Trio Estatico & Bianca Bongers in Concert

Kristofer G. Skaug – Amstelkerk, April 3rd 2022

What a delightful surprise, to be invited to a concert dedicated entirely to (new) music for three violas! The Dutch composer Bianca Bongers joined forces with the newly formed Trio Estatico to create a very interesting evening in the Amstelkerk (Amsterdam).

The Trio consists of viola players from top-notch European ensembles for contemporary music:  Paul Beckett (Klangforum Wien), Megumi Kasakawa (Ensemble Modern) and John Stulz (Ensemble Intercontemporain), and this was in fact their first live concert (!).

The performance was preceded by an extensive interview with three of the composers contributing to the programme: Jakob Böttcher, Bianca Bongers and Yang Song, discussing their pieces as well as their general approach to writing for the viola, and three violas in particular. The violist John Stulz joined them on stage to note that there was a relative lack of new repertoire for viola trio (Editor’s note: the DVS Catalogue of Viola Ensemble Music currently lists “only” 80 original compositions for this format – vastly outnumbered by viola duos and quartets).

The opening piece was by composer Jakob Böttcher (from Hamburg, Germany), titled  Nebenwirkung (Side Effect). The three players stood in a circle facing outward to the audience. They wore headphones for a click track to synchronize themselves, as the music indeed had a very noticeable fixed pulse, but sometimes considerable rests that could lead to certain drift if left to the players to count out in their heads. Another interesting visible implement was a sheet of paper wrapped around the neck of each viola – for two purposes: to dampen unwanted upper-string harmonics, as well as the evocation of a certain subtle buzz – either of which could be regarded as either main or side effect. Hence the title, I suppose. The music itself featured a texture of brushy transversal bow strokes (up/down along the strings), as well as emphatic up-bow exclamations on the C-string with sudden stops. The unheard beat remained constant, but the periodicity of the played patterns varied throughout the piece.

The composition Micro-moments VII by Arshia Samsaminia (Iran) brought a different technical innovation: A small electronic transmitter – specially designed by the composer for this occasion – was suspended on a string from the scroll of each viola. These transmitters emitted pure sine waves at different frequencies. The violas, in turn, were configured with minuscule (micro) mutual tuning differences. What started as a play on very high and soft flageolet notes gradually increased in harmonic richness as the deeper notes on the violas were explored, giving rise to fascinating complex harmonics, a slow kaleidoscopic transformation (inspiration by – or evocation of – geometric shapes had been mentioned as a common theme among the composers), enriched and reinforced by the electronic tranmitters. For a final statement, the violas converged on the open C-string.

The next piece, Mitte (suitably located in the middle of the programme) was our hostess Bianca Bongers‘ (pictured also in the middle, above) specific musical contribution for this evening. Her background as professionally educated cellist was noticeable here, the violas were used with less unconventional techniques and with perhaps a more directed intention to exploit their characteristic sounds. A calm wavy motion from high to low pitch undulating between the players would be punctuated by more agitated pizzicato ripples. Glissando rising or falling notes with jagged tremolo bowing created interesting diagonal lines into the picture, seeking to either converge toward or diverge from a common centre, a place outlined as a “negative space” that would only be reached with the very final note, where the three voices came softly to rest.

The Slovenian composer Nina Šenk created the piece “…. da kehrte die Ruhe ein… (… and then came peace…)” (version II, 2022) with a texture of minimal oscillations between nearly-equal pitches and tone colours (typically played as 4th – 1st finger pairings across two strings). On this background the violas alternated to sing what sounded to me like fragments of a chorale. In the concluding stretch, the low strings came more prominently in the picture, evoking a rich spectrum of harmonics, with the soft chirping of birds oddly confirming the anticipated peace.

In Masks, the young (London-based) Chinese composer Zhenyan Li conceived of three episodes of what sounded to me like a very lively conversation in a group of three, with some quite engaging topics. The language consists of agitated crescendo up-strokes – some with flageolets – short statements exchanged in rapid succession from three sides. Occasionally a player gets a longer sentence in edgewise, spoken as a more free chat-like cadenza. An extremely long and slow glissando from high to low and then from low to high underlines the final exchanges.

Finally we were treated to a fascinating soundscape in Nomadic Sound by Yang Song, who hails from Inner Mongolia (China). The players distanced themselves from each other to spread the sound in the hall as much as possible. The composer’s intention was to coordinate the players by means of an electronic score with a synchronously moving barline (this can be seen in the video below!), requiring some quite funky technology (mutually time-slaved iPads), and is anyway clearly very challenging for the players (it’s not exactly how musicians are used to being “conducted”). The result was nevertheless very enjoyable, with a rich variety of sound effects: grinding, plucking, sliding, sweeping – it moved so vividly that I was unable to catch any development (if there was any), but it sure made me sit up and listen!

A big thank-you to the three violists and six composers who contributed to this very unusual and interesting concert. Let’s hope this is just a beginning to a wider interest in composing viola trios, and also the start to a well-deserved success for Trio Estatico! I hope this review will inspire more people to attend their future concerts.

Three of the pieces from this concert (Micro-moments VII, Masks, and Nomadic Sounds) can be seen and heard – among many other trio pieces – in a YouTube recording made by Trio Estatico for their premiere online concert earlier this year: