Matthias Bamert, Composer


The musician who is equally drawn—like Mahler or Bernstein—to both conducting and composing must know a dilemma of an order few of us ever experience. Matthias Bamert is such a man. Born in 1942 in neutral Switzerland as WWII raged, he was pulled in at least three different directions in music, also being a gifted player. By 1965 (at age 23) he was principal oboist of the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg; two years later one of his compositions took first prize in an international competition. Then George Szell invited him to spend the 1969–1970 season as a Ford Foundation conducting fellow with the Cleveland Orchestra.

That winter, Bamert composed Septuria Lunaris, a 20-minute piece for orchestra that had its world premiere the following spring at the Lucerne Festival to critical acclaim. Michael Charry conducted its U.S. premiere that fall with the Canton Symphony and the following May reprised Septuria Lunaris with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. Plain Dealer music critic Robert Finn praised the piece, which comprised seven movements named for geographical areas of the moon (“Sea of Vapors,” “Ocean of Storms,” “Sea of Tranquility”) for its “arresting” texture, “eerie atmosphere” and “extremely soft and delicate pointillistic effects.” Incorporating unusual sounds (some of them drawn from conventional instruments) and chance effects within a carefully planned structure, the piece evoked for many the feelings that had been stirred by the sight of men walking on the moon in July 1969.

Bamert’s chamber music was already beginning to be widely performed in Europe and America. Rheology, for eleven strings and harpsichord, would receive its premiere in Germany in December 1971; Inkblot, a piece for band, in New York that July; and a work for organ cheekily titled Organism would get hearings in England, Scotland, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, as well as here in the U.S.

The composer, meanwhile, now held the position of conducting assistant to Leopold Stokowski, who commissioned a piece for the 10th anniversary of his American Symphony Orchestra. Mantrajana, a seven-and-a-half-minute “dance” that evoked Javanese and Indian music, set four Balinese gongs (each played with six different sticks) against conventional western brass and wind instruments and two distant violins positioned in the two farthest corners of the stage.  The New York Times called the work—subsequently performed in Cleveland, Interlochen, Atlanta (under Robert Shaw) and Philadelphia (under Eugene Ormandy) before being recorded by the Louisville Symphony—“eight minutes of utter sonic fascination.”

Summoned back to Cleveland in 1971to serve as assistant conductor during the two-year interregnum between the death of George Szell and the hiring of Lorin Maazel, Bamert was to work closely with interim maestro Pierre Boulez (with whom he had studied composition in Paris), becoming resident conductor under Maazel in 1976. Since leaving Cleveland (1978) to take the helm of the Swiss Radio Orchestra, Bamert has led many of the world’s great orchestras and had a hugely successful recording career, while keeping up one of the busiest international touring schedules of any guest conductor. And he has continued to compose.

Indeed Bamert, whose early works showed the influence of Xenakis, Penderecki and Boulez, was to reveal a distinctly lighter side along with the ability, if he was so inclined, to write more accessible, even endearing music—such as Keepsake, an orchestral hommage to his years in Cleveland (which called for a lion’s roar), Inconsequenza for solo tuba (written for principal tubist Ron Bishop), the popular Circus Parade (which involves audience participation) and his Musical Fable, Once Upon an Orchestra, an introduction to the instruments composed for the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Concerts that is now widely performed.

But the Matthias Bamert composition heard (and instantly beloved) by the largest audience ever was surely the enthralling 59-second orchestral theme he wrote for the annual WCLV-Orchestra radio marathon, on a melody borrowed from Once Upon an Orchestra. It was clear this gifted man, had he so chosen, could have had yet another successful career turning out lush, romantic scores for Hollywood films.

—Dennis Dooley



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