Concerts of the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble (the Netherlands)
Interview with a Dutch composer and musicologist Elmer Schönberger
One of the prominent European contemporary music ensembles Asko|Schönberg (the Netherlands) conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw took part at the Festival on April 16 and 17.
The ensemble performed two programs in Baku. The compositions of different ethnic schools were performed in the first concert: “Kammerkonzert” by a Korean-German composer Isang Yun, “Introduziono all'oscuro” by an Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, “Zilver” by a Dutchman Louis Andriessen and a “Son of Chamber Symphony” by an American composer John Adams. The second concert titled "Portrait in the Interior" became a gift-homage to Faradzh Karayev, connected with the ensemble by long-term friendship. In the piece «Hommage á Alexei Lubimov» with the ensemble performed a wonderful singer Farid Mammadov, Baku.
Asko|Schönberg is a creative association, without which the current musical life in Europe is hard to imagine. It positions himself not as an orchestra or an ensemble, but as a flexible team of like-minded musicians which is capable to perform almost any music of XX and XXI centuries in variable membership. Its repertoire spectrum is vast: from Mahler, Schönberg and Milhaud to Ligeti, Reich, Varèse, Xenakis, Van der Aa and many others. A huge number of recorded CDs and DVDs, a lot of concerts around the world, the highest level of professionalism and musical culture rightly earned a reputation as one of the best ensembles-interpreters of contemporary music.
Elmer Schönberger, a famous composer, musicologist, author and a creative advisor of the Ensemble has kindly agreed to answer our questions.
— The arrival of the ensemble of such a level is a rarity for Baku. That is why it is a great responsibility for you also what kind of music you represent here, for it is the "message" which will be listened to very precisely.
— We decided to present a typical current repertoire of the Schönberg Ensemble at the first concert, but the second concert we dedicate to music of Faradzh Karayev. For the first program we selected those conpositions which are especially close to our aesthetics.
— What kind of aesthetic is it?
— The team started working many years ago as the Schönberg Ensemble. We performed all the chamber music of Schönberg and his circle: the New Viennese School and the Expressionists. But over the time, we have formed a vast repertoire that includes a variety of works of the XX century. Now we are called Asko|Schönberg, because we have united with the Asko Ensemble. So we have expanded our repertoire, but the pieces performed on the concert on April 16 was a typical program for the Schönberg Ensemble.
— Are there any certain repertoire criteria in the Ensemble?
— There is only one criterion, if it is a good or a bad music. The main thing is the quality of compositions and their proximity to the aesthetics of our ensemble. For example, the Asko Ensemble played Lachenmann, such a composer whose music the Schönberg Ensemble would never play. It is not because we are opposed to Lachenmann. He is not "our" composer. We will not play Ferneyhough, unless it is a project with another conductor.
— But now Lachenmann and Ferneyhough are very highly rated in the West…
— Yes, it's true, but it seems to me they are overestimated. However, our ensemble is open to everything: we can successfully play any music with the correct choice of a conductor and musicians. There are very good ensembles in Holland which play a lot of Ferneyhough, but if this composer is not very suitable for us, why do we have to play his music? We must always think about how this or that music is close to us.
— What has appeared qualitatively new in your repertoire after merging with Asko?
— Now we play such composers as Xenakis, Stockhausen, etc. that is the music from the previous repertoire of Asko.
— How long have you been united?
— The official uniting was a couple of years ago, but we have long been cooperating. This was quite natural, because our creative ways were often overlapping and there are even musicians who used to play in both ensembles.
— Is this merging somehow connected with the specific repertoire of Schönberg Ensemble or Asko concentrated on one direction, and it became more difficult to meet the needs of the public?
— It is partly so. Although the Schönberg Ensemble alone performs a wide range of new music. A few years ago we recorded a CD with Claude Vivier, performed everything by Ustvolskaya and constantly play Sofia Gubaidulina, Wolfgang Rihm and many others. In principle, this is enough. But I think that our merging is the empowerment both for the public and for musicians.
— The Schönberg Ensemble has not brought a single work of Schönberg to the Festival. Why?
— Of course, we could easily play Schönberg, but we had neither the compelling motivation, nor the insistence of the Festival's organizers. Moreover, we knew that his Piano Concerto would sound on the last day of the Festival.
— Who has formed a program of concerts?
— We did it with our new director Wim Vos with the participation of the conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.
— In the first concert you have presented composers of different national schools.
— t is normal for us to dedicate the concert to one occasion or to one composer. But in Baku we could play only two programs, and we had to choose. The second program has already been dedicated to Faradzh Karayev. His "Es ist genug?.." and "Orchestration of the Tenth Scriabin's Sonata" were specially composed for the Schöenberg Ensemble, so it was natural that they were included into the program. But for the first concert we had to choose something. So, we decided to present composers of different national schools, but equally close to our aesthetics.
Music by Salvatore Sciarrino is very clean and clear. This is the dealing on the border of light and darkness, sound and silence. It is a very esthetic way. All sounds are subtle, refined, and we should make each nuance defined in the score to be heard at the performance. Sciarrino knows exactly what he wants. So one has to play this music precisely. This is not Cage, who often indicates that you can play this way or another.
The Isang Yun style can not be called spectacular. His idea is that the music is organized not so much from the tones and notes, but from the distances between them and transitions. You always find yourself somewhere in "between". And although his style of composing is definitely close to the western one, his concept is very eastern: to capture the moment of transition. His music is like a bird that flies from one branch to another.
I like the piece by Louis Andriessen. It is very strictly organized: it is a strange canon between a quartet (flute, clarinet, violin and cello) and a trio (piano and two vibraphones). Each group has its own tempo and articulation: the quartet has long notes, the trio has short and percussive notes. These are points and lines. The structure of the piece is exactly calibrated and orderly. But it is very theatrical… and multifaceted as an organ prelude.
— Why is it called "Zilver"?
— I think because of the flute, which begins the piece. Or maybe because of the performer (smiles). But if I were asked which color corresponds with this music, I would call either red or brown … may be blue, and surely silver.
— The piece by Adams has a very curious title, "Son of Chamber Symphony". Is it a kind of a parody?
— Not really. There are many allusions in this play ranging from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and then through nearly the entire symphonic music. It's like childhood memories, when you sit at the TV and watch constantly flashing cartoons. Thus the musical movement is such hyperactive and even nervous. The piece by Adams is our musical memory, flickering like cartoon comics. This music has enormous energy; it is very witty and bright, with lots of events.
— I think it is very important that the ensemble of your level performs the new music at the Festival, because the excellent performance has a stronger impact on the audience, rather than mediocre one, it "educates" and better conveys the essence of this art.
— Yes, you're right. I thought that would be the most difficult to understand the play by Sciarrino, because of his sophisticated music.
— The second program is dedicated to Faradzh Karaev. How long do you know each other?
— I met Karaev in Moscow in 1988 and later I asked him to compose a small piece for us. After two or three years there appeared a project in which we decided to present the orchestral versions of Scriabin's compositions. So Faradzh took part in it, having orchestrated the Tenth Sonata.
At that time we began our close cooperation with Russian composers. I organized a festival of Russian music in the Netherlands in 1989. We knew very little about it: a bit of Schnittke, something of Gubaidulina. The names of Ustvolskaya, Korndorf, Knaifel were completely unknown... Soon after the festival music of post-Soviet space composers took an important place in our repertoire. We constantly play works Ustvolskaya, Gubaidulina and Tarnopolsky. We also performed young Moscow composers.
— You played Scriabin Sonata and "Es ist genug" before, and are the other two pieces new for you?
— We also played «Hommage á Alexei Lubimov» before. The piece «…a crumb of music for George Crumb»was performed in the Netherlands by an ensemble of soloists of the Bolshoi Theatre. We learned it specially for the Festival
— What is the music by Faradzh Karayev close to your ensemble for?
— We like the poetry of music and open-mindedness of the composer. Experience of many musical styles and techniques is combined in the compositions of Karayev, he is the type of composers who never go the way once found for all the times. I like theatricality, which is so important for his music.
— You presented a various and complex program on the Festival. Have you thought about how this music would be accepted here in Baku?
— We used to play in Moscow, where the public is more informed. But Baku was for us a terra incognita. We tried to imagine how it would be there… So I was positively surprised when I saw a lot of young people at the concert open to the perception of new art.
Interview prepared by Natalia Surnina, Press Center of the Festival
April 16. «Europe Today»
April 17. «Faradzh Karaev. Portrait In The Interior»