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There is rhythm in everything

Christoph Sietzen. ECHO Rising Star series percussion recital at LSO St Luke’s, 5 January 2018

A wonderful lunchtime concert took place on a sunny, but chilly January day, and was a perfect opening for a year which promises to be full of contemporary classical music. A young Austrian percussionist Christoph Sietzen gave us more than an hour of delights performed on various instruments from percussion session which he seems to have mastered to perfection. Sietzen was nominated as a Rising Star by Luxembourg branch of ECHO, and for this recital was able to commission a new work from Stewart Copeland, a drummer of Police and a renowned composer. The hour passed like a friendly conversation between us and a performer: he was showcasing different pieces which reveal how percussion can sound and what it can do in various musical contexts.

Logically, as if to seduce us with his art, he started with ‘Attraction’ (2007), a piece for marimba by his colleague Emmanuel Séjourné, that reveals a constant struggle a percussionist might feel when trying to abandon his ‘demons of rhythm’ for more relaxed and contemplative passages. This piece gave us a first inclination of what Sietzen could do and made us feel that for him ‘rhythm is everywhere’, and this is indeed he mentioned he feels sometimes even when not playing any instrument. Then he switched to a very intimate and personal one-minute piece by Arvo Pärt ‘Für Anna Maria’ (2006) which Sietzen has chosen from the composer’s work. It sounded like a lullaby, and one could imagine a girl sleepwalking among spring daffodils. Then Sietzen improvised on a snare drum, with the lunchtime concert starting to feel a bit eclectic with this decision. By the way, a bonus of the concert was to find out the names of all those stylish instruments, as Christoph introduced them to us and us to them like in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ book. Sietzen showed that he can produce diffucult rhythmic beats out of virtually every surface. Apart from his snare drum, Sietzen also used two drumsticks only beating on each other, the floor and the base of the snare drum to produce his escalating improvisation, demonstrating to us how rhythm is indeed could be born out of juxtaposition of any object to any another one.

Then Christoph moved to the main part of the concert by present, trying to win our imaginations with longer pieces. Sietzen started this part of the concert by playing a Partita No 2 for Solo Violon transcribed by Sietzen’s colleague Bogdan Bacanu for marimba. Christoph explained that the goal was to introduce classical pieces written for other instruments into marimba’s repertoire, and he demonstrated how lyrical, poetical and almost singing this instrument could become – competing with an imaginary violin indeed. Then the young musician proceeded with playing a piece that was composed for him by Stewart Copeland, and was called ‘A Sheriff of Luxembourg’ (2017). A piece, as the notes suggest, has a jokingly ‘cowboy’ imagery, and has many influences from pop and rock music. The playback was used for Sietzen to counterimpose his percussion solos on a vibraphone, a mirimba, woodblocks, a xylophone and drums, and had the musician alternating them in a frenzied, but very confident manner. He switched the tempi and timbres of the instruments as if he were a magician choosing the right magic wand to do a new trick, which resulted in ‘Sheriff’ ending up a very light and playful piece, notwithstanding all the thunders of its finale.

Then a brand-new piece ‘The Cloth’ (2017) by Ivan Boumans followed which consisted of variations on a Spanish folk song, while the finishing piece was Rebonds A et B (1988) by Iannis Xenakis. This last piece was really special. Christoph explained that here a very complex interweaving of voices is based on mathematical explorations of music undertaken by the composer who had also trained as an architect. There are no melodic lines or suggested visual imagery in this piece which involves drums (A) and then woodblocks and drums (B), but instead constellations of rising and falling rhythms from different drums rise up in front of us like a mosaic of sunbeams or branches of trees. Somehow in my mind an imagery of djenga came to existence, but it felt like Sietzen was first building the wooden house with his stick and rhythms and dissolving it as quickly as he had constructed it. The passage on woodblocks particularly supported this image, as he was running up and down the blocks responding with different pitches like steps on a long and winding ladder. The majority of the audience probably left that concert attracted to percussion as if it were indeed a magic magnet. Talent, energy, youthfulness and enthusiasm of the Austrian performer, as well as the beautiful sunlight streaming from LSO St Luke’s arched windows were undoubtedly essential for this effect.

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