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.
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.
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.