Sunday 20 June 2021

Still encouraging us to listen in new ways: O/Modernt Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary with a festival live and on-line

Hugo Ticciati and O/Modernt at Confidencen, Ulriksdal Palace, Stockholm
Hugo Ticciati and O/Modernt at Confidencen, Ulriksdal Palace, Stockholm

O/Modernt Festival 2021 at Confidencen, Ulriksdal Palace, Stockholm

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 June 2021
O/Modernt is 10 and celebrated with a festival bringing together old and new in typically (un)familiar ways

This year we celebrate anniversaries for Josquin, Stravinsky and Miles Davies though I suspect few festivals will manage to slip all three into the same programme. It says much about the ethos of Hugo Ticciati's O/Modernt Festival based at the 18th century theatre, Confidencen, at Ulriksdal Palace in Stockholm that for their concert on 15 June 2021 as part of this year's O/Modernt Festival, Ticciati and his orchestra along with jazz pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock created a programme which moved easily between all three composers, beginning with Josquin's Ave Maria .... virgo serena and ending with Simcock's arrangement of selections from Miles Davies' Live-Evil whilst along the way taking in Stravinsky's Three pieces for string quartet and Concerto in D (‘Basle’).

The festival this year ran from 11 to 16 June 2021 and whilst the concerts had a small audience at Confidencen they are also available on-line for 30 days through takt1 and I was able to catch up with a selection of music from the festival. This year is O/Modernt's 10th anniversary and essential Ticciati's programmes for the festival celebrated the festival's ethos which embodies Ticciati's ideas. He feels we need to listen with new ears and that juxtaposing different styles of music, there being no correct style so that for the opening concert we even had a new piece combining the music of Beethoven and David Bowie!

Confidencen, Ulriksdal Palace, Stockholm
Confidencen, Ulriksdal Palace, Stockholm

The opening concert was on 11 June 2021 and titled Inventing the past. The first half was a journey around Bach whilst for the second Beethoven became the focus, though in surprisingly different ways. The ensemble combined the players from O/Modernt with young players from O/Modernt New Generation Artists. We began with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in a vivid performance where it was clear that the players were having a great time. These are modern instruments but very present and full of colours. For the middle movement, just two notes, we had a very 21st century improvisation featuring an electric guitar. 

Then came a new commission from Russian composer Sergey Yevtushenko (born 1957) Bach-Lamento a work for eight cellos and piano (!), lyrical, striking with hints of Rachmaninov. Then, still with the cellos, they were joined by soprano Christina Nilsson for the 'Cantilena' from Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiros No. 5, a smooth soprano line against the strong textures of the cellos to create something rather intense. The first half finished with a work by Norwegian composer Sverre Indris Joner (born 1963) which moved from the 'Aria' from Bach's Goldberg Variations to a more contemporary riff to salsa based on Bach's music, with dances. This latter was intriguing but by the end I wondered whether it was one of the 'you had to be there' moments. The theatre at Confidencen is quite small and you imagine that these performance gain in intensity and vividness when you are there.

The second half opened with Philip Glass' Company his 1983 arrangement for string orchestra of his String Quartet No. 2. We moved via an improvisation straight to the opening movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata arranged by one of the ensemble's violinists, Johannes Marmén (b.1990). This was very atmospheric indeed and rather romantic. We continued in Beethoven, but moved to three arrangements by Marzi Nyman (born 1979), a Finnish guitarist who played with a number of groups such as Nylon Beat and UMO Jazz Orchestra, releasing his first solo album in 2006. As well as arranging the music, Nyman played electric guitar and provided vocals. Moonlight on Mars combined Beethoven's sonata with David Bowie's song Life on Mars, then Anxiety of the Seventh which combined Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 with rock, and then version of Finlandia. These were very O/Modernt, the combination of two apparently diverse musics and creating something which Ticciati wanted you to listen to each anew. Once you got over the surprise, the surprising combinations did indeed work but I have to confess that in Moonlight on Mars I found Nyman's vocals something of an acquired taste.

On Sunday 13 June 2021 came Un/sung heroines which took music by and about women as its theme. For the concert O/Modernt Chamber Orchestra and O/Modernt New Generation Artists were joined by mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini (Swedish of Chilean heritage), cellist Julian Arp, bandoneon player Marcelo Nisman, Leandro Mancini and Filip Korosec percussion. We began with Hildegard von Bingen, Johannes Marmén's arrangement of Vos flores rosarium, a haunting piece which featured Von Bingen's original melody on violin and on bandoneon accompanied by string drones, at once old and new. Next came Alma mia by Maria Grever (1885-1951), the first female Mexican composer to achieve international acclaim and best known for the song What a difference a day makes. Alma mia felt very earthy and Latin American, with jazz-inspired string figurations around Luciana Mancini's husky voice. Finally in this group, the Swedish premiere of Summer Dreams by Latvian composer Arturs Maskats.  (born 1957). This sets poetry by Emily Dickinson, but the combination of Maskats approach to the text with the Luciana Mancini intoning the words against instrumental figurations, and the singer's diction meant that Dickinson's poetry was rather underplayed. Instead this felt like a striking work for strings and percussion which just happened to have vocal part as well. Maskats is a name that was new to me, and on this showing I am definitely intrigued.

The evening's bandoneon player, Marcelo Nisinman (born 1970) contributed Gaia's Tango for cello, bandoneon and strings which was receiving its world premiere. The central section of this did indeed feature a rather striking tango, but the outer sections were in complete contrast with busy, complex music often fast, furious and spiky. The first half finished with another tango, this time by Argentinian composer and singer Eladia Blázquez (1931-2005), Sin Piel arranged by Sverre Indris Joner; a terrific piece, full of real Latin American musical passion.

The second half began in a rather different vein, an arrangement of Frozen River Flows by Bulgarian-born UK-based composer Dobrinka Tabakova (born 1980). This began as a free violin solo and then intriguingly acquired rhythm and structure. This led into two movements from the arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov (b.1955) of Estaciones Portenas by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), his Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Here receiving vivid and vibrant performances, at times completely fearless with some terrific playing of the fearsome violin part by Ticciati. The accompanying string accompaniment was full of strong character and the sense that all the players were in it together.

Two more songs followed. First another terrific Sverre Indris Joner arrangement, this time Maria Lando by Peruvian singer and composer Chabuca Granda (1920-1983), complete with a chorus provided by the players, then the haunting Sephardic lullaby Nani Nani. We finished with Joner's arrangement of 'Yo soy Maria' from Piazzolla's Maria de Buenos  Aires, vivid and all-engrossing. Except this wasn't the end and we finished with Piazzolla's Balada para mi Muerte.

The concerts from the festival are still available on Takt1, and other visitors to the festival this year included composer and viola player Brett Dean and pianist Barry Douglas, plus the premiere of Pēteris Vasks' Violin Concerto No. 2 'In evening light'. Certainly well worth an explore as Ticciati and O/Modernt challenge you to a new way of listening.

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