DOUBLE TRIPLE KOPPEL
by Esben Tange
Anders Koppel (b. 1947) is to a rare degree a composer of his time. With one foot firmly planted in the classical European musical tradition and the other in world music, rock and jazz, Anders Koppel’s career as a composer can be seen as one long continuous mission to unite these cultures in a contemporary musical idiom. This has resulted in a long succession of original and wide-ranging works, all bearing the mark of his special ability to communicate emotions and energy, powerfully and straightforwardly, between musicians and audience.
As a son of the composer and pianist Herman D. Koppel (1908-98) Anders Koppel grew up in a musical milieu; in his childhood and early youth he played piano and clarinet and at an early stage became thoroughly familiar with score-reading and instrumentation. At the same time Anders Koppel played an active part in the musical experiments that were part of the youth revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In the years 1967-74, as an organist and lyricist, he was one of the mainstays of the rock group Savage Rose, which was among the most prominent, innovative bands on the Danish rock scene. After Anders Koppel left Savage Rose in 1974 he has increasingly immersed himself in the creation of contemporary composition music.
Alongside his work as a composer Anders Koppel has been an active musician in among other contexts the group Bazaar, which for about 35 years has cultivated a unique idiom combining improvisation, Balkan music and Anders Koppel’s own compositions. Since 1996 he has also played with his son, the saxophonist Benjamin Koppel, in among other ensembles Koppel & Son as well as having formed a duo with the American pianist and composer Kenny Werner. His experiences as a performing artist are constantly reminding Anders Koppel of the importance of making the music relevant to the public, and this has resulted in distinctive music that is outward-looking and captivating. Rather than cultivating a particular compositional technique, Anders Koppel’s music often has an undogmatically flowing character based on a classical view of tonality and on the natural expression of the individual instrument. In addition, Anders Koppel has composed music for around 200 films, plays and ballets. This has helped to hone his musical vocabulary, which besides the classical forms also involves a familiarity with and love of Latin American styles like tango, samba and Cuban music.
These influences can already be heard in his debut work for a classical ensemble: a piano quintet from 1982, which includes a tango. His true breakthrough as a composer of concert music followed in 1990 with Toccata for Vibraphone and Marimba, which is virtuoso, technically challenging music alternating with dreamlike passages of enchanting beauty. Here Anders Koppel has found a style of his own that gives the musicians the opportunity to create a performance of the highest standard that also appeals directly to the audience. Anders Koppel has later sublimated these qualities in a long series of concertos for soloist and orchestra where the direct identification with the soloist is often given an extra imaginative dimension, since he has been able to associate both intimate human feelings and supernatural power and passion with the central instrumentalist.
Among the concertos, those for marimba and orchestra – four in all (Dacapo 6.220595) –play a special role. With Concerto no. 1 for Marimba and Orchestra (1995) Anders Koppel already inscribed himself in the canon of marimba literature when, with its virtuoso interplay between the mercurial marimba and an impresssive-sounding classical symphony orchestra, he created a concerto which is today indispensable for young soloistically talented percussionists, and which has been performed more than 300 times. And in Concerto no. 4 for Marimba and Orchestra (2005), written to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart with the subtitle “In memory of things transient”, Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, among other things, has been woven into the virtuoso marimba part. This Turkish-inspired piece by Mozart is particularly well chosen, since it testifies to Anders Koppel’s strong belief that music – and our culture as such – is fertilized by the encounter between different traditions.
Anders Koppel’s ability to penetrate to the inner nature of the individual instrument and find new modes of expression that break down habitual notions has led to a number of concertos for instruments that are rarely allowed to perform as soloists. This is the case for example in Variations for Bass Trombone and Orchestra (1997), Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (2003), the accordion work Concerto Piccolo (2009) and most recently in Concerto for Aluphone and Orchestra (2013), where Anders Koppel has been the first composer to explore some of the rich sonorities to be found in the interaction of the bell-like aluphone and the symphony orchestra. The latest offshoot from the stem of solo concertos are a flute concerto, Andorinha (The Swallow), the Concerto for Violin, Saxophone and Orchestra given its first performance by the Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo and Koppel’s son Benjamin at Musikkens Hus in Aalborg in the autumn of 2014, and a bassoon concerto, commissioned on the occasion of Carl Nielsen’s 150th anniversary in 2015.
The saxophone is the solo instrument for which Anders Koppel has most frequently composed concertos. Because of its unusually wide timbral and dynamic range the saxophone is ideal as a vehicle for Anders Koppel’s expansive musical language. The saxophone’s sound can be modulated from the peak of refinement and transparency to the directly aggressive and raw. Both extremes are represented in Anders Koppel’s musical aesthetics. And just as the saxophone has a special ability to move freely between the classical and the rhythmic traditions, Anders Koppel is able to find new musical paths in the encounter between the traditional genres.
Another important explanation of the saxophone’s prominent place in the series of works is the close artistic collaboration the composer has with his son Benjamin Koppel, who is one of the most wide-ranging saxophonists of his time, and who has an unusual ability to switch between virtuoso passages in tightly composed progressions and original, fantasizing improvisations. These very qualities are much in evidence in among other works the Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra (1992), Concert no. 2 for Saxophone and Orchestra (2003) (both concertos have been recorded on Dacapo 8.226036), Concert for Saxophone, Piano and Orchestra (2006) (Dacapo 8.226055), Triple Concerto for Mezzo Saxophone, Cello, Harp and Orchestra (2009) and Concerto for Recorder, Saxophone and Orchestra (2010).
In the first saxophone concerto Anders Koppel already made rich use of the greater palette of sounds in the symphony orchestra. Besides powerful, inciting rhythmic sections influenced by both rock music and Bach-inspired fugato, the concerto is coloured by magical night moods where the celesta and the low-toned alto flute combine with delicate string sounds. All these concertos include passages where the saxophone is invited to improvise. In this way Anders Koppel builds bridges to the practice in the past when true improvised passages were an integral part of the concerto form.
Concerto for Recorder, Saxophone and Orchestra
In the double concerto for recorder and saxophone, dedicated to and performed by Michala Petri and Benjamin Koppel, Anders Koppel has created an intense encounter between two instruments which are rarely heard in close contact, but which turn out to supplement each other splendidly. With its slender, woody tone quality the recorder, represented by its sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor and bass forms, creates a fine contrast with the broader-sounding alto saxophone, which offers itself with its warm brassy embrace. And thanks to the fleet-footed nature of both instruments they are able, despite their acoustic differences, to respond on an equal footing to the approaches and challenges each poses to the other along the way in the concerto.
The rhythmic energy of the first movement is striking. A syncopated motif in the strings, in conjunction with powerful contributions from the orchestra’s full-bodied brass group, creates an accumulation of energy that makes the classical symphony orchestra leap out as an effervescently swinging big band. The rhythmic displacements that are repeated again and again have the character of labour pains with the result that the two solo instruments are plunged head over heels into an intensely musical ride where the sharply contoured sopranino in particular functions as a rhythmic motor and evokes memories of the concerto grosso of the Baroque – but realized here in a modern rhythmic world.
Along the way in the interpolated cadenzas a kind of ‘time out’ effect is created where the forward-thrusting logic of the movement is suspended in favour of a more freely improvised dialogue which gives Michala Petri and Benjamin Koppel the opportunity to add an extra dose of fantasy to the concerto.
In the slow second movement, too, there are links with the Baroque, since the movement takes the form of a passacaglia, where the same theme is repeated again and again in the various groups of the orchestra. The inexorable nature of the passacaglia gives the concerto a fateful tone of seriousness which forms an atmospheric background for the continued teamwork of the two soloists, offering among other things a so-called ‘chase’ – a mutual hunt that is otherwise usually heard in jazz. Towards the end of the movement, however, it is as if the musical characters are again set free, as the music moves into an innocent fairytale world where the saxophone, the dark bass recorder and the brightly sparkling glockenspiel let repeated figures fall from the sky like leaves from the trees on a still, cold autumn day.
In the last movement the energy level is again extremely high. With notes fired off with the power of an artillery salvo, the soprano recorder sets the scene for yet another intensely musical ride, and with an exotically spiced harmony the expression becomes denser. After a quieter intervening section where the passacaglia theme of the second movement helps to create a mood of smouldering mysticism, great orchestral energy is again mobilized towards the ending, where among other things dramatically descending brass motifs lead to desperate flights, not least for the high-flying sopranino. All the more reconciliatory is the subdued ending, where the music so to speak falls into line with repetitions of the same musical elements, until a mild trill of the timpani pours its last calming oil over the earlier so troubled waters.
Triple Concerto for Mezzo Saxophone, Cello, Harp and Orchestra
In the triple concerto for the quite unique configuration saxophone, cello and harp the mezzo saxophone is presented for the first time in the context of a large orchestra – after Anders Koppel, in Quintet for Mezzo Saxophone and String Quartet (2008) (Dacapo 6.220566) gave the instrument its debut in a classical context. With its lyrical qualities and its velvety timbre, the mezzo saxophone, developed by the Danish instrument maker Peter Jessen, matches the cello and harp extremely well, since both instruments belong to a milder zone. After a short intro for full orchestra the intimate first subject is presented, striking a naivistically inward note characteristic of the whole concerto with repetitions of the same motif in the harp and feline, descending glissandi in the cello. Although the three soloist are now and then played off against one another like antagonists in a drama, the large first movement is dominated by harmonious music that rests within itself, where it is the unfolding of particular details of the sonority that are in focus. For example a number of silvery chords in the celesta and pizzicato string voices evoke memories towards the end of the nuances of sonority in which the music of Richard Strauss is rich.
The concentration on the inherent energies of the music is intensified and deepened in the second movement, which is typified by great simplicity, and in which an ascending theme in the cello rises towards the heavens and signals an ethereal dimension that comes further to expression when a fervently fantasizing air in the saxophone weaves it way over an ostinato in the second violins, as well as later in the cello and harp. A lengthier minimalistic section subsequently opens the way for a dreamlike state where the normal forward-striving sense of time is suspended in favour of a meditation over simple musical figures that are repeated again and again.
The classical symphony orchestra is used here first and foremost to colour the individual sections, and the triple concerto thus emerges as the opposite pole to the highly outward-looking, dynamically progressing double concerto for recorder and alto saxophone. The triple concerto is instead characterized by a metamorphosis technique where the same themes return, but in gradually changing forms – as in a kaleidoscope which constantly reveals new dimensions of a world that seems familiar.
Despite the recurrence of the saxophone as solo instrument, the two concerts, both written within a year, are essentially different; and for this very reason they complement each other. While the Triple Concerto, by virtue of its constant immersion in the same material, is typified by insight and the ongoing expression of new nuances, the Double Concerto is characterized by alternating confrontation and dialogue with a consistent lust for adventure as its musical driving force.
Esben Tange is a musicologist, programme editor for DR P2 and artistic director of the Rued Langgaard Festival.