Basel Sinfonietta/Michael Wendeberg with Olivier Dabellay at Stadtcasino Basel – Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, Manfred Stahnke’s Trace des sorciers, and Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light

György Ligeti
Hamburgisches Konzert
Manfred Stahnke
Trace des sorciers
Morton Feldman
Coptic Light

Olivier Darbellay (horn)

Basel Sinfonietta
Michael Wendeberg


Reviewed by: Rebekkah Laeuchli

Reviewed: 6 March, 2015
Venue: Stadtcasino Basel, Switzerland

Michael WendebergPhotograph: Isabelle Meister

This programme was guaranteed to make the toes of any twentieth-century music fan curl in delight. The evening kicked off with Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto (1998-99, revised 2003), followed by Trace des sorciers (1997) by Manfred Stahnke and, finally, Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light (1986). Unfortunately the Basel Sinfonietta’s performance, under guest conductor Michael Wendeberg, could best be described as plodding.

Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto is full of delightful and unusual sounds, mixing modern and natural horns in both the solo and the orchestral parts. The piece is split into seven short movements and each one is alive with musical gestures that build up and release tension. Except that here there was no tension and consequently no release. Wendeberg’s method of conducting appears to involve presentation of the material with as little emotional involvement as possible, despite a few deep knee-bends which spoke more to his physical flexibility than any depth of musical engagement. Balance was also notably lacking, with the solo part (performed stiffly by Olivier Darbellay) often swallowed up by the orchestra. There were short moments of joy: the fourth movement, for instance, featured a cascade of crystalline sounds that almost made the whole evening worthwhile.

Manfred Stahnke’s Trace des sorciers was accompanied in the printed programme by a lengthy explanation of the work’s back story, written by Stahnke. Without guide the piece was a loud jumble of sounds, veering between traditionally tonal motifs and microtonal effects. The strings provided occasional bursts of energy and the work’s tendency towards aggressive sounds could have been intriguing if the musicians had been more invested in the meaning of this aggression. As it was they seemed detached.

The biggest disappointment was Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light. Chances to hear Feldman’s pieces are scarce, a pity considering the gloriously colorful trance-like states they can induce. Coptic Light is fairly short by Feldman standards, lasting a mere thirty minutes. For a Feldman-lover the half-hour floats by and this occurred even during this performance. But emotion, whether quiet or energetic, is catching and the lack of such contagion was the chief problem. This performance of Coptic Light failed to bring listener and performer together into a shared musical experience, the performers never seeming to embrace the music.

The Stadtcasino (the largest concert hall in Basel) was barely half-full. If the Basel Sinfonietta wishes to draw-in more listeners for its intriguing presentations of contemporary music, there is a simple question: if the musicians do not engage with the music, why should the audience?

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