The Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra and its chief conductor Kent Nagano open the digital music festival with what is probably the best-known symphony in the classical music repertoire: »This is fate knocking on the door«, Beethoven is believed to have said about the famous »knocking motif« in his Fifth Symphony. The Hamburg-based orchestra precedes this monumental hit from the early 19th century with the premiere of a work by Swiss composer William Blank: for his triple concerto »Alisma«, three outstanding soloists return to the Elbphilharmonie – Viennese clarinettist Daniel Ottensamer and the congenial duo of cellist Jan Vogler and violinist Mira Wang.
Please note: All Hamburg International Music Festival 2021 concerts are available to stream free of charge. Once premiered, each concert stream can be accessed for the whole festival period.
»For me, Beethoven’s music means courage and optimism, vitality and energy, richness and movement.«
An overview of all 2021 festival concerts.
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra
Jan Vogler cello
Mira Wang violin
Daniel Ottensamer clarinet
conductor Kent Nagano
Alisma / Triple Concerto for violin, violoncello, clarinet and orchestra (world premiere)
approx. 25 minutes
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
approx. 40 minutes
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra
About the orchestra
The Philharmonic State Orchestra is the city’s longest-serving orchestra, known to Hamburg audiences not only from its extensive concert programme at the Elbphilharmonie, but also for some 200 opera and ballet performances every year at the Hamburg State Opera. The orchestra has been playing a central role in the city’s musical life for over 190 years: founded as the »Philharmonic Society«, it attracted leading composers like Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann in the 19th century. Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky were among the big names to occupy the conductor’s rostrum.
After it gave the inaugural concert to open Hamburg’s famous Laeiszhalle in 1908, the orchestra was moulded in the 20th century by such music directors as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Gerd Albrecht and Ingo Metzmacher. Summer 2015 saw Kent Nagano take up the post of the orchestra’s principal conductor, becoming Hamburg’s General Director of Music at the same time. In addition to continuing the traditional Philharmonic Concerts, the celebrated American conductor initiated an experimental new concert series, the »Philharmonic Academy«, supplemented by another new format entitled »Music and Science« in cooperation with the Max Planck Society.
Parallel to their work at the opera house and at the Elbphilharmonie, the members of the orchestra are also involved in music education, delighting their young audience with visits to kindergartens and schools, family concerts and introductions to music for children.
Kent Nagano – Conductor
About Kent Nagano
German weekly paper Die Zeit has called him »an unassuming star among today’s conductors«: Kent Nagano is one of the outstanding personalities on the international music scene. The Californian native with Japanese roots has made a name for himself as an expert on the big orchestral works of the 20th century. He has been Hamburg’s General Director of Music and principal conductor of the Philharmonic State Orchestra since 2015 – two positions where he shows once more that he not only belongs on the world’s top concert stages, but is also an excellent opera conductor. With his visionary understanding of sound, the winner of several Grammy awards has expanded the Hamburg orchestra’s already wide stylistic range even further.
Kent Nagano holds the position of honorary conductor with several major orchestras, among them Concerto Köln, the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and, since spring 2021, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, which he was previously in charge of for 14 years. During this time he was also chief conductor of the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and then, from 2006 to 2013, music director of the Bavarian State Opera. Among the highlights of his last few seasons in Hamburg were performances of Alban Berg’s »Lulu« and George Benjamin’s »Lessons in Love and Violence«, as well as several acclaimed premieres such as Toshio Hosokawa’s opera »Stilles Meer« and Jörg Widmann’s oratorio »Arche«, which he conducted at the opening ceremony of the Elbphilharmonie in January 2017.
Jan Vogler – Violoncello
About Jan Vogler
The New York Times admires the »lyrical sensitivity« of his cello playing, Gramophone magazine praises his »dizzying virtuosity«, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung finds he has the gift from »making his cello speak as if it were a human voice«. German cellist Jan Vogler is one of today’s outstanding talents on his instrument. As a soloist, he appears with leading orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. With a technique that is truly exceptional, he has explored the limits of cello sound anew, repeatedly attracting the attention of contemporary composers. Several of modern music's new thinkers have written works for him, among them Jörg Widmann and Wolfgang Rihm; the latter dedicated a double concerto to Vogler and his wife Mira Wang.
In addition to his concert activities, Jan Vogler has cooperated with actor Bill Murray to develop a successful musical/literary project entitled »Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends – New Worlds«, which was performed to an enthusiastic audience at the Elbphilharmonie in 2017. Vogler has been in charge of the renowned Dresden Festival of Music since 2008, and has been artistic director of the Moritzburg Festival for 20 years now. A musician through and through, the cellist has had awards showered upon him, among them the European Music Prize and the Erich Kästner Prize for Tolerance, Humanity and International Understanding.
Jan Vogler plays the Stradivarius cello »Castelbarco/Fau« dating from 1707.
Mira Wang – Violin
About Mira Wang
Born in China, violinist Mira Wang won numerous prizes and played her way on to the world’s top concert platforms following her studies with the legendary Roman Totenberg. Her early successes included winning first prize at the important violin competitions in Geneva and New Zealand. Since then, such major orchestras have invited her to appear with them as the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. She is also in demand as a chamber musician, collaborating with well-known artists that include her husband, the cellist Jan Vogler. The successful musician couple has garnered great praise from the international critics – »supple, elegant, brilliant« was the headline over the review of their recording of the Brahms Double Concerto in the magazine »The Strad«. Among the highlights of Wang’s concert career have been the first performance of Chen Yi’s violin concerto »Spring in Dresden«, in which she was accompanied by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Ivan Fisher, as well as her appearances as a guest soloist with the American Symphony Orchestra, performing »Chain 2« by Witold Lutoslawski among other works. Her most important CD recordings include the Saint-Saëns violin concertos with the NDR Radio Philharmonie, and the Prokofiev violin concertos, which she recorded together with the Deutsche Radiophilharmonie Saarbrücken.
Parallel to her own concert work, the New York-based violinist is also involved in music education, and has been running the Moritzburg Festival Academy for young musicians since 2014.
Mira Wang plays the violin »Ex-Joachim« made by Antonio Stradivari in 1708.
Daniel Ottensamer – Clarinet
About Daniel Ottensamer
As solo clarinettist of one of the world’s most famous orchestras, Daniel Ottensamer is at home in the leading international concert halls. The young Austrian star joined the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 20, and was promoted to the position of solo clarinettist just three years later. And that wasn’t all: the celebrated orchestra soon placed him centre stage as the soloist in Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, for instance, where he shone, to quote one review, »with immense virtuosity, concise phrasing and a marvellous tone«.
In the meantime, this exceptional young musician is one of the world’s most sought-after clarinettists. As a keen chamber musician, he works with partners like Daniel Barenboim, Julian Rachlin and Thomas Hampson.
The award-winning Ottensamer has also played his way into audiences’ hearts as a founding member of »Philharmonix«, an innovative and entertaining all-star ensemble culled from the ranks of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras which has won several prizes in its own right, such as the Opus Klassik. The seven excellent musicians who make up the ensemble say they play everything that they have always wanted to play – from classical music, jazz and klezmer to pop and swing.
About the music
William Blank: »Alisma« / Triple Concerto
Where triple concertos are concerned, there is no way to avoid Beethoven – after all, he was the first composer to write for this format. Piano trios already existed, likewise solo concertos where one or two soloists are accompanied by an orchestra – but a trio with orchestral accompaniment was new. So it came as no surprise that some of Beethoven’s audience in 1804 was unable to cope with the complexity and density of the Triple Concerto: »Too many passages where all three play at the same time gradually become tiring for the audience and the musicians alike«, one reviewer complained four years later.
Despite its difficult start, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto went on to gain a firm place in the concert repertoire, which it retains to this day. And rightly so, in the opinion of Swiss composer William Blank: »The music is fascinating and Beethoven’s style is quite unique«, he enthuses, adding that that didn’t make it easy for him to tackle the commission to write a triple concerto of his own.
With his work »Alisma«, he picks up the basic idea of a trio with orchestral accompaniment, but substitutes a clarinet for the piano. A look at the score conveys an idea of his unusual and virtuoso use of the different sounds of the three solo instruments. Both the soloists and the members of the orchestra have to switch to and fro between different modern-day playing techniques to produce a lively new sound – »sometimes,« the composer says, »things happen that I hadn’t reckoned with at all«. In the classic concerto model, the soloist and the orchestra engage in a dialogue, but Blank breaks away from this tradition by blending the orchestral sound with that of the trio.
To understand the choice of title, a little botanical knowledge is useful: the alisma is an aquatic plant whose flower consists of three petals – three soloists. In addition, the plant produces six stamens within each flower: Blank structures his composition in three parts, each consisting of six sections. Numerical correspondences aside, the composer also sees the long-stemmed plant as an attractive symbol of his concerto, »with solo parts that seem to float above the orchestra, which in turn supplies them with fertile soil to grow on«.
On Beethoven and Flower Petals
William Blank about his new Triple Concerto »Alisma«
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
»That’s the sound of Fate knocking on the door!« – This sentence was recorded for posterity by Beethoven’s amanuensis and biographer Anton Schindler. And although no one knows on what occasion he picked it up, or whether he may even have invented it himself, it left a lasting mark on our picture of Beethoven and of his Fifth Symphony, which thus became known as the »Fate Symphony«. It fits so well into the image of the grim genius struggling with encroaching deafness who wanted to »grab Fate by the throat«. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking the trouble to scrape off the patina and the pathos and explore with the music and the famous »knocking motif« in more depth.
What really accounts for Beethoven’s genius? The motif made up of three quavers and a semitone is nothing special in itself: Haydn already used it in his Symphony No. 28 in 1765. No, the stroke of genius lay in evolving an entire movement solely from this motif: it can be heard in nearly every one of the 500 bars. Beethoven composed here the way children build things from Lego bricks: he creates the first »melody«, for example, by just stringing together versions of the motif at different pitches. He even uses the opening motif as the accompaniment for the simple countersubject. Only once is the movement’s driving momentum interrupted: just before the end, the oboe takes the opportunity to play a little cadenza. This is the only »round« feature of the rectangular Lego construction. It anticipates the atmosphere of the second movement, which is reminiscent of a gentle stroll with its heartfelt melody.
The third movement treads water for a while. The strings seem restless, searching and questioning. The »answer« is heard in the shape of an angular fanfare whose rhythm refers once again to the »knocking motif«. The middle section is a fugue, and here Beethoven plays a little trick by having the gruff theme in the low strings come to a sudden halt several times, as if the musicians had played a wrong note.
No less brilliant than the opening movement is the transition to the finale. The music fades away to pianissimo, paws at the ground and seems to be just waiting for the right moment to burst out in a radiant fortissimo. It also switches from the dark minor mode to a bright major – something that has turned into one of the most important aesthetic concepts in the western world under the heading »per aspera ad astra« (literally: »though hardship to the stars«). It is no coincidence that the spirited music here has its predecessors in the liberation songs of the French Revolution that struck a chord with Beethoven as an ardent Republican. Beethoven also uses some typical military instruments hitherto unknown in the concert hall as a special effect in reference to this connection. He proudly noted in the score: »The last movement features a piccolo and three trombones – not three timpani, it’s true, but they will make more noise than six timpani, and better noise to boot.«
Text: Clemens Matuschek
Supported by the Kühne Foundation, the Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Stiftung Elbphilharmonie and the Förderkreis Internationales Musikfest Hamburg
Last updated: 26 Apr 2021
Translation: Clive Williams