“A world whose inherent fullness, shaped into sound, is driving to get out towards the outside.” This is how Dieter Ammann describes his new orchestral work. Commissioned by the “Oeuvres Suisses” for both the Tonhalle and Bern Symphony orchestras, his work “glut” premiered here in Zurich under Markus Stenz’s baton.

Markus Stenz © Molina Visuals
Markus Stenz
© Molina Visuals
Exploring frontiers in sound hitherto unknown, the work has an energetic and full-of-surprises profile. It features galloping tempi and densely textured sounds. “Even by my standards,” says Ammann, the new work is “characterised by an exceptionally high concentration of events… (not only)… to what is heard simultaneously – that is the vertical – but also to the multitude and complexity of … the great diversity of textures which successively unfold...” To realise that demanding acoustic vision, and because the topography of sound was constantly changing, the “machinery” of the orchestra had to be driven from various angles. Associations ran rampant: even after the first few minutes I heard church bells, buzzing insects, a traffic jam, a few Steve Reich moments, some sheer cacophony, parallel dissonances. The programme notes suggested such might be held together dramaturgically by references both forward and backwards, but also through steady harmonic fields, some of extended duration. 

“Glut” as fervour is also a metaphor for the laborious process of composing: researching for months at a time or “stumbling into areas … unknown to you before”(Ammann). As such, the composer is on a journey as a seeker, while also serving as the creator of what he or she finds. For me, the piece was baseline democratic; each instrument family was equally represented; there were no soloists; every player had a crack at some form of musical dynamite. But since “glut” often contained sounds that were distinctively vulgar and brash, I was hard put to access it by any conventional standard, and stepped up, instead, to another set of rules. I particularly relished this piece for its orchestral bravado. In effect, too, it could be seen as a timepiece: its backbone is unleashed nervous energy −“not a second’s rest” − that clearly reflects our digital age.

Next came Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, commissioned in 1944 by viola player William Primrose − who knew Bartók’s would be a challenge for him to perform − and completed from substantive beginnings in 1949 by Tibor Serly, after sketches Bartók left at the time of his death. Primrose had insisted Bartók disregard “…the apparent technical limitations of the instrument"; and that was precisely the persuasion that the young German virtuoso Nils Mönkemeyer adapted in this performance. From the very first, his was a wholly individual interpretation, free from other performance histories, and marked by what seemed limitless energy. In the Moderato, Stenz took the tempi almost into overdrive, but nothing went lost. He underscored the work’s dissonances and generously used a powerful vibrato to weigh down his sound, masterfully maintaining the treacherous balance between his left and his bow hand. For soloist and orchestra alike, some of the East European folk melodies were drawn out for jolly effect, seemingly squeezed out from a bottle to be expanded 10-fold, and principal soloists − notably oboe, clarinet, flute and horn – shone. But it was Mönkemeyer’s risk-taking and vibrancy that gave us the Bartók as I have never heard it, and only made me want more.

Everybody likes to go home humming on weeknights, so Schumann’s Second Symphony was a fine choice for after the interval. The first movement included a fine brass fanfare, always a stirring event, in contrast to the legato melody of the strings. The uplifting tone of the Scherzo was a cheery and well-paced offer, surprising given the depression and poor health Schumann was suffering at the time he composed it. The third movement’s bronze, soothing melody − first introduced by the strings − was followed by counterpoint that showed the orchestra at its tightest. But it’s in the final movement that the full brass opened the symphony’s heroic hymn, something like a symbol of the rise of the human spirit even over the most abject circumstances.

Stenz has a broad back and a generous shock of white hair that makes him an easy object of rapt attention. Particularly in the Schumann, he zigzagged left to right, stretched forward to appeal to certain players, shuddered, crimped his fingers quickly for more volume, perched every so often on a single foot. Truly a dancer on stage – and typically holding the baton at a vertical angle like an exclamation mark− he always returned elegantly to centre, so there was no sense of deliberately calling attention to himself. Unquestionably, however, his pointed cues and graceful body movements added a telling and appealing visual to a tremendous audio experience.