A quote that lives in my phone’s screenshots: “The truest program note of all time is… ‘This is what I was thinking about and what grew out of that moment of thought.’” Sadly, I saw it presented without attribution and have struggled to find a source since, but it’s one I go back to often—especially writing this column. With dozens, if not hundreds, of new albums released every week, one of the biggest questions I have as a listener is: Why? Why this music, recorded at this time, in this order, by this particular musician? The idea of each album growing out of a moment of thought is one of the most satisfying explanations I’ve found for why many works get recorded over and over again. 

Each album, and also each program. Earlier this week, after a COVID-related delay pushed one year into the next, I represented VAN on the jury for the 2021 Berlin Prize for Young Artists. It’s a competition VAN has curated in partnership with Bank Julius Baer for the last three years (shameless plug: applications are now open for 2022) with a similar challenge posed to emerging musicians: Put together a dream solo program, and prove its worth through both musical talent and curatorial vision. In other words, why this music, at this time, in this order, by this particular musician? 

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While BPFYA is a competition for solo performers, Austrian violist (and one of #BPFYA2021’s two winners) Flora Marlene Geißelbrecht’s program thrived in dialogues with performer and audience, instrument, performance space, and her own body. At times quite literally, as Geißelbrecht’s program flowed between her own original compositions as well as works by Arlene Sierra, Sally Beamish, Giacinto Scelsi, and Rudolf Jungwirth, with viola lines trading off with the soloist’s singing and speaking voice. The result was an effect more convincing than contrived, especially within Geißelbrecht’s own works. Her “Im Schatten verweilen” dwells in the shade with a Second Viennese School atrament, combined with the natural vocal impulses of Arabic maqām. Geißelbrecht’s voice is, like her viola, subtle—another color in her palette to be blended and enhanced, not the vestige of an erstwhile Lulu (although Barbara Hannigan comes to mind in some of the vocal lines, especially in Beamish’s “Buzz”). 

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There’s something otherworldly about seeing all of this come together in the moment. Perhaps it’s because Geißelbrecht’s mane of curls also suggested a young Solveig Dommartin, but her performance felt at times like a lost Wim Wenders film. The unseeable, unnameable elements of the heavens overlap with the earthiness of her vocal and violistic tone, and the two concurrent spheres at times exist in their own dialogue. Jungwirth’s “Phönix,” a commission for the soloist, sneaks up on the listener, creating a cumulative effect that burns like embers. In her strongest composition, the program-closing “Scots&Ire,” Geißelbrecht mirrors the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes with a sense of something vaporizing; like a brokedown Brigadoon, it disappears as night cedes to day. 

“Otherworldly” was a theme for the #BPFYA2021 finalists, continuing into Francesco Palmieri’s set. In pinpointing the moment of thought that grew into his program, the Italian-born guitarist quotes philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Nudities: “The nakedness of pure corporeality, the denudation resulting in pure functionality, a body that lacks all nobility since its ultimate dignity lay in the divine glory now lost.… Naked corporeality, like naked life, is only the obscure and impalpable bearer of guilt. In truth, there is only baring, only the infinite gesticulations that remove clothing and grace from the body.” It was a bit of a heightened experience to remember this quote while sitting through Palmieri’s performance in Berlin’s Villa Elisabeth, the architecture of which reflects the cultural center’s church setting—but what is communion without a little kink

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This inherent contradiction suits the central idea of Palmieri’s program, which is to strip the electric guitar of its outer, impenetrable layer and explore the instrument as a more vulnerable and fragile entity. Hugues Dufourt’s “La Cité des Saules” is at times barely audible, its storytelling heightened by the suspension of noise. In Marco Momi’s “Quattro Nudi,” Palmieri becomes even more persuasively promethean. The work is innately electronic, but there’s something alkaline in Palmieri’s performance. His hands move deliberately, like a panther stalking prey, close to the ground. The balletic motions become even more pronounced in Pierluigi Billone’s “Sgorgo Y,” a piece that—like many of Billone’s works—overstays its welcome, but one that Palmieri navigates with arousing gesticulation and a sense for the composer’s manifold references, from Salvatore Sciarrino to David Lynch. He passes through each of these moments without overindulging, like faces whirring by on a late-night highway. The piece itself needs to keep up; long after Palmieri’s hands have stopped moving, the last chord echoes out from the ether. 

The nocturnal nature the first three programs comes to nest in violinist Eszter Kruchió’s “Controvento — With Headwind.” An arrangement of works by György Kurtág, Kaija Saariaho, Peter Eötvös, and Helena Winkelman break up three of the four movements of Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin. Parsing the composer’s multilingual musical tastes, Kruchió arranges the other pieces as gem settings to her compatriot’s fiendishly difficult sonata. For Kruchió, who was born in Budapest, grew up in Vienna, and now divides her time between there and Hanover, there is also a political element to this plurality of influence: “Why do we still tend to think that outer influences endanger our identity?” she writes. “When do we start to believe that the more open we are, the stronger our individual voice can get?” 

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I wonder, in this line of thinking, how much stronger Bartók’s, Saariaho’s, Kurtág’s, or Eötvös’s voices can get, even in this arrangement—although if I had to start every day by listening to Kruchió play Saariaho’s Nocturne for Solo Violin, I would have zero complaints. But the dialectical nature of Bartók’s Violin Sonata opens it up for annotation and dissection. (It’s tempting to imagine what a Geißelbrecht violin solo would sound like in contrast to the nocturnal nature of Bartók’s opening movement.) Kruchió’s sense of infinite regression—of one reference showing its roots in an earlier work, whose own DNA owes to another work, and so on—is one of her strengths as a curator. Her program could seemingly continue in dialogue with itself, endlessly spinning out new iterations. While there’s an undeniable virtuosity in programming one of the most difficult solo pieces for your instrument in a competition program, Kruchió seems less invested in achievement than she is in development. That spirit of inquiry and intuition comes across in her performance as well, particularly in the final movement of Bartók, in which Kruchió really opened up to show her appetite and zeal in performance, careening and caroming between dynamics. In the final notes, the sense isn’t one of recapping every moment that led up to them, but rather a view of what lies ahead. 

It happens that Billone was at the center of another #BPFYA2021 program, that of Núria Carbó Vives’s “Extended Marimba.” The composer’s “Mani.Matta” is, like Geißelbrecht’s works, a synthesis of performer as instrument and instrument as performer, with Carbó wearing a gong strapped to her chest and at times playing with her hands. Born into the local wind band traditions of her native València and growing up in the region’s youth orchestras, Carbó’s role as a percussionist—especially in classical music—can be traditionally a bit limiting. “You only play a few things, but it’s those few things that you have to do perfectly,” she says. A solo program for percussion is therefore liberating by design, leaving the performer three-quarters of an hour of playtime (in every meaning of the phrase). Carbó made an even more radical decision to focus her program entirely on one percussion instrument, the marimba.

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This still left the stage overflowing with complementary devices, from bass drums to tam tams to thunder sheets, and Carbó moved like a Balanchine dancer between set pieces. Arturo Corrales’s “IDEM” unfurled in balletic battalions between the blasts of a bass and the scattering of marimba notes (which expanded to include 11 woodblocks). It’s like a stripped-down version of Samuel Barber’s “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance,” that muggy foreboding heightened by Corrales’s use of the shepherd’s melody from the final act of Puccini’s “Tosca”—which, like Barber’s work, is the prelude to an execution. 

Before Joy Guidry—the other winner of #BPFYA2021—plays a single note in their program, “Radical Self-Love,” the Houston-born bassoonist grounds the listener in context; holy, rough, and immediate. The intensity of emotion delivered in their story escalates with electronics and theremin, at times the specifics of their early-in-life sexual abuse, their bipolar disorder, and gender identity become drowned out, though the feeling tone of these experiences emerges in the cacophony. It’s a dramaturgical contextualizing for the first piece we actually hear from Guidry as a bassoonist, Lisa E. Harris’s “Joy becomes Light.” Full-throated, both vocally and instrumentally, Guidry’s narration leading into this piece sets up an autobiographical read of Harris’s cathartic work, revealing growth and healing to be non-linear processes that operate in fits and starts. 

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Guidry’s own compositions were, like Geißelbrecht’s, highlights of their program. “2:19 am”—a title that seems to be the spiritual successor of Sarah Kane’s play, “4.48 Psychosis”—sets brain zaps of bassoon lines over a Chantal Akerman-esque film of Guidry experiencing, as they put it, “the darkest moments of living with bipolar disorder and the physical effects it has on my body.” The tactile pull of the notes mirrors the moments in the film in which Guidry tugs at strands of hair, but a shift happens as they begin tender vocalizations—holding their pain as if giving it shelter from the storm. This transitions “Radical Self-Love” from raw anguish into what Sonya Renee Taylor (whose writing provided the program’s title) “a lush and verdant island offering safe harbor for self-esteem and self-confidence.” Central to that island for Guidry is their grandmother, Maudry Richard Davis. In a work of the same name, Guidry plays against a conversation recorded with their Mema, who describes growing up as well as her life in the moment (wine, she advises her grandchild, always tastes better when someone else is pouring it). It’s reminiscent of Nathalie Joachim’s own recordings of her grandmother, which provide the basis for her “Fanm d’Ayiti,” the musical accompaniment extending the intimacy of the conversation and the warmth of the speakers to the audience, inviting them in as active participants and listeners. 

The theme of mental health—a subject that is rooted in dialogue—carried into the final program of the day, performed by Kevin Lee Sun. While working on his MD at Stanford Medical School, Sun (who was born in Sacramento and grew up in “a family of engineers and pediatricians from Communist China”) found himself at a crossroads: Continue into the field of psychiatry, where he had already worked with patients as a student, or pursue his other love, classical piano? One, as it turns out, feeds the other. “The human mind was at once frighteningly flawed and mesmerizingly beautiful to me,” Sun explains. “I realized that my life purpose was not to ‘treat’ the differences or ‘improve function.’ Rather, as an artist now, I seek to compel others towards empathy.” What are Robert Schumann’s piano songs if not the most meticulously-detailed case notes to the composer’s own mental states? 

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Within this framework, Sun’s program also accentuated the folk music idioms that factored into the works he played by Hyo-shin Na, Leoš Janáček, Frederic Rzewski, and Schumann. They serve as wayfinders for the emotional truths, such as the beer-hall irony of Pete Seeger’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” barreling its way into Rzewski’s work of the same name, which Sun tore through with unfiltered frenzy. These mechanics complemented Na’s “Rain Study,” in which lyricism cuts through a stormy humidity like sunlight filtering through a diaphanous curtain, and the brute force and hellish rage of Rzewski resolved into a balm of two selections from Schumann’s “Gesänge der Frühe.” It was a tender, quiet relief that extended past Sun’s program into the other worlds; of Guidry’s “2:19 am,” of Kruchió’s Saariaho and Eötvös, of Geißelbrecht’s nocturnal tangles, as if the entire day of programs grew out of the same moment of thought. ¶

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