of our times?) that it was difficult to latch onto, much less savour the one that mattered most.

Beginning the first hearings was Nadir Vassena’s altri naufragi (other shipwrecks). The intriguing notion of blind art (the philosophical sister of justice) was personified with red bandanas preventing a covey of instrumentalists from seeing any notes (truth) or the conductor (leader).

What began as a sound- and light-scape show lost much of its initial impact after vision was restored to performers and patrons alike. Kudos to the high tuba; not so fine was the somewhat messy Rite of Spring rhythmical effect which preceded the penetrating bottom of the brass. A final flurry of animation—tipped off by the French horns—provided a resounding last hurrah before the musical tide went out.

In a manner similar to works by Xenakis, Stockhausen and John Adams (in the latter’s case the first movement of Harmonielehre), Fritz Hauser’s Hatching for Gong and Orchestra brought new meaning to minimalism as he (on a beautifully cast, small-circumference gong) and several-dozen players rubbed and scratched the deceptively-simple art to the surface.

The 15-minute arch (once again, with sound and light elements) had the on-stage musicians draw sound from their usual instruments with slender metal rods rather than their usual bows, embouchures and sticks. A few discreetly inserted colours from off-stage winds (notably the bass clarinet) provided a quiet link to more “regular” music making.

It came as no surprise that the intensity of the thoughtful texture drew a few nervous giggles from some of the crowd before the mystical effect took hold: Think group therapy of a highly different sort.

After the second major stage re-set (with no official intermission, the program went on too long for one seating—the post-concerts WC line-ups went around the block for both sexes), Michael Wertmüller’s Zeitkugel (Time Twister): Concerto for Piano/Organ and Orchestra closed the musical feast with a stunning display of finger-craft and rhythmic dexterity from soloist Dominik Blum.

On the piano, the nimble performer dashed through the can’t-sit-still solo lines with incredible precision and verve. Up in the loft, he gave the magnificent organ a similarly wild ride, leaving its massive pipes and the somewhat stunned listeners (Is it over?) gasping for air by journey’s end.

With an obvious understanding and affection for times past (especially George Gershwin’s rapid-fire repeated notes and Charles Ives’ simultaneous, multi-pulse orchestra inventions—four extra conductors were required at some points here), it was a wonderfully informative experience to see/hear this composer’s take on where we’ve been. The next installment from Wertmüller’s considerable creative abilities is eagerly awaited. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

With special exhibits such as Andy Warhol - The Early Sixties: Paintings and Drawings 1961-1964 and a treasure trove of works from Swiss masters and their contemporaries, time spent in the Kunstmuseum Basel is a stimulating change from the musical arts. JWR

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Conductor - Stefan Asbury
Moloch for Large Orchestra - Martin Jaggi
altri naufragi: coreografia per automi danzanti for Orchestra - Nadir Vassena
altri naufragi: coreografia per automi danzanti for Orchestra - Fritz Hauser
Zeitkugel: Concerto for Piano/Organ and Orchestra - Michael Wertmüller
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