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A Concert Marked by Silence, Punch, and Fiber

The 2 August concert in the church in Ernen was a startling combination of old and new. The broad swathe of genres ranged from a shimmering Mozart to a pulsing sound landscape by contemporary Zürcher composer, Alfred Zimmerlin. The premier of his intriguing "On the Move—in a Roundabout Way" had been the talk of the town for weeks, and in his opening remarks, Festival Director Francesco Walter assured us that this would be an unforgettable evening.

Violinist Helena Winkelman began the program as soloist in Béla Bartók’s "Romanian Dances," one of the most loved works in the composer’s whole repertoire. Bartók systematically collected Eastern European folk music − no fewer than 2700 Hungarian, 3500 Romanian, and 3000 Slovakian dances and folksongs were amassed in his catalogue. In this week’s dynamic performance, Winkelman twice ran ahead of the other players at the very start, but showed extraordinary confidence in her playing, generously giving the audience expressions of surprise, coy pleasure, and even query, almost as if asking, "Can the violin really do this? Let’s see!" Particularly the second song, "Braul" was as smooth as silk, and she played through her highly complex fingering with the seeming ease of a game long since mastered. I have rarely heard the songs played with such effervescence and punch, in short: this well.

Arvo Pärt’s "Silentium", a part of the Estonian composer’s "Tabula rasa" for violins, string orchestra and prepared piano, is a piece which builds according to a strict formulaic scheme, one subject to only modest variations, and a hauntingly pervasive pattern throughout. In an introduction held prior to the concert, it was cited as a piece that fatally ill patients often ask for when they’re dying. It pulses, repeating itself slowly as if pulling up, then letting go; piece by piece, it shuts down. It’s easy to equate the "body" of instruments with the vital organs of the human being, and to imagine this as the life’s’ force that wants to beat on, but is eventually released into silence. In the Pärt, the soloists and orchestra kept a billowing sound over the audience, the instruments successively falling away. In the end, only the two violins – Daniel Bard and Mathilde Milwidsky – were still playing, the one voice like a delicate silk shroud over the other, before they, too, shut down, and the faltering deeper tones of the cello took the very last "breath." It was a precise and stunning rendition.

The great surprise of the evening was the is a Czech avant-garde violinist, singer, and composer Iva Bittová who has, in her career, worked in a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, rock, classical and opera. She sang two arias: Donna Elvira’s lament in Mozart’s "Don Giovanni", and Thomas Arne’s "The soldier, tired of wars’ alarms." For anyone who expected a classical performance, this was Hell to pay, for the disconnect to studied operatic voice made this as radical as seeing a prima ballerina dance in army boots. One could credit the singer for her gutsy performance, although many of us cringed in our seats at a raw and earthy voice that, married to Mozart, sounded nothing short of street-speak. Further, in the Thomas Arne aria, scored to verse in my own mother tongue, I never heard a single word that sounded remotely like English.

Fortunately, Bittová’s third solo piece was a winner. She gave an acapella, gypsy-like appeal that felt like she was again in her own skin − one with a visceral timber that kept the hair on everybody’s arms bristling. Her "stealing" the concertmaster’s violin, and walking with it out the church door while still singing, added to the tension − indeed the humor− of the theatrical performance. It was cleverly staged for such an effect, and took amused applause. The artist cites her indebtedness to everyday life for her music and interpretations. "Whatever it is," she says, "many of my listeners have long considered it highly original." Original it was, but apart from the solo song, beautiful it was not. 

The premiere of Alfred Zimmerlin’s new work came after the break. Commissioned by benefactors of the Musikdorf Ernen Association for the often neglected contrabass; the composer asked to score it for e-bass instead. Arnulf Ballhorn showed a rock star’s command of that instrument, alternating two different ranges, while concertmaster Daniel Bard conducted the players with his bow often aloft and swinging around complex interactions and changes of tempi. Bard’s insistent, frequent eye contact with the fellow musicians also boosted the sense of integrity. Good so, for Zimmerlin’s is an extremely cerebral piece, and one that defies description by the usual musical vocabulary. For the lay listener, there is little that’s predictable about its structure, no way to know when it might pause or indeed end. The man in his forties in the pew in front of mine was sitting between his twitchy adolescent daughter and his old mother, who sat through the piece like a stone. Poor dad; If he had intended this concert as a "fun family outing" for the three of them, he had another thing coming. For while Zimmerlin’s is surely a tremendous and rewarding challenge to professional musicians, and a fitting reflection of the erratic and unpredictable impulses of the modern age, the piece met with a decidedly mixed reception at its premiere. The solace is that new music often does that.

The final orchestral piece, Edvard Grieg’s, "Holberg’s Suite", was robust and infinitely musical in the traditional sense. Its dialogue among the various strings – alternating melodies, swells, and recessions− were beautifully modeled under concertmaster Arvid Engegård’s clear lead. Admittedly, after the other-worldliness of the Zimmerlin, this piece felt something like the burly score of a blockbuster movie; but such ebullient folk music made you want to get up and dance, and none could fault it for lack of Romantic luster or passionate insistence. In sum, the Grieg suite was played to perfection, each player entirely comfortable with this assignment and community, and bringing the best of the northern fiber to the equally scenic Swiss alps.

Ernen, August 4, 2016, by Sarah Batschelet

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