Interview with the 12 Cellists of Berlin Philharmonic



12 cellos and no conductor!

Interview by Sanat Deliorman 


Die 12 Cellisten der Berlin Philharmoniker, in other words, the 12 Cellists of Berlin Philharmonic, this year celebrates its 43rd anniversary just like the Istanbul Music Festival, which crossed our paths with them in Istanbul, before they give the first concert of this year’s festival after the opening night. So we used this opportunity to talk with Ludwig Quandt, the principal cellist, and Martin Menking, “Number 7” cellist of the group before their performance on 1st June 2015, at Hagia Irene Concert Hall. Mr. Quandt and Mr. Menking shared with Andante magazine their thoughts on the group’s cello sound and its characteristics. 

How did you become a member of “Die 12 Cellisten”? 
Ludwig Quandt: I became a member of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1991, and in 1993 I got the position of solo cello. Now I also play in “Die 12 Cellisten”. Every member in the group has a special position. Martin is Number 7, I am Number 1. We share the Number 1 between two solo cellists. One is me the other is my colleague Bruno Delepelaire. Delepelaire entered the orchestra less than 2 years ago. So the orchestra also influenced the group, because, the two principal cellists of the orchestra lead “Die 12 Cellisten”.
Martin Menking: Ludwig is responsible for the programmes and he leads the rehearsals. Of course everybody has their own ideas. But he’s the one gluing all together.
Have you, as a group, received any consultancy from Boris Pergamenschikow or other notable figures of cello art, so far? 
L. Q.: As far as I know, we haven’t. The group has worked and developed very independently, for every member has been educated by great cellists. But sometimes we get some advice. For instance, when we first did the tangos, we invited a tango musician to tell us how it works. Also just a few months ago we did a jazz project and for this we invited a Norwegian jazz musician, Geir Lysne, who is normally a saxophone player. He helped us design the whole programme and he wrote all the arrangements. It was a very interesting experience for us. And we worked with such jazz musicians, becuase we are not jazz musicians and we cannot get to that level in jazz within few hours’ rehearsal. It’s impossible.
How do you create the timbres of other string instruments in the works you play? 
L. Q.: The repertoire is prepared so that sometimes we substitute a string orchestra. That’s to say, some cellos have to play like a violin. And within limits it is also possible to play the violin part on the cello.

Photographed by Ali Güler

How do you reflect your personalities in the group performance? 
L. Q.: Each one in the group has his own way of playing and it’s good for us because when we share the solos in the repertoire, each one can give his own color to the piece and I think that’s the most important aspect of our work. Every one has a different way of producing his sound, which adds different colours to the sound we have.
But how do you balance these colours with unity? 
L. Q.: We are already unified in the orchestra, we are used to cooperate. It is not 12 soloists just coming together and fighting against each other. But I think the 12 Cellists is a chance to stretch the limits the orchestra gives us.
More conceretely speaking, what are these limits? 
L. Q.: In an orchetra the cellists support the double bass section. Sometimes you have the melody but the violins normally have the theme. And you have to be a catalyser between the upper parts of the orchestra. But here we serve to ourselves.
How does playing with “Die 12 Cellisten” affect your orchestra performance? M. M.: Our group sounds maybe better, maybe more connected than other groups. Because we spend so much time together, and now we know each other so well. So when we are playing some Shostakovich symphony or Brahms, we do it in a more connected fashion. If all sections worked together, it would help everybody.
L. Q.: I disagree. In my opinion the Philharmonic has a beautiful unity.
Do “Die 12 Cellisten” still play Julius Klengel’s Hymnus the piece which triggered the birth of the ensemble in 1972? 
L. Q.: Of course we still do play, but not tonight (smiling).
How do you balance popular pieces and commissioned works in your repertoire? In tonight’s program we see popular pieces from Vincent Scotto, Henri Bourtayre and Hubert Giraud. Mostly picked from the groups’s 2008 Fleure de Paris album. What is the reason? 
M. M.: Normally it depends on the promoter. But this time we were free to choose our programme.
L. Q.: I like to make sort of blocks in the programme. For instance, we have the 4 French pieces in a block. Then we have 3 tangos in another block. Because we have so many small pieces. If we just scatter these pieces all over the programme, then people may not be able to follow us.
What was the most challenging (or enjoyable) work “Die 12 Cellisten” played so far? 
M. M.: Boris Blacher was the first composer commisioned to write a work, back in 1972. The work’s name was Blues-Espagnola-Rumba philharmonica. But you have to ask old colleagues about it. It’s actually hard to compare, because normally we know the composers, therefore we don’t face so many surprises. But maybe the most challenging piece was from the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Becuase if you want his score to sound correctly, you need a conductor, or maybe you also need a metronome. Becuase the piece has a very intricate flow and you have to keep very precise when gluing your part to the other voices. But of course, it is our responsibility to do it without a conductor.

Photographed by Ali Güler

So you never call for a conductor? 
L. Q.: In the last time, we called for Geir Lysne to conduct Xenakis’ work. He had come and conducted his own works, too.
M. M.: He is also a bigband leader.
L. Q.: That night’s programme was a medley of Morricone and Monteverdi arrangements. And we came together with jazz musicians. That was a special project commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and was a fairly big challenge. But without a conductor, surely it wouldn’t have worked. Especially not in such a short time.
M. M.: We as “Die 12 Cellisten” normally play without a conductor. This is something really special about us. Because you have to know all the other parts and listen to each other very carefully. But when you have a conductor you can relax (he laughs).
L. Q.: Then you play differently.
Lately in Istanbul, also the Berlin Chamber Orchestra and Renaud Capuçon gave a concert without a conductor… 
L. Q.: It’s also possible for the chamber orchestras, because there you have only 4 or 5 groups of musicians. But what is more challenging in the case of “Die 12 Cellisten”, is that sometimes we have 12 different parts, which means, everyone plays his own part and responsible for himself.
Can we learn your impressions about Tayfun Erdem’s work, March of the Blue Butterflies
L. Q.: We met Tayfun when we are playing in the Philharmonic. Because he lives in Berlin and visits our orchestra rehearsals. He has made a lot of music. Recently he is not so much active, but he was interested in doing something with our group, so I accepted his proposal to write something for us. We worked much on his work, the March of the Blue Butterflies. It was a process of coming together. He had some maybe l a little bit crazy ideas about the work. Because he wanted us to go very high, which was too high even for a violin player. But now we found a version which I suppose works well. I think also it’s a meeting of cultures. Because there so many Turkish people living in Berlin and there has developed a midculture between the Turkish and German people. I hope this piece reflects it, too.
Then did you play very high in its world premiere? 
L. Q.: Yes, we tried our best (he smiles).
As far as we heard this year you’ll give only 8 concerts. Is that true? Where will/was your other concerts? Have you commissioned any new piece recently? 
L. Q.: We´ll play in Wiesbaden, Lübeck, Quedlinburg, at the Philharmonie (Germany), in Ravello and in Torino (Italy). There will be no more premieres, but we will play some more new tangos.
Isn’t it a challenge to play Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), which is originally a piano solo work, with 12 cellos? Who wrote the arrangement? 
L.Q.: I did it. Once, we had a concert in Düsseldorf, Schumann’s hometown, and they asked us to play some Schumann but we didn’t have any Schumann work in our repertoire that time, so I listened to more of his piano works and then discovered Waldszenen. It was a very cantible music. I am not a professional arranger, but I know the instrument, then I think we got a good version. I couldn’t do all of the nine different pieces, instead I chose six, and we’ve played these a lot of times so far. 
Cover photo by Ali Güler

Martin Menking, Sanat Deliorman, Ludwig Quandt at Hagia Irene, 01.06.2015

Tayfun Erdem 

And the story of a blue butterfly gently holding on to life

“My girl friend Margit was diagnosed with Multi-Sclerosis back in October 1989 and after 3 years she had a complete paralysis. Now it has been 26 years. Yet she holds on to life despite her very difficult situation and does wonders. Just like a butterfly marching with a gentle sadness.

    Tayfun Erdem is checking the             score of his work during the                 rehearsal at Hagia Irene.
In 2000 I published The Dreams and Dances of a Silent Butterfly, my third album which was dedicated to Margit. In one of the pieces here in this  album, called the March of the Blue Butterflies, I wanted to depict this gentle, after-rain-scented, pastel-coloured sadness. And for this purpose, I used minor seconds in the piece.

Last year they would hold a big concert for the 50th anniversary of the German Presidential Palace, where the President would also deliver an inauguration speech. And they asked me to contribute with a composition, which gave me the opportunity to realize the world premiere of the March of the Blue Butterflies. And I must admit that the cellists of Berlin Philharmonic, using ponticello and other special techniques, resonated this blue bitonality with great virtuosity that night.
During the world premiere night also a very touching and meaningful incident took place. Margit was also present among the audience. She was on her wheelchair and, because even her neck muscles are paralysed, she wasn’t able to raise her head. The First Lady noticed this, went next to her, knelt down and talked to Margit, putting her hands on her knees. Magrit was so surprised. That night Magrit lived the most unforgettable moments of her life.
I had never considered getting The March of the Blue Butterflies played in Turkey. But thanks to the 12 Cellists’ endeavours, I was invited to the Istanbul Music Festival. And here we are in Hagia Irene now.”

Notes from the concert 

The Brandendurg Concerto No. 6, arranged for 12 cellos by the esteemed Croatian cellist Valter Despalj, gifted the night with the most radiant opening accompanied by the pirate group of birds chirping and flying around the dome of Hagia Irene.

After this, “Die 12 Cellisten” rendered the 6 haunting pieces from Schumann’s Waldszenen (Eintritt, Jäger auf der Lauer, Einsame Blumen, Verrufene Stelle, Jagdlied, Abschied) with a deep sonority and balance, resonating the pieces’ talking poetic quality through the beautiful dialogue of cellos in the auditorium of Hagia Irene Concert Hall. It was a delightful arrangement which was preluded by a translation of Hebbel’s poem (attached to Einsame Blumen - Lonely Flowers’ score by Schumann) done in backstage and read on stage by Tayfun Erdem, the composer of the March of the Blue Butterflies, who was present that night for the Turkish premiere of his work. And the first half of the concert was concluded by the blue bitonal reflections of Erdem’s work.

After the interval, Fauré’s Pavane, other French popular pieces (Sous les Ponts de Paris, Fleur de Paris, Sous le ciel de Paris) and three Piazzolla tangos (Lunfardo, Pedro y Pedro, Fuga y misterio) were played and each group member shined with their almost completely different playing techniques while impressing us with their, yet perfect, unity.



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