Talking Heads: Ensemble Resonanz – Justin Caulley

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

These are exciting times for Ensemble Resonanz. Presenting themselves as an ensemble that functions as a group of soloists as well as a chamber orchestra, the Hamburg-based group are Ensemble in Residence at Germany’s flagship new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie. From that base they have established themselves as a wide-reaching musical force, capable of interpreting the music of Haydn as naturally as their latest release with Bryce Dessner, composer and guitarist with The National.

Arcana spoke to one of the ensemble’s lynchpins, viola player Justin Caulley (above), to find out what makes him – and them – tick, and how they achieve their renowned intensity in concert and on record.

As always, we began at the start, and an upbringing that brings both Beethoven and Pearl Jam into the conversation. “I grew up mostly in Kansas”, says Caulley, “and my parents were amateur musicians. My father played piano and a bit of cello, while my mother played the piano. My upbringing was sprinkled with classical CDs that my dad would bring home. I especially remember Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and Beethoven’s Symphony no.9 as well. I got started playing the violin in church, then moved to viola. My dad was the preacher there. I played in student concerts in country churches, but like every kid at the time I listened to a lot of rock and grunge music. I was pretty influenced by mixtapes my cousin would make for me, with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains on them. He was in south Seattle and introduced me to them, as well as bands like Sonic Youth.”

Deciding to pursue music further, Caulley made rapid progress in both his musical attributes and his discoveries. “Having grown up in the United States I was influenced by the idea of crossing genres, or category-less music making. When you grow up in a small town all music is not the same but categories exist as much. Beethoven 9 or Pearl Jam, it’s all there. I was also heavily influenced at the Eastman Rochester School of Music, where I studied. It was there that I first encountered minimal music, and especially quite a few Steve Reich pieces. I was lucky to work with him a couple of times, and with La Monte Young, on the Dream House. We played a version of his String Trio and worked with him on it. This all happened before I came to Europe in 2003, so before Ensemble Resonanz I had a good varied upbringing!”

We move on to discuss the ensemble’s new disc Tenebre, a collection of four pieces by Bryce Dessner. “One of the challenges was to encounter Bryce’s music in the realm outside of categories”, says Caulley, in reference to our earlier points. “He is impossible to put in a box, and the challenge is to approach music with fresh as opposed to tabular thinking. The pieces are great and easy to get to, but each needs its own universe.”

There is a very powerful presence on Aheym, the album’s opening track. Originally written for the Kronos Quartet, it has been expanded by Dessner for the bigger forces of Ensemble Resonanz. “It’s one of those pieces that has such an incredible explosion of ideas and energy”, Justin says enthusiastically. “It’s easy to grab on to. It gets you worked up and very suddenly there is a groove. Some of the changes from section to section in Tenebre itself were astonishing to play, too.”

From previous experience I note Bryce has a really positive presence, softly spoken but fiercely driven. Did that transfer to the recording studio? “I think that’s very well put”, responds Caulley. “Working with him was really nice, and it was interesting to get feedback from him. We were working on this other level outside of the nuts and bolts. What I noticed was this unbelievably broad wisdom outside of the music, in a practiced way but also inside of that practicality there is something bigger going on.”

Dessner was quoted in an interview as being quite taken aback by the intensity of Ensemble Resonanz’s playing, which is surely the ultimate reference for an ensemble. “We were ultimately flattered by that! One of the nice things working with him was us working towards a common goal, our wishes were similar. It was easy to stay intense, with us all in it together.”

Ensemble Resonanz have been recording, too. “I just came from a session of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 with Gianluca Cascioli, conducted by Riccardo Minasi. We also have a great tour of our version of Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio) coming up, with quite a few concert dates before Christmas. After that we continue with our subscription concerts, with some Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya in January.”

He reflects on the opportunity to play in the Elbphilharmonie. “It’s great, really nice!” he enthuses. “It is totally larger than life, and even though we’ve toured most of our lives it’s not every day such a building opens up.” It must be rewarding moving between music by composers such as Haydn, Schoenberg, Eisler and Dessner, as the ensemble do. “It’s crazy, the breadth of stuff that we do. It’s always a great challenge, and the greatest luxury to have so many opportunities.”

There are moments of creative tension, but Caulley sees these as a sign of healthy artistic dialogue. “As in any group there is a dynamic that can have its moments of tension. One thing I’ve learned of value is the idea that any sort of tension can be resolved, and can also be used towards working for a goal. Where I grew up there was no tension at all, and it could get superficial. Now although sometimes tempers can flare the search for some sort of truth is important to people. They don’t want just to smile and nod and say that’s OK. If that’s tough, just lay it on the table!”

Ensemble Resonanz have a monthly club night, about which Caulley is most enthusiastic. “For me that’s one of the most inspiring things we do, and I’m on the planning committee so am heavily invested. We have our own space, and we do what we want. We don’t necessarily do the most crazy things but we can let our imaginations roll and see what’s possible.”

chamber müzik club night // resonanzraum Festival 2018 from Ensemble Resonanz on Vimeo.

Tenebre, the collaboration between Bryce Dessner and the Ensemble Resonanz, is out now – and can be purchased here

You can listen to Tenebre on Spotify below:

To illustrate the contrast in the repertoire the ensemble records, their previous release was Haydn’s Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross):

In concert – Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen: Weimar Berlin – Angels and Demons

Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 26 September 2019

Hindemith Rag Time (well-tempered) (1921)
J.S. Bach arr. Schoenberg Two Chorale Preludes: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV654; Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist BWV667 (1925)
Berg Violin Concerto (1935)
Hindemith Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This year the Philharmonia Orchestra have been exploring the music of Weimar Berlin as it was in the 1920s and 1930s, with fascinating results. Their most recent concert, subtitled Dreams and Demons, may have been relatively short, but it gave plenty of food for thought and the musical rewards were considerable.

A rather older composer who worked in Weimar made himself known throughout the concert, for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was quoted, refracted and alluded to in each of the four pieces on the programme. Firstly we heard the opening notes of the Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, part of an affectionate and brilliantly ‘worded’ joke by Hindemith, whose Ragtime started the concert with a swagger. Esa-Pekka Salonen clearly enjoyed its gruff humour, but found the touches of elegance beneath the surface too.

The Ragtime’s surge to the close in E flat minor blossomed with a cleverly executed join into the first of two Bach chorale prelude arrangements by Schoenberg. Here we wondered at his audacious orchestration, taking on what he saw as ‘the first twelve tone music’ and sharing it around the orchestra with typically inventive pointing towards the melodies. Timothy Walden’s cello probed elegantly at the inner melodic lines of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, while the exuberant close of Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geistdrew heralded the Hindemith work we were about to hear.

Berg’s Violin Concerto quotes from a Bach chorale, Es ist genug (It is enough) at the height of its remembrance of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler. Subtitled To the Memory of An Angel, the work traverses a wide range of emotions in its thought processes, from brief oases of calm to fraught periods of activity. The clarinets of the Philharmonia, in all ranges, were superb, whether in the lighter Ländler theme of the first movement or the solemn chorale itself, their imitation of a pipe organ ghostly and – when the solo violinist’s harmonics were in play – ethereal. This was because soloist Christian Tetzlaff (above) also brought a wide range of sounds to the piece, from the fragility of the opening strings of the start to the surging faster music where he took the music by the scruff of the neck. His was a technically brilliant yet musically sensitive performance, closely joined to Salonen’s deft work with the orchestra.

All the while this wonderful piece was heading for the final bars and the ultimate rest, the sort of chord you would want to go on forever as Berg’s orchestral colours mingle with the highest note the violin reaches in the whole piece. Together Teztlaff and Salonen ensured the pacing was ideal, helped considerably by the light and shade of the Philharmonia’s contribution.

After the interval came a regrettably rare chance to hear some Hindemith in the concert hall in the shape of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, a three-movement work drawn from the opera of the same name. This oft-maligned composer exerts a good deal of influence on the tonal music of the second half of the 20th century, more than he is credited for, and his own works are instantly recognisable. Nor, as Salonen and the Philharmonia illustrated, is there a lack of colour or personality in his orchestral writing.

This was a superb performance of a piece Salonen clearly holds close to his heart, having conducted it at the Proms and recorded it for Sony in 2004. The expectant hush from the strings at the start was magical, the effect like walking into a sacred building, and this was reinforced by a solemn intonation of a chorale from the trombones, those Bach influences coming quickly to the surface. Salonen’s slower tempo here worked well.

The silvery strings enjoyed the moments of confluence in Hindemith’s writing, with the added note chords allowed to breathe, but Salonen was not above letting the grittier parts of the music off the leash, pushing forward through the faster phrases. The Philharmonia woodwind and brass were superb, the bell-like clarity of their playing bolstered by deeper shades. With all these qualities noted, Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert) unfolded beautifully, with a grand sense of ceremony at the end, while in response Grablegung (Entombment) was initially thoughtful, its ruminative woodwind then replaced by a brass-dominated climax which Salonen controlled immaculately.

Most dramatic of all was Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), with a ravishing tone from the Philharmonia strings at the outset. As it progressed the movement had a terrific cut and thrust, its tension released with impressive stature in the closing pages. Mathis der Maler is a wonderful score, one of Hindemith’s finest achievements – and by no means the only peak of his orchestral output. Here it put the seal on a fascinating and immensely rewarding concert, with superb musicianship throughout.

Further listening

You can hear the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Salonen’s account of the Mathis der Maler symphony:

This playlist offers a broader view of Hindemith’s orchestral output, with the ballet suite Nobilissima Visione, the Concert Music for Strings and Brass and the vastly underrated piece for piano and orchestra The Four Temperaments:

BBC Proms: The Brandenburg Project – Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Proms 29 & 30: Soloists, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Prom 29
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major BWV1046
Mark-Anthony Turnage Maya (2014)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major BWV1048
Anders Hillborg Bach Materia (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major BWV1050
Uri Caine Hamsa (2015)

Prom 30
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.4 in G major BWV1049
Olga Neuwirth Aello – ballet mécanomorphe (2017)
Brett Dean Approach – Prelude to a Canon (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.6 in B flat major BWV1051
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major BWV1047
Steven Mackey Triceros (2015)

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 5 August 2018

You can watch this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

If musical authenticity has largely banished J.S. Bach’s Six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV1046-51) from the standard repertoire, then the brace of Proms that constituted The Brandenburg Project enabled near-capacity audiences to experience what was once the foundation of this tradition. This was hardly the large-scale Bach that would once have been a familiar fixture at these concerts, but the playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra – by turns incisive and sensitive – and unfailingly astute direction of Thomas Dausgaard served these pieces well.

A quirky collection this is too. Uncertain as to its date (Bach’s promotional autograph to the Margrave of Brandenburg dates from 1721 but the music was likely in existence up to a decade earlier) and hardly constituting a logical or systematic key sequence (being in F, F, G, G, D and B flat respectively), it positively invites juxtaposition with works either akin in genre or inspired by their specific precedent. It was this latter factor which underlies the present project, with six diverse composers commissioned to write a piece inspired by the Brandenburg in question.

The Brandenburg Project – 1

With its relatively expansive four-movement structure and its virtuosic use of a (then) sizable complement of wind and strings, the First Concerto anticipates the Concerto for Orchestra of two centuries hence. Dausgaard secured a suitably forthright response, not least in the diverse ‘quodlibet’ that is the finale; the SCO then providing eloquent support for cellist Maya Beiser in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Maya. Although the least ‘connected’ to its Brandenburg in terms of concept and follow-through, this was an impressive showing for its soloist’s long -limbed phrasing and mellifluous tone – even if its two halves witnessed relatively little sense of expressive contrast or intensification. The fact that Turnage completed his contribution so far in advance of the project’s taking place suggests his response as being a generalized one.

Long the most famous (rather, immediately recognizable) of the set, the Third Concerto is a blueprint for the Concerto for Strings beloved of the high Baroque era. The SCO relished the robust and incisive contrapuntal interplay of its outer movements; the (deliberately?) absent slow movement being provided on this occasion by Anders Hillborg, who then drew upon its plaintive understatement in the slow section of his Bach Materia. With its prelude of anticipatory tuning, headlong workout between violin and double-bass in its scherzo, then a finale whose interaction of soloist and ensemble was as much vocal as instrumental, it was a showcase for ‘improvising violinist’ Pekka Kuusisto as communicated readily to the audience, even if its attractions (not for the first time in Hillborg) seemed to lie primarily on the surface.

Whether or not the first Concerto for Keyboard, the Fifth Concerto is an intriguing take on that nascent genre; its elaborate harpsichord part scintillating in Mahan Esfahani‘s rendition (not least the headlong ‘cadenza’ passage), with the more circumspect contributions of flute and violin no less appealingly taken by Fiona Kelly and Antje Weithaas. They remained in their respective roles for Uri Caine’s Hamsa, joined by the composer on piano for a piece whose ominous-sounding title is no more than the Arabic for ‘five’. What ensued was an object lesson in composing-out an already elaborate structure and it was hardly Caine’s fault if, at the end of a lengthy programme, this piece outstayed its welcome. Certainly, his attentive pianism and formal finesse would have held one’s attention in any other context.

The Brandenburg Project – 2

With its dextrous and, in the elevated central Andante, plangent interplay of violin and two recorders (the preferred option for those mythical ‘fiauti d’echo’ so designated by Bach), the Fourth Concerto is perhaps the most immediately attractive of these works; despatched with relish and not a little pathos by Kuusisto in partnership with Per Gross and Katarina Widell. As part of her response, Olga Neuwirth pointedly eschewed Double or even Triple Concerto connotations for a single flute as heard against an ensemble with two obligato trumpets and portable typewriter as part of the continuo. This, along with judicious use of tuning systems, gave her ‘ballet mécanomorphe’ which is Aello (2017 – the title that of a retributive Harpy) an insubstantial and capricious aura not without its more ominous and suspenseful qualities.

That the final two instalments segued directly between Brandenburg and commission was not their least fascination. In his Prelude – Approach to a Canon, Brett Dean came up with a methodical extemporisation where he and fellow violist Tabea Zimmermann pursued a fine line in ‘call and response’ with the ensemble; motifs from the Sixth Concerto being variously evoked and denied prior to a rhetorical lead-in to the Bach such as Schnittke might well have relished. With its scoring for low strings and its accordingly dark sonorities, this is the most intriguing of the Brandenburg’s – a Concerto for (or at least predicating) Two Violas whose intricately polyphonic opening movement makes way for winsome elegance in the Adagio then gallant buoyancy in the finale. Qualities to the fore in this most probing of accounts.

The segue was in the opposite direction for the final pairing, with the Second Concerto a putative Sinfonia Concertante whose modest dimensions belie the plethora of timbres and textures derived from its solo quartet. Kelly and Weithaas were partnered by oboist Mårten Larsson and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, their overt élan during the outer movements complemented by their wistful poise in the Andante. A sustained note from trumpet duly provided a link into Triceros  Steven Mackey’s typically resourceful response that deploys ‘family’ instruments (piccolo/alto flute, cor anglais and flugelhorn/piccolo trumpet) in music whose ingenious variations on Bach motifs readily evoke the title’s ‘three-horned chameleon’ through to a heady culmination then full-circle resumption of that trumpet note.

Maybe it would have been preferable to hear this latter trilogy in the published order (2-4-6), or at least end with the Sixth Concerto so that Bach’s music could have framed proceedings. Even so this was a fascinating and engrossing project, judiciously conceived and unfailingly well executed, such as confirmed both the intrinsic greatness of the Brandenburg Concertos and their continued relevance three centuries on. Might a similar Proms project be considered utilizing Bach’s Four Orchestral Suites or Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi? Let us hope so.

On record: IN-IS: Seven Days (BDi Music Ltd)

in-is

Summary

Sheridan Tongue has always written music for others. In the course of writing music for film, TV and adverts he has earned himself a number of plaudits, not least a BAFTA nomination for Best Original Music on the acclaimed BBC drama Spooks. His work with Robert Plant, Blur and Beverley Knight – among many others – has given him pop sensibilities to go with his prowess as an arranger and orchestrator.

Seven Days has a personal story, though the listener is invited to discover it for themselves. On his blog Tongue indicates how it hit him during the recording session that he was finally making music for himself.

What’s the music like?

Extremely well crafted, and shot through with deep feeling. Tongue’s writing for strings produces some beautiful sounds and chords, but crucially he has the melodies to go with them too.

Scarlette In Love is a good example, with its richly toned cello solo, sounding more than a little like an ITV drama theme – Broadchurch, perhaps, while the opening title track is brilliantly constructed, working a memorable and subtly powerful loop to mesmeric effect with resonant violins. The closing Chorale Wo Soll Ich Fliehen Hin is an eerie update of Bach to muted string orchestra, extending its cold and icy tendrils around a melancholy line for violas.

The mood of Seven Days is essentially one of contemplation, but Tongue adds the light and shade of personal experience to create something much more meaningful.

Does it all work?

Yes. The voice of experience works well here, and although Seven Days is a relatively short listen it is a beautifully written and executed piece of work.

Is it recommended?

Yes. There are a lot of composers writing in this form, which reflects just how popular music for small orchestra or strings can be, with or without classical influences. Seven Days falls squarely between the two forms, and Sheridan Tongue’s craft, application and melodic gifts ensure he is up there with the best writers in his field.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

Wigmore Mondays – Beatrice Rana: Bach Goldberg Variations

beatrice-rana

Beatrice Rana (photo Marie Staggat)

J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV988

johann_sebastian_bach
J.S. Bach (1658-1750)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The famous Canadian pianist Glenn Gould made his first, famed recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the age of 23. Beatrice Rana has just completed hers at the very same age, as BBC Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch informed us just before this Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert began. Of course the interpretations would be wildly different, but there was plenty here to suggest Rana is going to be a wonderful pianist for many years to come.

She decided to use Bach’s marked repeats, a move that stretched the piece to 75 minutes and caused the BBC to extend their traditional hour – a move in favour of their Radio 3 New Generation Artists that suggests they too know exactly what she’s about.

Rana took her time with the opening Aria, setting the scene perfectly (from 1:49 on the broadcast link above). Bach’s timeless writing made the greatest possible impact because of this, in music of great, profound meaning, and whenever textures filled up later on there was always the knowledge this sublime music would return to wrap things up at the end.

Not that Rana gave us anything other than clarity, definition and musicality. Only once was her rhythmic profile noticeably challenged, as she took a while to get a definitive pulse for the seventh variation, a gigue, but elsewhere she was white hot, fingers skating over the keyboard in the toccata variations. In the slow variations she gave the music plenty of time to breathe, investing deep emotion into the minor-key sarabande (from 32:57) and similarly pained variation 25 (from 55:07) She also used helpful silences to signpost the music and give both her and the audience chance to take a breath and digest the music a bit, wondering at this great music.

On this evidence, her forthcoming disc of the Goldberg Variations for Warner Classics should be snapped up, and future concerts followed closely. She certainly did Bach full justice here.

Further listening

You can watch Beatrice in the opening bars of the Goldberg Variations, recorded last year:

…or you can take in Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldbergs below:

Meanwhile if it’s more Bach that you fancy, this Glenn Gould album gives you access to the amazing world of the Italian Concerto, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor and the Partitas for keyboard: