S&H Festival Concert review

TWO CELLISTS with a digression about Multiple Venues, Dimmed Lighting and Sound Pollution


D'Alep à Séville conceived by Sonia Wieder-Atherton (cello), with Françoise Rivalland (percussion), Quatour Parisii & Pierre Feyler (bass) 23 September 2001 Auditorium of France 3 Alsace, Strasbourg

Miroirs et reflexions Anssi Karttunen (cello) 27 September 2001 Palais du Rhin, Strasbourg (PGW)

Sonia Wieder-Atherton is a virtuoso cellist with a mind of her own; a name new to me, although she has appeared at Wigmore Hall and the Bath festival. Her Sunday morning programme was just the sort of event which makes visiting festivals abroad so rewarding. From Aleppo to Seville brought a full, enthusiastic house to the auditorium of France 3 Alsace to enjoy her journey around the Mediterranean, a unique conception, which united in a continuous sequence her arrangements with Bruno Fontaine of traditional Egyptian, Turkish and Syrian music, Monteverdi and Granados as a frame for recent commissions from Dusapin, Aperghis and Fedele - a heady brew indeed. She was supported by string quintet and a gifted, attention-grabbing multi-percussionist, Françoise Rivalland, on zarb, cymbalum, daf and santur. It all worked well and, with discreet audio-visual presentation by Thierry Coduys, held attention easily for around an hour and twenty minutes; just right for a well-filled CD, which could be equally successful, and should be considered by an enterprising, innovative company.

The surprise was how similar, rather than different from each other, many of these pieces sounded in this unusual context. My sole reservations were that the three short Dusapin pieces, Imago (I), (II) & (III) might have benefited from being heard together instead of scattered individually amongst the rest - with lights out, you needed to have memorised the order to be sure what you were hearing - and that Ivan Fedele's Levante, commissioned by Musica for this concert, is a major work which might better be heard on its own.

Absorption of Middle Eastern idioms has clearly fertilised and enriched Sonia Wieder-Atherton's cello playing, and seemed to have become a rich source of inspiration for the composers of the new works. For me, the most immediately striking of those (and the first to be heard, whilst we were all fresh) was Profils for cello and zarb by Georges Aperghis, with Françoise Rivalland stunning in her verve, concentration and rhythmic precision, producing a wide variety of tones from the skin of her drum with fingers and finger nails, hard percussive sounds by striking the body of the instrument with her rings, and a mysterious swooshing punctuation produced I know not how; the whole amplified to just the right degree to balance the cello.

Pascal Dusapin's unaccompanied solo pieces bring in jagged ornamental inflections, linked closely to what we heard in the traditional items, and together the three would make a telling 11 minute cello recital item. Ivan Fedele has string quintet and cimbalom, used sparingly, to support the solo cello. The idiosyncratic cimbalom, which Fedele had featured in his violin concerto, contributes its piquant tone to the whole. Levante takes 20 mins and, as is often the way with this significant composer, it is music which does not reveal all its secrets on first meeting; I hope to hear it again.

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Anssi Karttunen is a frequent visitor to UK, often reviewed by S&H. He brought to Strasbourg his Cello Octet of Helsinki (a rival for Holland's Concierto Iberico, with which Elias Arizcuren has demonstrated, with commissions from a roster of distinguished composers, that this unlikely combination is, in fact, satisfyingly complete) - I did not hear their concert because of a clash with Szymanowski's King Roger elsewhere in the city.

Earlier that evening Karttunen gave a magnificent solo cello recital, flawed by circumstances at the Palais du Rhin often encountered elsewhere (see also A digression concerning Sound Pollution etc below). Reminding myself of his superb solo CD (Finlandia 4509-98767-2), I fear that in this programme he sacrificed himself (mercifully, only to a small extent) on the altar of fashionable multi-media 'withitry'.

The only virtue of Jean-Baptiste Barrière's four Cellitude fragments, with video 'autoportraits' of the performer, was their brevity. They were scattered through the recital, as were Dusapin's striking Imagi in Sonia Wieder-Atherton's, but in this distracting context made little impression musically; such is the primacy of eye over ear that the jejune 'real-time' videos, with distorted images of Karttunen himself, dominated attention. As with a piece by Francesconi in an earlier concert (both Barrière and Francesconi have impressive electronic studio credentials), the video skills deployed seemed inept and primitive in comparison with those to be seen at modern art exhibitions and, any day, on TV adverts. But worse than that, the ambient noise from the equipment involved vitiated the quieter music and (intended) silent pauses in the more significant non-electronic music in the programme.

This was magnificent and made this recital, held in the imposing hall of the Palais de Rhin (currently under restoration) an important event of the festival. Zimmerman's tiny Studies of 1970, played first, were too fragile to survive that problem, but Donatoni's Lame made an effective, vigorous end to the sequence, and deserves a regular place in the ever more extensive solo cello repertoire. Jukka Tiensuu's oddjob is compelling even before it introduces extra layers of reverberation and echo, building to uncertainty as to 'who is following who'. A musical polymath, Tiensuu is an important figure in Finnish musical life and his harpsichord CD (Finlandia, nla) is one of the top favourites in my collection. Most memorable was Tan Dun's solo recycling of his cello concerto, The Intercourse of Fire and Water (1995), which had not come my way in any of its several forms. As did Sonia Wieder-Atherton in her arrangements of middle Eastern traditional music, Tan Dun eschewed vibrato but has instead a large repertoire of glissandi and other special effects based upon his Chinese musical origins. An impressive major work of 17 mins, the concerto was composed for Anssi Kartunnen, and I hope he will have an opportunity to give it - with orchestra - in UK.

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Concerning multiple venues, dimming and sound pollution

Whilst visiting different concert venues, which one might otherwise not see, is a particular pleasure of the festival experience, sound quality must remain paramount when choosing them. Common recurrent, and all too familiar, organisational problems bedevilled several events at Strasbourg, and merit a note.

Throughout the festival the trendy dimming, with lights kept low even during platform rearrangements, has often been irritating and counter-productive, preventing musicians from seeing the audiences with whom they are communicating, and often leaving those of us who had been chatting instead of reading our programmes carefully beforehand - and memorising the order of items - unsure what we were hearing, with no compensatory 'atmospheric' advantage.

Electronic equipment can still be unreliable. There was a serious video failure from overheating in one item (which had to be restarted) and, later the same evening, a regrettable failure to anticipate and control the annoyance caused by extremely loud ambient noise from permanent equipment at the Museum of Modern Art (it even had a persistent note!) which caused Zoltán Rácz to refuse to begin Amandida's percussion concert, which had been scheduled to end at midnight.

We had encountered a similar experience in Lisbon when cellist Jean-Paul Dessy begun a major work by Giacinto Scelsi but suddenly stopped, apologised to us and said he could not continue against the distraction of the air conditioning, which rendered his quieter playing inaudible.

After long pauses on both occasions, with discussions backstage, both Dessy and Rácz had to return to their respective platforms and make the best of unresolved bad situations, resuming their performances to fulfil their contracts, against the same continuing noises, which no-one listening could now even attempt to ignore.

All such foreseeable problems need to be tackled by festival concert managers at an earlier stage, so that alternative venues can be considered. It is something that festival organisers should take into account and explore, especially in those festivals which use multiple venues, some of them not regular concert auditoria. (I would also recommend that the programme organisers read -without expecting emulation - my account of the idealistic Sound in Silence policy which pertains at Lucerne.)

In Strasbourg, the Auditorium France 3 Alsace studio is a particularly happy venue, well equipped to cope with all the eventualities liable to be encountered in live electronic and multi-media presentations, and the concerts mentioned above would have been better located there, if it had been available.

Peter Grahame Woolf





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