Live reviews

Sparks & Visions Festival 2023, Regensburg, Germany (Opening Night)

Sparks & Visions

(Theater Regensburg. 27 January 2023. Opening night. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

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Applause for Linda Fredriksson’s Quartet

Sparks & Visions is a brand new festival in Regensburg in Bavaria, and the opening night consisted of a top-class triple-bill.

The venue where the festival is happening over three nights is Theater Regensburg. A very classy joint indeed, the theatre was originally built following the model of La Scala opera house in Milan with several tiers of boxes and galleries. Peter Hundert‘s picture above captures that grandeur. It has a great acoustic too.

The Sparks & Visions festival is the brainchild one hard-working instigator/ Artistic Director/ Programmer / keeper-happy of sponsors, an “ all-round force for good” as one friend said to me last night: Anastasia Wolkenstein. She told Oliver Hochkeppel in an interview for Munich broadsheet the SZ, “I went purely by my musical preferences. Which are as diverse as the festival itself is supposed to be.” Wolkenstein runs an artist management and booking agency here in the city which is boutique in its scale but hugely influential in its reach. We interviewed her for IWD2022 before the news that the festival was going to happen could be made public. (LINK)

Julia Hülsmann’s Heaven Steps to Seven. Photo credit Peter Hundert

The first performance of the festival was the ‘public premiere’ of a project led by Julia Hülsmann, called Heaven Steps to Seven, a septet of three vocalists, plus cello innovator Stephan Braun and a piano-bass-drums trio. The project has been heard once before, in a private concert hosted by no less a figure than the president of the German Federal Republic, Frank-Walter Steinmeier at his official residence last summer.

Since Julia Hülsmann tours so much with her regular trio and quartet, it is perhaps easy to forget how her work with singers, and the whole world of lyrics and poems have always been an intrinsic part of her musical universe. And , seeing some of her choices of songs and texts, it was very easy indeed to see how particular words could provide just the right springy, energy-giving jumping off point needed to bring a composition into being. Take the words of Margaret Atwood’s poem “Power Politics” :

“Next time we commit / love, we ought to / choose in advance what to kill.”

These were words which Hülsmann had arranged for the three vocalists to sing in harmony, and they brought a real spirit of teamwork to the task. The vocalists were also brought in to bring their very different vocal heritages to provide variety. Mia Knop Jacobsen is Danish, has been part of Hülsmann’s Last Chance to Misbehave project, and brings energy and variety to the freer sections. German singer Lisa Bassenge was mainly to be heard last night in Aretha territory. I was particularly captivated by Angola-born Aline Frazão , whose solo and “section” work were truly outstanding. I was thinking about Brazilians…the gloriously meaty vocal sound of Fafá de Belém, the fluid rhythmic freedom of Gal Costa the phrasing of Céu….Frazão really does have it all.

The instrumental forces all made great contributions too. Drummer Eva Klesse is always a lively presence, Marc Muellbauer is just a top-flight bassist, and Stephan Braun had the freedom in this context to tease us with his astonishing range of sounds where one is always asking ontological questions about whether or how a particular sound can really be squeezed or plucked or somehow magicked from a cello. And Hülsmann is not just a subtle bandleader who knows how to make her visions into reality, she is also a byword for effective communication, always bringing a sense of creative enjoyment, making everything seem as simple, natural and understandable to the audience as it possibly can be.

The second set was from Finnish alto and baritone saxophonist Linda Fredriksson and her trio of Tuomo Prättälä (keyboards), Mikael Saastamoinen (bass) and one of the key figures in the Finnish scene, Olavi Louhivuori on drums. Fredriksson plays her compositions in a straightforward and hooky/melodic way and offers freedom to the others to harvest sounds and disruption from wherever they care to find it. There was one lovely moment when she declared that everyone would be welcome to visit their merch stall afterwards. And she didn’t only mean people who weren’t going to buy anything. She also made it clear that introverts who might have anything to say were also very welcome too. Finnish humour (I think that’s what it is) is the best.

L-R: Kit Downes, Petter Eldh, James Maddren

Peter Hundert’s photo above has captured very well the sheer joy of Kit Downes‘s Enemy trio. It was the eve of James Maddren‘s birthday, so the trio’s contractual obligation to deliver a set of Enemy’s music was permanently at risk of being… enhanced.. (yes, that is definitely the right word, rather than either ‘compromised’ or ‘undermined’) by the fact that a birthday celebration was running concurrently.

It was an astonishingly fine set which both started and ended with Kit Downes finding the kind of sounds from the Hammond (particularly church organ sounds) that others don’t tend to find in it. And as a piano trio, this group can tell a story, give a sense of logic and flow at absolutely any tempo. It will be fascinating to hear this set (including all of us singing “Happy Birthday” – unless it gets edited out!) when it is broadcast on Bavarian Radio. The trio sent us home with an encore full of sass and happiness, Petter Eldh‘s tune “Prospect of K.”

In birthday mood: James Maddren. Photo credit: Elmar Petzold

Sebastian is in Regensburg as the guest of the Sparks & Visions Festival

LINK : Festival website English homepage

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