Menu Close

John Zorn curates and stars in March at the Elbe Philharmonic’s Reflektor Festival.

Each season, the Elbe Philharmonic chooses one or two artists to curate its own four-day festival. This festival is known as Reflektor and its next edition will take place between 17 and 20 March, with an exceptional protagonist, the New York saxophonist and composer John Zorn, who will be the curator of a programme of fourteen concerts.

Zorn has invited guitarists Bill Frisell, Julian Lage and Matt Hollenberg, organist John Medeski, keyboardist Brian Marsella, trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummers Joey Baron, Kenny Wollesen and Kenny Grohowski, bassists Greg Cohen and Trevor Dunn, singers Petra Haden and Barbara Hannigan, concert pianist Stephen Gosling and the JACK Quartet, among others, to perform. The festival pass gives access to all the events of the John Zorn Reflektor Festival for between 150 and 199 euros.

To call John Zorn prolific is an understatement. Some artists only release an album every two years; Zorn has been releasing a new one every month for decades. And they are all extraordinarily different. Zorn’s range of styles is incredibly broad, and that diversity is reflected in the festival, which ranges from raucous, fast metal-hardcore to angelic a cappella chants in homage to the visionary medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen, through millimetrically composed scores for string quartets to enchantingly meditative music for guitar, harp and vibraphone, from Americana songs for Petra Haden to works that are almost impossible to sing even for the world-famous soprano Barbara Hannigan.

Born in New York in 1953 and raised in the borough of Queens, John Zorn composed his first pieces of music at the age of eight. He soon developed his own aesthetic standards between two extremes: the concise, spartan music of Anton Webern, distilled to the essentials, and the overflowing sonic currents Zorn experienced in the concerts of free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Zorn’s insatiable appetite for all kinds of music prevented him, from the outset, from limiting himself to a single genre, with an uncanny ability to jump from one style to another at any moment, even at split-second intervals.

Zorn has been releasing his work for thirty years on his own record label, Tzadik, and since 2005 has also been the artistic director of The Stone, a Recital non-profit performance space devoted exclusively to experimental music in Manhattan’s East Village, which has hosted nearly five thousand performances and events in that time.

In his John Zorn Reflektor, the musician only performs as a saxophonist on three occasions, with different formations of his Masada project. However, all the music that will be performed on these four days is, without exception, by him.

Day 1 – Thursday, March 17th

In the opening concert (18:00, Recital Hall), Simulacrum will offer their powerful jazz-metal repertoire. After those wild jazz superbands, Naked City and Painkiller, which John Zorn created between the eighties and nineties of the last century, in 2015 he launched a new project that mixes jazz, contemporary classical, minimalism and death metal, entitled Simulacrum, in which Zorn composes, arranges and leads a band formed by keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Kenny Grohowski and guitarist Matt Hollenberg, whose latest album, Nostradamus: The Death of Satan, the ninth in Simulacrum’s career, was released last summer.

Later in the evening (20:00, Grand Hall), Zorn performs with two ensembles, the Masada Quartet and the New Masada Quartet. First with the original Masada line-up, with Dave Douglas (trumpet), Joey Baron (drums) and Greg Cohen (bass), and then, after the break, with Julian Lage (guitar), Jorge Roeder (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums). In both cases, Masada uses Jewish scales and the songs that Zorn has composed based on them as a source of improvisation.

Day 2 – Friday, March 18

Another facet of Zorn’s work comes to the fore in The Turner Études, a technically demanding cycle for solo piano by Stephen Gosling, inspired by the last sketches of the British painter William Turner (18:00, Recital Hall) and, musically, by Ligeti’s Études, or Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus.

The programme in the Great Hall (20: 00) is entitled Sacred Music and will consist of The Holy Visions – a work by Zorn based on the mystical work of the medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen, sung a cappella by five vocalists (Kirsten Sollek, Eliza Bagg, Elizabeth Bates, Sarah Brailey and Rachel Calloway) – and Nove Cantici, a tribute by Zorn to the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila, composed for three guitars, those of Bill Frisell, Julian Lage and Gyan Riley, son of the pioneer of minimalist music Terry Riley.

In the evening, at 22:00, in the Recital Hall, it will be the turn of Songs for Petra, an album of Americana composed by Zorn together with singer and guitarist Jesse Harris for Petra Haden, one of the triplets of the unforgettable jazz bassist Charlie Haden. The band will consist of the three instrumentalists of the New Masada Quartet, along with Jesse Harris, lyricist of the album, released by Tzadik in spring 2020.

Day 3 – Saturday, 19 March

In his countless projects, John Zorn has consistently experimented with special arrangements that bring structure to improvisations and introduce an element of unpredictability into the overly structured. In the music for the quartet Heaven and Earth Magick, every note for piano (Stephen Gosling) and vibraphone (Sae Hashimoto) has been meticulously written, while Jorge Roeder (bass) and Ches Smith (drums) improvise freely on the score within a framework defined by John Zorn in terms of style, articulation and other parameters (12:00, Recital Hall).

This will be followed at 14:00 in the Kaistudio (the third hall of Herzog & de Meuron’s building, a 170-seat hall) by the world premiere of John Zorn Volume 3, the third and last of Mathieu Amalric’s documentary films with and about John Zorn. “Apart from him, it’s been a long time since I’ve allowed anyone on stage with a camera,” Zorn said of Amalric. The French actor and director (known worldwide for his portrayal of the Bond villain in Quantum of Solace) has accompanied Zorn as a filmmaker for more than ten years. Before the screening, the pair will talk about the film, which, after Zorn (2010-2017) and John Zorn II (2016-2018), should be the last part of this documentary series.

Then, at 16:00, in the Recital Hall, the JACK Quartet from New York, famous for their performances of contemporary chamber music, will offer a first concert (entitled High Voltage) of Zorn’s works for string quartet.

In the same space, at 18:30, the quartet Chaos Magick, formed by the members of Simulacrum plus keyboardist Brian Marsella, will offer a concert inspired by the British heavy metal of the early seventies – that of bands like Uriah Heep and Deep Purple – or the symphonic rock of the early Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The Grand Hall will offer two consecutive concerts, at 20:00 and 22:30. The first will be a confrontation between the music of John Zorn and the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, performing two pieces composed expressly for her, Jumalattaret -inspired by the brutal Finnish national epic Kalevala, and in the preparation of which Barbara Hannigan herself felt close to despair-, accompanied on piano by Stephen Gosling, and Pandora’s Box -in which Hannigan will be accompanied by the JACK Quartet-. In between the two pieces featuring the Canadian soprano, Zorn’s musical version of the Old Testament Song of Songs will be performed by the five singers who have already starred in The Holy Visions: Kirsten Sollek, Eliza Bagg, Elizabeth Bates, Sarah Brailey (winner of the 2021 Grammy for Best Solo Classical Vocal Album) and Rachel Calloway.

The second concert will again feature Zorn, who will play saxophone and improvise on the fabulous 4,765-pipe Klais organ in the Great Hall of the Elbe Philharmonic, a work entitled The Hermetic Organ.

Day 4 – Sunday, 20 March

The last day of the Zorn-curated Reflektor festival will feature the Brian Marsella Trio (piano, bass and drums), consisting of Brian Marsella, Trevor Dunn and Kenny Wollesen, performing pieces by Zorn in the first concert (12:00, Recital Hall). At 16:00, in the same space, the JACK Quartet will perform the second concert of the works for string quartet by Zorn not included in the previous day’s concert.

This will be followed in the early evening (18:30) by a concert by the Gnostic Trio, featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, harpist Carol Emanuel and vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen, performing what Zorn considers “the most beautiful, peaceful and engaging music I have ever composed”.

For the grand finale (20: 00, Grand Hall), Zorn has reserved the world premiere of the first concert of New Electric Masada, a dectet (band of ten instrumentalists) in which Zorn on alto saxophone will be accompanied by two guitarists (Frisell, Lage), two keyboardists (Medeski, Marseille), two drummers (Baron, Wollesen), as well as Ikue Mori (electronics), Trevor Dunn (bass) and the legendary Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, will perform a concert that will probably be talked about for years to come.

© Photograph by Scott Irvine downloaded from the website of the Elbe Philharmonic.