Vivid Contours – Rebecca Saunders at the Lucerne Festival

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In to a statement, a new piano concerto by Rebecca Saunders, the soloist cries out to make her voice heard. Sometimes passing his partially gloved hand over the keyboard, sometimes tapping the keys in dissonant groups, the tension is sometimes difficult to bear. The brass protested several times, followed by snapping strings, only pushing the pianist, Nicolas Hodges, even more into a state of fury.

The work was unveiled at the Lucerne Festival a year later than planned, as part of a residency for Saunders with 12 of his scores. The lakeside event has retained its luster as a first-class destination for contemporary music with admirably few limitations during the pandemic. The Berlin-born composer of British origin has adapted her concerto to 72 musicians, mainly in the string section. The New Contemporary Lucerne Festival Orchestra (LFCO), which joined the festival academy students with alumni, has retained the fluid virtuosity and high energy of years under the baton of Enno Poppe, even if the Culture and Convention Center room was at about half of its capacity.

Enno Poppe conducts the Lucerne Festival Contemporary Orchestra © Manuela Jans / Lucerne Festival

Festival Artistic Director Michael Haefliger praised Saunders’ intensive collaboration with rehearsal musicians and his commitment to “finding” sound. A personality of such strength and integrity, he added, is the key to maintaining the credibility of classical music.

The 53-year-old protégé of festival academy director Wolfgang Rihm was well established in the contemporary music circuit before female songwriter quotas entered discussions about the future of this art form. This fall her music will be performed across Germany as well as in Birmingham, Zurich, Vienna and Den Bosch in the Netherlands, where she has a residency at the November Music Festival.

Saunders’ works emerge through meticulously chosen timbres and a keen sense of sound architecture but also a deconstruction of the boundaries between sound, music and speech. Skin and The mouth, who both received their Swiss premieres at the festival with a morning concert, feature a soprano spitting consonants in restrained hysteria.

The textures often oscillate between violent eruptions and ethereal vibrations, exploiting the possibilities of resonance between the instruments, as well as within the space of the performance hall. The trio Unique (another Swiss premiere) features an accordionist who slowly emerges from the back of the room, complementing the piano and percussion station with an acoustic burst.

Sometimes the sound exploration takes precedence over an irresistible theatrical sense. In to cancel, a concerto for percussion duo and orchestra, the ever-changing textures testify to Saunders’ mastery of ensemble writing as the orchestra transforms into an echo chamber, but the impact is more cerebral than expressive.

The new piano concerto, on the other hand, follows sharp contours. Faithful to the “statement” of the title, the pianist seems at first to mumble in a low voice before gradually unleashing his frustration and triggering a reaction that ricochets between the instrumental sections.

Saunders’ already skillful use of percussion in works such as to cancel and Unique enters a new level of sophistication, with subtle bass drum effects emerging from a very specific notation. The 25-minute work reaches its climax with a cadence-like passage in which Hodges’ daring and anti-virtuoso gestures become more insistent, eliciting a furious response from the entire orchestra.

Nicolas Hodges performed Saunders’ new piano concerto © Manuela Jans / Lucerne Festival

At the end, however, the whole merges into an ethereal roar, the shimmer of the accordion emerging as an almost inaudible but crucial element. Hodges performs with a dramatic physicality that makes explicit the emotional exchange with the orchestra, the result of his close collaboration and long-standing relationship with the composer.

Saunders’ music was juxtaposed with 20th century works that created a sense of continuity with his musical language. From distorted dance gestures in Webern’s Sinfonie No. 21 to fusion fragments in one of Stravinsky’s rare 12-tone works, Movements for piano and orchestra, it seemed for a moment possible to draw the line from 20th century modernism to today’s avant-garde, with its relentless search for new, more complex sounds and structures.

Next year’s program includes a new violin concerto by a more dominant contemporary figure, Thomas Adès, who writes for star soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter. He becomes the fourth British composer to be chosen for the Roche Commissions of the Lucerne Festival since the launch of the program in 2003.

During this time, to a statement arrived at Musikfest Berlin on September 9, performed by LFCO. Further performances are planned this season by the Orchester Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, the Dresdner Philharmonie and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in the hope of presenting the full version as soon as conditions permit.

teatroallascala.org, November 16, 2021; kulturpalast-dresden.de March 26, 2022; Southbankcentre.co.uk March 30, 2022


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