A week of enchantment – reflections on Gaia Music Festival Oberhofen 2023

Posted on May 30th, 2023 by

A week of enchantment -at GAIA 2023 Musikfestival am Thunersee, in Thun und Bern

Musicians in the Green Room. Concentration before going onstage to play Garth Knox’s wonderful ‘The Weavers Grave’ here in Oberhofen. Abigail Kralik, Patrick Moriarty and Martin Moriarty at the opening night of Gwendolyn Masin’s inspired Gaia Festival

I’m not someone who is naturally drawn to festival-style music-making. I think that I understand audiences’ excitement, and interest, in seeing accomplished players getting together for performances of the ‘big’ chamber pieces, I nearly always feel that there is something missing: Time.

I had got to know the violinist Gwendolyn Masin during the Covid lockdowns. A mutual friend put us in touch, and then we collaborated on dozens of sessions for her extraordinary online forum, ‘The Exhale’. And we took huge amounts of time over these; for example, working through the whole cycle of Rodolphe Kreutzer Caprices, analysing the technical and stylistic minutiae, discussing the storytelling.  So, when Gwendolyn invited me to take part in her festival by Lake Thun, I knew that there would be time, that it could be an opportunity to work in the detail that I love – as it was, is, clearly as important to her.

And so, it proved. I found myself in a delightful little apartment overlooking the village of Oberhofen, and the lake, which I was sharing with the great violist/composer, Garth Knox, who I have known for many years, but not collaborated with since I was in my twenties. Each morning, I walked three minutes down the hill, under the watchful gaze of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, to the 17th century cloister where the group of artists Gwendolyn had gathered met each day to work, to talk, and to eat.

From my desk on Lake Thun, in between rehearsals for Gaia Music Festival 2023

My wife, Malene and I have often talked about the thing which every artist longs for. We call it the ‘perfect haven’: it is of course the thing which the creative person needs, craves, the most, a quiet place to think, to make, to get some work done. It sounds very simple, but it is hard to get right: Nicolo Paganini long planned his ‘Villa Gaione’, a place in the countryside where he could live with dear friends, play Beethoven quartets, and eat food prepared according to his mother’s recipes, which he had collected.

Bassist Lars Schaper. Schoss Oberhofen 7 5 23

On the first morning after I arrived, and walked down the hill, with all the birds singing and wildflowers blooming into the extraordinary, layered, ‘Klosterli’ building, it felt as if I had found that place! The heart of the building was the high vaulted room where we gathered to eat together, talk till late into the night after concerts and to rehearse. Extraordinary, fresh food was on offer, prepared by Marie-Monique and Frank Mantovani, who worked out, very fast, I will do anything if some one hands me an egg in the morning, and coffee, of course! T

For this musician, the memory of a project like this can consist of a series of vignettes – all on different scales, from the smallest – a technical detail – to the grandeur of the landscape which was all around us. Here are a few.

Finding the drama, the story in a piece of music: this is where Gwendolyn Masin comes into her own, in addition to the brilliance of her playing. The very first piece we played together, was the extraordinary Boccherini Quintet ‘La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid’. In some ways this is one of the simplest pieces of chamber music in the canon. It functions like a late-medieval tableau-theatre. First there are bells, then a drummer, then an 18th century pop-song, prayers, more bells … you get the picture. And Gwendolyn sought out, as she always seeks, that sweet spot, the equilibrium, between technique, and dramaturgy, from the profound to the comic, which can quite literally enter-tain (hold-between) an audience, draw them, so that they can become part of, creators all, the music, being made, in the present, now. The theatre and imagination she generated around this piece, is the essence of the festival she imagines and builds.

This sense of storytelling was curated, if you like, by the presence of Garth Knox, a magician of the viola, who uses his instruments to weave magic spells, enchantments and tall tales. Along with three young musicians, violinist Abigel Kralik and the brilliantly talented brothers, Patrick and Martin Moriarty, I found myself swept into the timeless narrative of his music-drama, ‘The Weaver’s Grave’. Garth and I have a lot of music in common (courtesy of each having played enormous amounts of modern quartet repertoire): so, when his score demanded that the two violins produce a sound marked ‘quack’, I knew exactly what he meant – the very particular ‘behind the bridge’ effect that can be found in Iannis Xenakis’ quartet writing (‘Quack’ is the shorthand ‘Xenakis players’ use!). However, I realised that Garth is unafraid to release such effects from the somewhat suspended, provisional, world of a lot of contemporary-music chamber music, which could be said to be analog to the cool ‘white cube’ of a thousand art galleries, and use them to tell stories,  in this case, to make the sound of a shovel scratching a coffin-lid – and for it to be at once, funny, really funny, and disturbing. And the audience loved it, was entranced, ensorcelled by his bardic narrative.

From where I sit- rehearsing quintets with the great Garth Knox here next to Lake Thun

For, underpinning all of this was Gwendolyn’s foundation for this year’s festival, the notion of ‘folk- ‘, in so many manifestations. And this was where she offered me a chance to play a grotesquely underrated, misunderstood work, by one of the greatest, and most neglected composers of the 20th Century, Frank Martin. I don’t mind admitting, that I am a lifelong fan, a fan, of this Swiss composer. I regard his ‘Etudes’ for String Orchestra, ‘Polyptyque’ for violin and strings, ‘Petite Symphonie Concertante’, ‘Ballade’ for Flute (in the version with piano), ‘Sonata da Chiesa’ for Viola d’amore, ‘String Quartet’, ‘Violin concerto,’ and more, as some of the greatest works for their respective media.

But Martin’s solitary ‘Piano Trio’, perhaps looked, looks most to the future. It is based on, no, constructed of a weave of themes and motifs from Irish folk music. And the genius of what Martin has done with the material, is that, as much as possible, he stayed out of the equation. Today, I suspect that someone might opine that he curated, rather than composed the piece. Amongst living composers, I would say that this approach (and it is the only time the Martin did it), is closest to the work of Michael Finnissy, and amongst the dead, Charles Ives (whose work Martin would barely have known) – indeed Ives’ own Piano Trio occupies very similar territory to Martin’s. Working with the extraordinary colleagues  pianist Caspar Vos, and cellist Patrick Moriarty, we gradually realised that Martin’s compositional hand was most apparent in the way that material was cut, montaged, elided, morphed, from one source, one environment to another. In this particular, our assaying of the elements of the piece, to find our route through it, felt most similar to the notional ‘composer’s workshop’, about which I have written far too much in the past!

Which brings me to detail. I am neurotic about the smallest elements of string playing: what Gwendolyn’s festival offered was a chance to share, compare, offset my fascinations and creative technical concerns with differently minded, collaborative colleagues-now-friends. A couple of examples.

Gwendolyn Masin and Martin Moriarty, Oberhofen May 2023

Antonín Dvorák’s wonderful ‘String Sextet’ is a work that I had not performed for over twenty years. If I am honest, I was never happy with the performances that I gave in the past; I had never managed to get the piece to gel in the way that I had experienced with the sextets of Brahms, Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky, Panufnik and Frank Bridge. Honesty, most of this was due to a lack of attention on my part. But it equally it had to do with collaboration. At the heart of chamber music playing is the to and fro between agreement and disagreement, the counterpoint of not-quite-like-minded creative musicians. So, it was an honour, a learning experience, to sit next to the extraordinary violinist Abigel Kralik, who is constantly alive to the interweave, the consonance and dissonance, between musical-technical agreement and obduracy. Do you trust the person enough that you are sitting with enough, that you can say, albeit in music – yes, I see what you are doing, but how about this?  – and for such interchanges to flash back and forth multiple times within a few seconds, and to be about something as simple as ‘what bow does this phrase begin on?’, or ‘how do we protect the harmony of this F sharp major phrase?’. Chamber music where everyone agrees the whole time, is as uninteresting, as uninteresting as painting where everything matches. It’s Matisse’ Woman with Green Stripe or the tiny, solitary elephant in JMW Turner’s Hannibal Crossing the Alps that gets me every time. And, I think, in the creative offsets, agreements, discursive arguments, loyalties made and broken, in exploration and then performance, that made this Dvorak Sextet something special. Here we had the chance to exchange large and small musical and technical ideas, possibilities, to make music out of this discussion, these acceptances, rejections, fracturings and fusings, and for this, I am grateful to Markus Fleck, Garth Knox, Patrick Moriarty, Anton Spronk, and my fellow-fiddler, Abigel.

And one more detail. One of the big discussions that Gwendolyn and I had, while she was planning the festival, was about Shostakovich – most particularly, his 2nd Piano Trio. Late  in 2022, she told me that she hoped that I would play it, and I was hesitant. Very hesitant. But why? She certainly wanted to know. Well, there were two reasons. Firstly, I am intimidated by one performance, which I have known all my life, recorded by the composer, the Czech cellist, Miloš Sádlo, and David Oistrakh in Prague in 1947. Hunt it out, and you will hear why! It’s one of the reasons, that, up till know, having played most of Shostakovich’s chamber music, I have avoided this piece. And secondly, I was worried about the very thing which had almost made me miss the chance to talk part in this wonderful festival. Put simply, this is a piece which gets performed regularly, and in one very particularly manner, by pick-up groups at music festivals. The results, and there are some happy exceptions, are a long way from the fantastically repressed Shostakovich that I admire. My dear friend, the composer George Rochberg described spending time with him when he visited the Curtis Institute. Naturally, Shostakovich was surrounded by his KGB minders, but on top of that, George noted that he also sought to send up an impenetrable wall of smoke around himself, to cut himself off from the world:

‘You know, he used would tuck himself under the stairs in the stair well, so there was even less chance to get to him – that was the very essence of his music.’

But Gwendolyn prevailed and I found myself digging deep into the piece, with the brilliant Caspar Vos, and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich – our first meeting, though I have admired his playing for years. There’s too much to tell, except to focus in on one (of many) detail; the question of sounding-point. For string players, the placement of bow, the relationship between sound and scratch in the note, relative bow speeds between players, and so on, these are all lifelong fascinations. To my delight Leonard was/is as fascinated with the minutiae of this, the drama of control, as I am. I learnt so much from the to and fro of technical questions, in the real-time of rehearsal and performance,  and the discussion, between all three of us as to how much we could keep the piece ‘held-in’, bottled-up, the Shostakovich I admire, to be honest.  And as we played the final E Major pizzicato chord, at the Menuhin Forum, Bern, we had a sneaking suspicion, that we had got some way along the path, and I was grateful to Gwendolyn, and to everyone I worked and played with, (those mentioned and Jiska Lambrecht, Sandro Meszaros, Lars Schaper, and Fabio Di Càsola). for the chance to take some time by Lake Thun to explore what it is we do!



From my desk, Oberhofen