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New York in Potsdam: Anne Sofie von Otter & Brooklyn Rider at the Nikolaisaal

I headed out to Potsdam’s Nikolaisaal on Friday night, a slightly out-of-the-way location in which to find both the legendary mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, and star New York string quartet, Brooklyn Rider. On the programme was an eclectic mix from the quartet’s last few recordings, including the German premiere of Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 7 from last month’s Glass album and songs from So Many Things, their 2016 collaboration with Von Otter.

The evening satisfyingly combined virtuosity with a laid-back charm. Von Otter charismatically introduced most of the works, sometimes with asides and questions to the quartet members. Her warm tone threaded its way through the diverse repertoire, whether it was lending its clarity to Caroline Shaw’s troubadour-inspired Cant voi l’aube, giving a honeyed, jazzy edge to Elvis Costello or curling out lines of digits in Kyle Sanna’s zippy arrangement of Kate Bush’s Pi.

Interestingly, though, it felt like the real heart of the concert came from the three works by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen. The audience, who I’d imagine were mostly drawn there by Von Otter’s classical standing, were confronted with these pieces and really got behind them. For Sixty Cents, a coffee shop musing based around a Lydia Davis text, was a delight to watch. BTT from the recent Spontaneous Symbols album was almost interrupted by applause and then met with cheers at its close, as was Exit from 2014’s Brooklyn Rider Almanac, the second of three encores that night.

The versatility and openness that drive Brooklyn Rider’s projects is something that I think is yet to really develop in the new music scenes of major German cities (it’s an altogether different world of contemporary music to this Ensemble Modern concert, for example). Certainly, the evening for me emphasised how invigorating for both audiences and musicians the unselfconscious crossing of roles and genres can be.

Albums of 2017

Here’s a round-up of a few of my favourite albums from 2017 across contemporary classical music and experimental pop. Enjoy!

Alarm Will Sound/Meet The Composer: Splitting Adams
(ft. Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony by John Adams)
April 2017, Cantaloupe Music

This innovative collaboration between Q2’s Music’s Meet the Composer podcast and ensemble Alarm Will Sound was definitely one of my highlights of the year. The podcast sections with contributions from violist/host Nadia Sirota, AWS conductor Alan Pierson and John Adams himself provide witty, well-paced introductions to the complex soundworlds of the two chamber symphonies, complete with cartoon music clips, scraps of Arnold Schoenberg and anecdotes from the ensemble members. The recordings sandwiched between these commentaries have an unbelievable energy, zapping Adams’ ‘caffeinated’ (to use Pierson’s favourite word) music to life. The slower movements shine as well, in particular ‘Son of Chamber Symphony’s sultry second movement. A must-listen not just for John Adams or Meet the Composer fans, but really anyone looking to listen their way into contemporary classical music.

New Morse Code: Simplicity Itself
September 2017, New Focus Recordings

Simplicity Itself was this year’s release from cello and percussion duo, New Morse Code, featuring a host of new works for this intriguing combination of instruments (plus the occasional violin and piano). Patter by Boston composer, Robert Honstein, amuses with its delicate, shifting lines. The album’s central work, Hush by Tonia Ko, winds Virginia Woolf fragments around expressive flourishes of sound. The second and third movements are deeply atmospheric; a longing cello solo leading the former, the clear singing voice of cellist Hannah Collins guiding the latter. A real stand-out on the album is Caroline Shaw’s Boris Kerner, to me it seems like a whistlestop tour of the different music roles the cello can play. Starting with a stately ground bass, we get hurried on through supportive pizzicati to jammy, folky chords – eventually landing back where we started. The moment when the percussion (struck flowerpots, in reference to Rzewski’s To the Earth) begins chiming over the opening ground bass is exquisite, a crisp clash of style and texture. An album of clarity in musical expression: most definitely simplicity itself. 

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid
October 2017, Western Vinyl

A buzzing, trippy second album from Smith, full of special sounds. Head over to this post to read some thoughts on the album and a review of Smith’s recent The Kid performance in Berlin.  

Roseau: Muscles and Bones
March 2017, Tape Club Records

East London producer and singer Kerry Leatham, aka Roseau, followed up her 2015 debut album Salt with the release of this year’s Muscles and Bones. A soulful record, it makes for a really enjoyable listen. Opening track ‘Foundation’ ticks on from its slightly creepy, off-kilter beginning into a lush chorus. The slow groove of ‘Start Again’ is inviting, almost danceable, while ‘Oh, Honestly’ fades out the short record dreamily, swimming out ‘in navy blue’. My personal favourite is ‘Light’, a gorgeous poppy cut that builds into a passionate rework of the refrain from the earlier track, ‘Disintegrate’. 

Björk: Utopia
November 2017, One Little Indian Records

Björk’s ninth studio album was a pleasant surprise this year. I had enjoyed 2015’s Vulnicura but found it a little directionless, lacking the conviction and concept that drove such milestones as BiophiliaVolta and MedúllaUtopia feels exhilarating, opening with the buzz of light and sound that is ‘Arisen My Senses’. ’The Gate’ has a kind of gripping intensity to it, breaking out eventually into its desperate call of ‘I care for you, care for you’. ‘Body Memory’ is an epic rush of overblown flutes and heavy bass; leafy, pulsating and dense. Against this, tracks like ‘Claimstaker’ and the floaty ‘Future Forever’ are a little more thinly scored, allowing Björk’s voice to take centre stage. The album is often lyrically shaky, and not just in that quirky way that Björk often is (what is ‘Features Creatures’ about…?), but thanks to its rich, varied sound design it nonetheless soars.  

Jasper String Quartet: Unbound
March 2017, New Amsterdam Records/Sono Luminus

A colourful album of new commissions for this virtuosic young string quartet, which takes the listener expertly through the many facets of contemporary string quartet music. Mizzy Mazzoli’s swooping Death Valley Junction and the hushed layers of Donnacha Dennehy’s Pushpulling are performed with a breathless, delicate urgency. This contrasts the delightful energy and swagger the versatile quartet brings out for Caroline Shaw’s juicy Valencia and Judd Greenstein’s up-tempo Four on the Floor. A riveting release and one of the strongest new music albums of the year. 

Und links das Meer: new works with Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt

Last night, I was at the closing concert of this year’s Cresc… Biennale, a festival for contemporary music in the Frankfurt am Main area. It was my first time experiencing Ensemble Modern, Germany’s leading new music ensemble, in a live performance. On the programme were five premieres by young composers participating in Ensemble Modern’s composition seminar (organised by the International Ensemble Modern Academy), each responding to the topic of ‘transit’, the festival’s loose overall theme.

The five composers* took up this theme in creative and contrasting ways, but sometimes producing mixed results. I found the opening work, Matej Bonin’s Shimmer II, difficult to get into. While there were some nice timbral highlights and a wacky extended clarinet solo, it had little structure and failed to really engage me. Malte Giesen’s Surrogat/Extension interpreted the theme on the level of identity in transit or transition and did this in the form of a ‘double concerto’ for piano and electronic keyboard, the ‘original’ or older instrument meeting its ‘copy’, according to the composer’s description. This idea was explored well; the solo voices were at times cooperative, at times warring, with the keyboard frequently interrupting and manipulating the piano’s sound.   

I particularly enjoyed Ole Hübner’s Drei Menschen, im Hintergrund Hochhäuser und Palmen und links das Meer for live electronics and amplified ensemble. Hübner mashed together fragments of recorded speech, field recordings from Beijing and Istanbul and snippets of folky fiddle music, making for an vivid and intense sound collage or piece of ‘auditory theatre’ (‘Hörtheater’), as he describes it. The final two works put Ensemble Modern’s famed versatility to the test. Vladimir Gorlinsky’s slightly unconvincing ‘sound performance’ had them screaming into gongs and wandering around the stage investigating a range of different sound sources. In the concluding work, Andreas Eduardo Frank’s How to pronounce Alpha, the ensemble were confronted with quite a complex choreography of arm and hand gestures, all performed with admirable dedication. Complete with beatboxing percussionists and a quirky stage arrangement (all the typical solo instruments were placed in the back row), Frank’s deconstruction of ensemble hierarchies was a witty, entertaining end to the evening.

Click here for the Audience Research version of this post on the Ulysses Network site

* All five participating composers were male.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith at Funkhaus Berlin

I’ve been a fan of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music since first hearing ‘EARS’ last year, her daringly bright and lush exploration of the Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer. This year’s follow-up album, ‘The Kid’, needed a bit more time to grow on me but its colourful innocence and washes of breathy melody have since firmly brought me round.

I was curious to see how Smith would realise this complex album live. Live electronics sets can often feel disappointing to me; the performer remains distant, communication with the crowd sometimes almost seems unwanted. But Smith’s set yesterday evening at Funkhaus Berlin enticed and intrigued.

Silhouetted against the backdrop of a dizzying, skittish video projection, Smith stood side-on, darting rhythmically around her setup, the Buchla Music Easel at its centre. Album opener ‘An Intention’ had an impressive grandeur to it, a slow unfurling to the whole performance. The more upbeat songs ‘A Kid’ and ‘To Follow & Lead’ buzzed and churned with a fresh energy. But the instrumental track ‘Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am’ was where Smith really demonstrated the ethereal beauty of her work. The humming layers were delicately controlled, rising gradually to an ecstatic chorus of tripping rainforest bird samples. Throughout the performance, the video projections made for an intense accompaniment, taking us on a journey from what seemed like the insides of a bubbly dream pop washing machine through to a kaleidoscopic night sky.

As engaging as it was, I would have liked more re-invention around the album material. While it’s certainly a legitimate approach to perform straight through an album, a bit more deviation from the ‘script’ could have unearthed yet more sides to this playful, creative record.

Pierre Boulez Saal: Mönkemeyer & Youn

Last night, I finally made it to Daniel Barenboim’s ‘Prachtbau’ in the centre of Berlin, the new Pierre Boulez Saal. It is one of the few finished projects in the Unter den Linden area, sitting alongside the semi-reopened State Opera house and the still skeletal Berliner Schloss. Inside, the PBS is maybe a little boring visually (why the train company seat covers…?) but acoustically satisfying: warm, direct and intimate.

Nils Mönkemeyer and William Youn interspersed modern/contemporary solo works for viola and piano (from Sciarrino, N. Boulanger, Chin and Pintscher) around a Mozart arrangement and two staple duo sonatas by Schubert and Brahms. While of course most time and attention went to the Romantic and Classical repertoire, Mönkemeyer and Youn really excelled with their contemporary choices and curation. Segueing through Sciarrino and Mozart in the first half, for example, gave the concert a dynamic feel, mixing old and new without being too deliberate or self-conscious about it. Another highlight was Nadia Boulanger’s ‘Vers la Vie nouvelle’ for solo piano in the second half. Youn played it with real crunch and drama, revelling in the piece’s strong contrasts. Unsuk Chin’s manic Piano Etude No. 5 made for an interesting partner to it, continuing on the vivacity the Boulanger work ends with and taking it somewhere else.

True to their understated mission of combining old and new, their encore presented a recent work written for them. The duo played the second movement of Konstantia Gourzi’s ‘Hommage á Mozart’, a dreamy piece with a lilting ostinato in the fortepiano part that remained muted throughout, sounding fragile and distant. A very atmospheric evening in an exciting new space.