Conversation with Lucas Fels, Part 1

Image for Lucas FelsThis is part one of a three-part series with distinguished cellist Lucas Fels. Having collaborated with leading composers such as Klaus Huber, Helmut Lachenmann, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino and Beat Furrer, Mr. Fels work has led to numerous pieces being dedicated to him. At the Donaueschinger Musiktage, in which Lucas Fels has regularly taken part since 1993, he has premiered the cello concertos by Wolfgang Rihm (Styx und Lethe, 1998) and Walter Zimmermann (Subrisio Saltat, 2003) amongst others. In 2002, he premiered Sebastian Claren’s cello concerto After Blinky Palermo at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik Darmstadt.

As a founding member of the highly renowned Ensemble Recherche, which specialises in new music, Lucas Fels has been actively involved in the development of contemporary chamber and ensemble music. Ensemble Recherche has premiered around four hundred works since its foundation in 1985. In addition, Mr. Fels is also one of the members of the Arditti Quartet.

In this first feature, Mr. Fels gives us some insight into his own roots in contemporary music.

String Visions: When did you first become interested in contemporary music?

Lucas Fels: A long…no, it’s not such a long story. I grew up in Basel, Switzerland. Well, we lived in Germany, but I went to school in Basel, so I crossed the border every day. And in these years, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Paul Sacher was still alive. He was a musician himself, conductor, and big, big supporter. He was enormously rich and he spent enormous amounts of money his entire life for music, and especially for contemporary music. He gave hundreds of commissions, starting with Richard Strauss and Bartók and Hindemith too, and Boulez and Holliger and Lachenmann, really, lots and lots and lots of commissions. There’s the famous Sacher Foundation still with thousands of manuscripts of important composers from the 20th century.

In that time, partly because he lived there, there was a very, very great music life in Basel. There were lots of classical musicians that came to Basel because of him. He was actually a very close friend of Rostropovich, and Rostropovich, when he left Russia, lived in Basel for some time, I think a year or so. He gave the famous master classes for four weeks: two weeks just with piano, two weeks with orchestra, himself playing the piano and conducting everything. Rostropovich was a close friend of [Paul Sacher], and he played lots of new pieces. Of course, I heard him play all the cello concertos, but also Berio’s “Ritorno degli snovidenia,” at the first performance, in Basel, then lots of new pieces.

When I was a kid with my siblings, we went very often in the evenings to concerts. There was this old sort of subscription audience, always couples, and one of them would get a cough or a cold, so we could get free tickets. I heard all the really famous orchestras and soloists and really I think it was mainly because of Sacher that there was lots of contemporary music just happening. Even as a child, I remember lots of performances I didn’t really like… but it was there. I heard it. It was just present all the time. It became something natural.

SV: Did your teachers encourage your interest in new music?

LF: When I studied in Freiburg im Breisgau with [Christoph] Henkel, he wasn’t interested in contemporary music, but there was an institute for new music. Brian Ferneyhough was teaching there. Klaus Huber was teaching there. There were lots of interesting composers and interesting people. And so they had an ensemble and I started playing in that ensemble.

Then, after three years studying with Henkel, I went to Amsterdam to study with Anner Bijlsma, which was of course not contemporary music. But he was actually interested in contemporary music and when I came with contemporary pieces, he was marvelous. He was fantastic. He loved it. He always thought, “Oh, that’s great,” and so it was very inspiring.

And then afterwards I had some lessons and I studied a little bit with Amadeo Baldovino. He was a cellist of Trio di Trieste, old-style Italian school, great, great cellist, but it wasn’t really for contemporary music.

SV: Do you have a musical role model?

LF: Bijslma, he was amazing. Because he’s one of these people who takes nothing for granted. Anytime he’s looking at something he goes, “Oh, this is interesting,” and he starts from the beginning, from scratch sort of. You have the feeling it’s new ideas, new interests, reading music in a different way, from a different angle always …and that’s great.

And the other thing I thought which was great was he always tried to find a certain way of playing for certain kinds of pieces. So he always said, “You don’t have to play with gut strings on baroque cello. Of course not.” He said for himself, it was the way he wanted it or he preferred it, but it’s not necessary. But you should think about how they played in that time. I mean, how were the conditions for cello? How did the cello look? How were the strings and all these kinds of things?

And then, if you think about that, then you find your own way from this point. But if you play Popper’s etudes or studies, and then play Bach suites, then it’s probably the wrong technique you use for the Bach suites. We as cellists, we don’t have great cello composers except Boccherini and, of course, Popper. Boccherini was a great composer, but all the others are not great composers. Composers were often pianists, like Brahms, like Beethoven, like Schumann. For cello, we have lots of studies, etudes, and caprices, from the time when these composers were alive. Klengel, Popper, and Piatti all worked with Brahms. So if you see what kinds of techniques they use, then you understand why the Brahms sonatas look like they do. Or if you look at the Boccherini sonatas or Duport studies, for example, then you understand why the Beethoven sonatas are written in that way.

There are quite a few composers who are also very inspirational for me. Lachenmann and Rihm for example, these two are just two of many, like Ferneyhough as well, but they were very, very close friends and inspired me a lot about how to think about music and how to play my instrument.

Our discussion with Lucas Fels continues in part 2, where we look at some of the challenges in presenting contemporary music to the audiences of today.

One Response to Conversation with Lucas Fels, Part 1

  1. Jeff December 7, 2019 at 1:30 pm #

    Personally I dislike Ferneyhough’s pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship your ‘message’.

    … Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication

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