Anders Koppel’s Marimba Concertos
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 scored music 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.
This comes to expression for the first time in Concerto No. 1 for Saxophone and Orchestra (1992), which alternates in a liberated neoclassical style all its own between ethereal string sounds, Bach-inspired fugato and hard-grooving rock rhythms. Anders Koppel has also composed several double concertos; among other works the Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra (1998), whose elegance and poetry are related to Mozart’s classical concerto for the same ensemble; but the actual musical idiom – with its impressionistic treatment of sound and a sensually dancing character – is very much Anders Koppel’s own.
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 (1913), 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) given its first performance by Rune Most and the Randers Chamber Orchestra in May 2014, and 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.
The marimba is a latecomer in western classical music, but as a folk instrument its roots go far back to the African balafon, which has a crisper sound, and in which calabashes mounted beneath the wooden bars of the instrument produce a distinctive nasal, buzzing sound. African slaves brought the balafon to South and Central America, where the instrument changed its name to marimba, and where the number of bars was increased, among other ways so it covered a full chromatic scale. The marimba – and the brighter-sounding xylophone – are still popular instruments in countries like Mexico and Guatemala, where the marimba has the status of the national instrument. The modern marimba often has bars of rosewood, and resonating aluminium tubes beneath each bar ensure that the instrument today has a wide dynamic range, from the almost inaudible to the ear-splitting.
Only after World War II has the marimba become one of the instruments of classical music, and in his Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone (1947) Darius Milhaud became one of the first composers to experiment with the use of four mallets rather than just two. Since then Messiaen among others has used the marimba as an orchestral instrument, and today the marimba is often an integral part of the percussion group in new composition music. Anders Koppel, who with his total of four concertos has played an important role in the development of the repertoire for marimba and orchestra, says that the marimba is unique in its interaction with the orchestra, since it can both stand out as an independent voice in the orchestral soundscape and is able to blend and fuse with the sounds of the other instruments. And the solo sound of the marimba has a direct beauty, warmth and glow that give the instrument a natural appeal.
Concerto No. 1 for Marimba and Orchestra
With Concerto No. 1 for Marimba and Orchestra Anders Koppel has already inscribed himself in the canon of marimba literature. The concerto, composed for the final of the International Percussion Competition in Luxembourg in 1995, is today a standard work for young talented solo percussionists and has been performed more than 300 times. It has all one could desire of a classical concerto for marimba and orchestra: a grippingly dramatic first movement in which the marimba frolics like a playful child in close interplay with the symphony orchestra, which alternately manifests itself from a dark, determined side and lets itself be carried away by the wanton dance of the marimba. In a dreaming second movement there are rich opportunities to demonstrate the marimba’s large palette of sonorities – wrapped in a dark orchestral carpet of sound the marimba appears here as an effusive night wanderer in dialogue with a yearning, upward-striving violin solo. And finally comes a jewel of a final movement that is a bravura piece in its own right. Here the marimba shows itself from its most inciting side with a teasing rhythmic theme that culminates in a grand cadenza where the marimba’s natural disposition for virtuosic excesses is fully exploited.
Concerto No. 2 for Marimba and String Orchestra
The relentless tick-tock of time is the point of departure and consistent musical dynamo for Anders Koppel’s Concerto No. 2 for Marimba and String Orchestra. With engineer-like precision the marimba measures out the passage of time as regularly falling drops on a quiet night, and although the strings, with their ability to form sheets of sound, postulate an eternal perspective on the flow of time, their musical material too is developed from the rhythmic germ intoned by the marimba at the beginning of the concerto.
The temporality of every life lies as a fateful premise over this one-movement concerto. True, the picture is obscured along the way, as we witness how the string orchestra diffuses out into a refined gossamer-like texture with distributed solo voices and glissando effects, but also how a tightly swinging groove is well on its way to swallowing up both orchestra and soloist.
But despite the musical digressions, which also include the marimba soloist’s unbridled cadenzas and downy-light melodic fragments fluttering freely through the space, time’s inexorable tick-tock pulse haunts the music as a persistent shadow and ensures that this concerto is held in the grip of a particularly determined concentration. And as a result it seems a natural consequence that the concerto ends in the same onward-ticking world in which it began.
Concerto No. 3 “Linzer” for Marimba and Orchestra
In his Concerto No. 3 “Linzer” for Marimba and Orchestra, written for the Austrian marimba virtuoso Martin Grubinger and given its first performance by the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, Anders Koppel has created a marimba concerto that deploys a large Late-Romantic-style orchestra. The brasses in particular play a striking role and make sure the concerto has the imprint of a distinctive symphonic weight. It is thus all the more striking that this same concerto is so rich in delicate details. This is clear right from the start, when the intricate, elegantly swinging marimba theme of the introduction is imitated not only by the woodwinds, but also by the four horns, plunging naturally into the concerto with a show of agility usually reserved for instruments from the higher reaches of the orchestra.
The concerto is a cornucopia of rhythmic subtleties and motivic fragments that drift around among the orchestral groups and create a carnival-like riotousness. To this is added a more inward, melancholy side represented by a dark-timbred string theme. All in all, great orchestral forces are balanced with the ultimate challenges to the marimba soloist. In the first great cadenza the soloist is launched, like some brooding philosopher reflecting on the end of all things, into a play with silence, with a pulse that threatens to come to a complete halt. In other passages the solo part has the character of a technical tour de force, and so the tension is kept up all the way to the last note, when soloist and orchestra unite their forces in a triumphant joint ending.
Concerto No. 4 for Marimba and Orchestra “In Memory of Things Transient”
The fourth marimba concerto was commissioned by Wiener Mozartjahr 2006, dedicated to Martin Grubinger and given its first performance by him in the Musikverein in Vienna, as part of the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. The concerto is unique among Anders Koppel’s concertos, as the composer has directly associated a programme from his own experience with the music. Accompanied by a ‘walking bass’ in the low strings and the marimba, and with grandiose chords in the horns and woodwinds, the concerto begins with ceremonial rigour, and after the organ has struck up a celestial tone a heartfelt hymn tune gradually takes form in the marimba. The hymn refers to an experience on a hot summer’s day as Anders Koppel and his wife Ulla were on their way into a dark Swedish forest.
“In the middle of a darkening – or rather a clearing – we suddenly caught sight of a small, ancient marble stone fenced in by a rusty iron chain. The stone was half crumbled, but the inscription could still be made out: – “In Memory of Things Transient”, it said. The words struck us with surprising force, and set our thoughts in motion. That we humans must die is something we can live with; but that music too – eternal music, Mozart’s music – will some day vanish, is harder to come to terms with.”
The magical character of the experience and the recognition of the transitory nature of all things lies as a thought-provoking idea behind the whole concerto, but does not result in a despondent mood. Rather the contrary. For an interpolated marimba cadenza has the result that the organ introduces a joyous dance tune originally composed by Anders Koppel for the group Bazaar, and when this gay melody is later joined by a fragment of the Rondo alla turca from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 the concerto opens up as a paean to life in all its wonderful diversity. East and west – represented on the one hand by the marimba and a number of other percussion instruments, and on the other by the classical symphony orchestra – meet here in the concerto in a life-giving collective festivity. As is the case, in a sense, in Mozart’s piano sonata and in Anders Koppel’s lifelong work with both Balkan folk music and western classical music.
P.S. to a Concerto
After Anders Koppel, as a jury member at the International Percussion Competition in Luxembourg in 1995, experienced the first performance of his Concerto No. 1 for Marimba and Orchestra, he composed this Post-Scriptum for marimba solo. The piece has the character of a large encore where the bell-like attack of the marimba and its natural ability to play with tempos and rhythmic displacements are demonstrated in exemplary fashion.
Esben Tange is a musicologist, programme editor for DR P2 and artistic director of the Rued Langgaard Festival