Nemtsov's En face premieres in Cottbus

Nemtsov's En face premieres in Cottbus

April started with a bang—quite a few, actually—with the world premiere of Sarah Nemtsov’s En face, a double concerto for solo percussion, narrator and large orchestra. Premiering in Cottbus on April 5 and with a subsequent performance on April 7, the piece featured German actor Jakob Diehl and Polish percussionist Aleksander Wnuk, accompanied by the Philharmonisches Orchester Cottbus under the baton of Felix Bender. 

Nemtsov, a laureate of ricordilab 2016-2019 and now recently signed with Ricordi, began her collaboration with the Staatstheater Cottbus in 2017 when she was commissioned through ricordilab to write a short piece for the orchestra. Now in 2019, Nemtsov and Cottbus come together again, presenting a unique work which the composer herself has described as “quite an experiment.”

En face (2018)

for large orchestra with solo percussion and actor/narrator
to the story “Einsamkeit” (“Loneliness”) by Bruno Schulz
perc.speaker -
WP: 05.04.2019, Cottbus
Duration: 25'

Picture of Aleksander Wnuk playing Nemtsov 'en face' in Cottbus
WP of Nemtsov's En face, Cottbus 2019

Press quote

It was more than pure music: it was a thrilling acoustic drama… Nemtsov composed half an hour of intoxicating sounds, both within the solo and orchestral percussive parts, which vigorously tried to defy the speaker and other instruments of the orchestra. Though fragments of text, melody and motifs could be heard, the extreme energy of the percussion overpowered everything else. The large drums in the orchestra, the multifarious ringing objects held in the enclosure of the sentient, highly focused soloist – one listened and watched in awe and applauded copiously.   
Lausitzer Rundschau, 9 April 2019

Composer's note

When I received the commission to compose a large new work for the Cottbus Philharmonisches Staatsorchester – a double concerto with Poland and Germany as points of reference (national exchange) – it was important for me that this encounter should not only take place on the surface (the soloists’ nationalities). The Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) came to mind. His remarkable work displays a completely individual, metaphorical and sensual language (although he is frequently called the “Polish Kafka” – and there are definite similarities and connections – this label ignores his unmistakable style). His texts (though timeless), can also be read in the context of his biography and his day. They are inseparable from his personal experiences and his experiences of war and the interwar period. Schulz lived most of his life in his birthplace Drohobych, a small city near Lviv (Lemberg), whose history reflects the upheavals of the 20th century. Today it belongs to Ukraine; when Schulz was born, to Austria-Hungary; when he died, to German-occupied Poland. In 1942, while walking down the street, he was shot to death by an SS commander. I have chosen the story “Loneliness” for my composition. The first-person narrator speaks about his many years living in a room that he is unable to leave. The oppressive confinement of such a life becomes palpable, the consequences of such a permanently imposed encounter with oneself: “What do I look like? Sometimes I see myself in the mirror. A strange, ridiculous and painful thing.” Schulz’s language here is not just serious and dark; it also veers into the grotesque, the absurd and a certain lightness, notwithstanding the seriousness and hopelessness. The contrasts only increase the text’s intensity.

Picture of bows at Cottbus premiere of Nemtsov 'en face'
WP of Nemtsov's En face, Cottbus 2019

I have chosen two soloists, intended as a “distorted” mirror image of one another – as though one is imagining the other: an actor, who recites the text seated at a table, and a percussionist, on the other side. The percussion forms its own space with a door and mirror surrounding the percussionist. He is in a sort of cage with his instruments and objects around him (including classical percussion: four cymbals, a gong, a thunder sheet, along with metal parts, fragments, chimes made out of keys and light bulbs, a door, a mirror, a window frame, cups, bottles and a brass menorah – the seven-branched candelabrum – as both symbol and sounding object, played with stone). The percussionist’s actions are restricted to this space. Here he is at once protected and defenceless. He plays only with his hands, without sticks or mallets. Nothing comes between him and the hard surfaces he strikes, strokes or tentatively touches. Microphones are fastened to his wrists – in a sense, he zooms into the sounds, into the objects, places them under a microscope, listens with his hands to a choreography of sounds. After striking, his hands often make extra movements in order to capture, amplify or rhythmicize the resonances. He plays partly in the air, so to speak – also a symbol for the vacuum. Because the soloist has no sticks (the percussionist’s usual “weapon”), he is clearly differentiated from the percussionists in the orchestra. His hands become ears; he is overly prone to accept everything as true, which makes him vulnerable in his intimacy on stage. The virtuosity is thus of another type, more of an inner space and a virtuosity of sensitivity. 

The actor sits at a table. On it are some books, paper, a porcelain cup and saucer. A miniature stage set. His speech is amplified, and his table is also amplified with a contact mic, so that while reciting the text the actor also makes other noises that develop from his role. Somewhat like the percussionist, he shakes the cup, he rustles the paper, he breathes, and is thus also a musician. I have conceived the solo parts for Aleksander Wnuk (solo percussion) and Jakob Diehl (actor), and these two artists are ideally suited to their roles. The orchestra forms an independent body, partly the soloist’s adversary, partly its echo chamber. Occasionally it actually comes to blows with the soloist, and they are seemingly “swallowed up”. But at the end, the instruments – the whole orchestra – also lose the ground under their feet...
—Sarah Nemtsov

Photos: Marlies Kross