Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Congratulations to Jessica on the UK premiere of her "A Walk Through the End of Time". This woman is astonishing in every way -- warm, charming, deeply cultured, prolific. And very funny. Congratulations, Jessica.

Jessica reports that the UK has forgotten summer this year. While Boston has had an awful lot of rain, there have been some breathtakingly dry and sunlit days. I happened to catch one at Tanglewood last weekend and snapped this photo. The Koussevitsky Music Shed is behind me, the lake of the Stockbridge Bowl ahead in the distance, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's little red house is just behind the foreground hedge. The lake has been casting its spell for thousands of years, glittering away since it was scooped out by ice age glaciers.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The last of The Risør Festival's 22 concerts ended in a seething series of climaxes -- Ligeti's Violin Concerto. It was a hair-raising performance by violinist Christian Tetzlaff with the Risør Festival Strings under Christian Eggen. By this time, the Festival audience had undergone a rare immersion in superb performances of Ligeti's music.

But because of the wild and insistent applause, the very final music of the festival (excluding, of course, the hilarious caprices that erupted at the all-night party on the musician's boat) was an encore. Tetzlaff alone playing Bach.

Earlier in the program, the Orion Quartet played Bartók's String Quartet No. 5, written in 1934. When the first movement closes, Bartok holds a mirror up to the themes that have unfolded, and we hear them upside down.
My eye wandered to this wooden carving at the front of the church:

It was an indescribably compelling performance.

The Orion Quartet has been playing together for two decades now and they've developed the oneness that comes with that kind of history. Violinists Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips are brothers who take turns playing the first violin role. The violist is Steven Tenenbom and the cellist is Timothy Eddy. They've obviously stocked their portable box of psychological coping tools for keeping things inspired. They must be sophisticated tools, too, especially given the fact that the four players were put together in the same apartment for a week... and they still came through it with an absolutely unabashed adoration of this festival! They gave nothing but ecstatic reviews about a happy, free, inspired experience.

We talked about the nature of this open-minded audience, listening day after day to truly complex and often tortured music.
It prompted a conversation about the open-mindedness of children, and violist Steve Tenenbom said this:

I wonder if in the US we're not the slightest bit lazy in terms of choices in culture …
Give young people the option, and they'll really go for the music with energy, and they'll let the music speak to them. Then, at some point, we grow and we become very reliant upon movie reviews, restaurant reviews, word of mouth –- we only want to go to concerts because we've heard of that person and they're famous, and there's an electricity in the audience really because you're there because of the star power.… Somehow in this festival, it's really about the music. It's so much that way.

And cellist Timothy Eddy said this:

Hopefully playing an instrument will be taught in such a way that from the earliest age, and from the earliest experiences, the child is encouraged to literally play with the instrument … to use their sense of fantasy and connect it with the adventure of self-expression … it's another voice.

There he hit upon the theme of the Festival itself. And that phrase the adventure of self-expression keeps bouncing around in my mind.

More photos (click on them for a bigger view) beginning with the church's wonderful ceiling, and its simple doors:

Happy festival-goers with ice cream:

Three of the Orions:

Beautiful boat:

The view from the big floating restaurant:

Co-director Leif Ove Andsnes:

And a couple views of dinner:

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Twilight Boating

On Friday night at the Risør Festival , musicians and audience packed into boats and headed to Stangholmen. This tiny, rocky island has a lighthouse, a newly constructed glass stage, a superb and elegant sound system, and, of course, the Norwegian glow of summer twilight that deepens as the hours go on. The audience can drink local beer and choose their piece of rock (cushions provided) to sit on. The Directors came up with a beautiful program that included the Norwegian Soloists' Choir
atmospherically stationed around and in the audience, moving toward the stage while singing haunting folk songs of Norway. Also on the program, Brahms, Haydn, Liszt, Donizetti. The final piece featured the deeply moving voice of Thomas Quasthoff sending Schubert's "Auf der Bruck" into the dusk and far, far out to the gleaming horizon.
The picture above shows a little boatful of highly valuable musicians and their highly valuable instruments, with a bigger boatful of highly valuable audience members.
Here's a look at the little rocky natural amphitheater on the island, and a shots from the lighthouse.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Great Openers

Haydn, Ligeti, Antheil and Ornstein have become familiar bedfellows here in Risør. The programs are brilliantly devised, always with the theme of humanity's need for playfulness ready to bubble to the surface. These concerts are diverse, colorful, shocking, and very often deeply affecting. And this audience has never heard such remarkably adventurous concerts. I've met San Franciscans whose regular Norwegian summers are built around this week. I've met the Vicar of the Risør church who becomes a hard-working volunteer for all six of these long days. Because it is a festival that this audience has come to love and anticipate, it is a perfect example of the rewards that await a willing ear.

Great care (and mischief) has been put into the opening of each program. A concert on Friday, for instance, began with George Antheil’s “Jazz Sonata”. It's 90 seconds of manic jazz gestures that feel like they’ve been ripped up and pasted together in the dark. A hilarious slap in the face delivered by Marc-André Hamelin, followed by Nikolai Lugansky and Jan-Erikk Gustafsson playing a deep-in-the-strings account of the Debussy Cello Sonata. Then the cool warmth of Edgar Varèse’s Density 21.5 for solo flute (Andrea Lieberknecht was riveting) and then his Octandre, which was a slap of a different sort that seemed to ricochet around the church like coins in a hurricane. Follow that with a Haydn Symphony and a short breather (at intermission I did get a confession from a 6-year devotee that her ears were feeling a tad bit “tired”, but she was happy, willing and ready for all the rest), and after the breather: Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, again with Hamelin. (How wonderfully strange for the many who were hearing this piece for the first time here … )

To start the noon concert the next day, something much farther out of any box than George Antheil’s music … a section of the Ursonata by Kurt Schwitters, the German painter whose technique of bringing together fragments and found art he called “Merz”. It’s been called “psychological collage”. Soprano Eir Inderhaug grabbed us with a collection of repeating nonsense phrases. She became a fascinating creature, playing with these words and their marvelously meaningful/meaningless inflections as if they’d been a part of some ancient culture since the beginning of time. I felt like I was meeting a sweet-faced, big-hearted alien. Great applause, shot through with laughter. Fabulous way to start a concert.

The most playful and outrageous of concert beginnings? Had to be Scratch from 1991, written and performed by Rolf Wallin. The instruments: large red balloon, soapy water, knife.

Also on that concert were a bouquet of songs by Schubert, Bartók's Fifth String Quartet (with the Orion String Quartet) and the Ligeti Violin Concerto.

Please stay tuned for encounters with the Orion String Quartet, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Devastating Ride

I sat in on a rehearsal yesterday. After turning the pianist's pages for Schubert's Erlkönig I felt like I needed to be resuscitated. Thomas Quasthoff sings this song with such an overwhelming conviction and such unnerving tension ... it is an indescribably wild ride. His wife Claudia feels as though she is watching him become four different people before her very eyes. He is a force.

I've talked at length with both of them now, and it has been a joy to witness their deep love for one another. It's constantly punctuated with extreme humor, and much adoration. They are an inspiration.

ListenHere's a little bit of Thomas Quasthoff's thinking

Last evening's concert finished with an army of dark metronomes. At last I have witnessed a performance of Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 of them. It's an experience both eery and hilarious. Risør's church is so acoustically alive that the wild initial clatter was breathtaking. And as the little machines (which come to seem ever more human) die at random, I became mildly obsessed with the idea of a single soldier standing -- flapping away. Who would it be?

This performance worked perfectly. Members of the Risør Festival Strings wound their metronomes each 17 times in front of the audience, then stood at attention. They were dismissed once they'd neatly allowed the clatter to begin. The last surviving metronome, having had diminishing company for 18 minutes or so, clicked away all alone for a time ... then there was a slight deadening in his resonance ... then a great emptiness.

Wild applause.

Here's a shot of the army on stage:

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Through miraculous good fortune, I woke up today on the Southern coast of Norway. And it’s a morning with such sparkle -- so blue and so bright -- that I’m stunned. There are quick and wonderful breezes coming off the sea, charged with sunlight and salt. (I’d be happy to have these breezes in my hair forever.) I’m barefoot with my coffee, on the deck of a little guest house, a short walk from the harbor. I can’t get enough of the sound of the seagulls laughing in the wind. The sky is endless.

This is the little, white-washed town of Risør, with its wooden houses nestled together on small, airy streets.

I recognize this feeling – everything is soaked in an atmosphere of rugged charm that I know from time spent on the North Shore of Massachusetts. But there is a mysterious and wonderful sense of ancient history here.

Throughout the day, happy tourists amble about. Bicycles float past the harbor and motorscooters buzz in and out. But there’s something different here. Look closely at some of those happy people and you’ll begin to recognize faces … isn’t that Christian Tetzlaff, the violinist? The young pianist Nikolai Lugansky comes around a corner … baritone Thomas Quasthoff seems to be talking with someone by the church – and the inspired Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is everywhere.

This is the Risør Chamber Music Festival. I’ve come here to gather up some of its sights and sounds. In September, I’ll present a series of radio programs on WGBH 89.7 with concert recordings and special interviews. But now I can’t resist sharing a little of the atmosphere.

Last night I experienced the summer's midnight twilight. It arrives, gets stuck, and shimmers –- on hold – until somewhere in the wee morning hours it must get overtaken by the sunset. Magic. A half-moon hung over the harbor and laid out a diamond path of light, just for extra effect. This came after an astonishing nighttime concert (10:15pm. It was one of 22 concerts being offered day and night during the six days of the festival. Leif Ove Andsnes and violist Lars Anders Tomter are co-directors, and the theme they’ve given it this year is Playful!
They are aiming at finding music that evokes “Joy over the superhumanity of machines … A world of adventure; of mechanics, play and invention.” So Haydn, Antheil, Ives and Ligeti all work together to transform Risør. There will even be a sampling expert(Jan Bang)who will be transforming Haydn (and the Orion Quartet) with electronics.

It is a delicious shock to walk up the little hill to Risor’s white-spired church
and find two 9-foot German Steinways being installed at the front

on which Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes are rehearsing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, arranged by the composer for one piano, and further colored and nuanced for two pianos by the pianists ...

[movie clip here]

And for a little taste of the marvelously quirky programming that pays such joyous attention to the thrill of machines, toys, humans and life, tonight's concert
features Leroy Anderson's 1950 entertainment "The Typewriter", Haydn's Symphony 101, Antheil's Death of the Machines, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, and Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes.

Please keep checking back -- I'll be writing more whenever I can.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Taylor-made rain ...

One day years ago, when my youngest daughter was still small and wide-eyed, we were driving through the sunlit pine trees of Dover, Massachusetts. Strapped into the back seat, she heard Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun on the radio. With the windows open and the summer light filtering through the cedars, she took it all in with the enviable, unburdened tenderness that allows children to feel things so completely ...
"Mama, look ... the music matches the day!" And I could feel the best part of my brain locking that moment away like some profoundly precious 10-second film.

My commute now is shorter and less picturesque. For some weird reason, I've begun snapping pictures, randomly, out my window, while driving. I'm really not sure what I'm after, but I have noticed that combined with some random radio tune-ins, there have been some interesting matches.

Cecil Taylor's wildly unpredictable pianism, for example, with its high-velocity clusters and sudden lyricisms soaked my commute yesterday. I was in love that day with the teasing that he did -- the tune and harmonic changes buried under a barrage of mood-swings. Yet they were still there, those initial structures. I turned to my right and snapped a random shot that now seems to mirror the Taylor effect.

Another day, after a wind-swept storm of snow that left not a single, tiny twig untouched, I drove down Commonwealth Avenue under a bright blue sky. I opened my window at a stop sign and snapped. I think there was no music this time, but seeing the photo now, I wish I could say I'd been up to my seatbelt in Bach ...