Out of ‘Thin Air’ Came Rich, Fresh World Of Musical Connections

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The opening of Calliope Tsoupaki’s ‘Thin Air’

PERSPECTIVE – In a year when conventional performance — or, really, conventional concert-going — has been curtailed, performers and performing arts presenters have had to become innovative. One effort launched in Europe in summer 2020 sent music with an empathetic message around the world in a unique way.

Calliope Tsoupaki (Photo by Michael van Nieuwkerk)

Dozens of performances by a wide variety of musicians, each representing a different arts festival, shared their interpretation of a single work, Thin Air. The Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki was commissioned to write the piece for Festivals for Compassion, and the result was presented online by music festivals across the globe.

The idea of “Festivals for Compassion” was conceived before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. Tamar Brüggemann, managing director of Wonderfeel, an outdoor classical music festival staged near Amsterdam annually since 2015, had intended to commission music inspired by Flag of Compassion, a conceptual work of art by Rini Hurkmans.

When the pandemic forced the cancellation of Wonderfeel and other performing arts events, “the idea suddenly took on more meaning, and it seemed logical to involve festivals from all over Europe,” said Brüggemann. The result became a kind of musical relay, bounding from festival to festival across the miles as each videotaped performance of this one piece, Thin Air, was presented over a period of months. To enlist participants, Brüggemann started by calling her friends and colleagues at other festivals, all of whom were immediately enthusiastic. As she continued discussions with this core group, the idea continued to take shape.

Since the premiere on June 20, 2020, by the electric guitarist Wiek Hijmans presented by the Holland Festival, more than four dozen partners have joined in, including the Edinburgh International Festival, Helsinki Festival, Music on Main in Canada, Istanbul Music Festival, and Sarajevo Fest in Bosnia. These performances have been collected and shared online with a global audience. The next performance, which premieres on March 26, is the first from the United States. It features the Russian-born pianist Michael Bulychev-Okser, founder and artistic director of the George Gershwin International Music Competition in New York, which is presenting the event.

Tamar Brüggemann

“It is an expression of solidarity,” said Brüggemann. “We have formed a community with 50 festivals. Across national borders, we have gathered in times when we could not visit each other’s festivals. Moreover, we have given musicians and filmmakers work and a bit of hope in times when all their work evaporated and their hope was constantly dashed.”

Jelle Dierickx, general director of Lunalia in Belgium, didn’t hesitate to sign on when Brüggemann called to ask him to participate in “Festivals for Compassion.”  “In challenging times, more than ever, we need to stay connected, we need to promote the freedom of expression, and we need to safeguard international exchange of thought and creativity,” Dierickx said. The lockdown began just as the 2020 edition of the Lunalia festival was about to get underway. With the onset of the pandemic restrictions, “we had to cancel, try again, cancel again, go digital, try again, cancel again, and in the end created the Beethoven Physical Distance Experience.” Thomas Moore represented Lunalia in “Festivals For Compassion,” performing Thin Air on euphonium in the Church of Our Lady-across-the-Dijle in Mechelen, Belgium.   

Tsoupaki, the composer of Thin Air, is the composer laureate of the Netherlands She said she didn’t want this music to be a requiem for the victims of this crisis. “I want to make music that will talk to you now,” she said. “To show our love for music, and for concerts, showing our passion now that it’s needed.”

Tsoupaki reached back in music history for three bits of inspiration. First, J.S. Bach. “It’s an enigma why his music is still so genuine. Everybody plays it. It’s abstract music; it says nothing, and it says everything at the same time.” Then, she considered Bolero by Ravel, with its repeated melody evocatively weaving throughout the duration of the piece. And, finally, the compact elegance of the Catalan melody “Song of the Birds.” “It’s very beautiful and very small and very effective,” she said.

Tsoupaki’s enormous challenge was to write a piece of music that would be playable by any instrument. As the deadline drew near, the electric guitarist Hijmans, who was to play the premiere, called and told her he was recording the music in a week. Her anxiety heightened as she faced the challenge of composing for this non-traditional classical instrument. “All the rest I could imagine. But not electric guitar, please, no,” she said.

Wiek Hijmans (Photo by Co Broerse)

Of course, she rose to the occasion, initially crafting the work for Hijmans specifically. “As soon as the notes were ready, I started to practice it and find solutions,” said Hijmans, “and it was not totally easy, but it is doable on the instrument.” As his was to be the very first performance, “I felt like I had the duty to, at least once, play what’s on the paper.” Musicians in subsequent renditions sometimes took great liberties with the written work, which Tsoupaki encouraged.

Thin Air was much more than an abstract piece of music to Hijmans. In playing it, he said, “I felt really connected to all the pain out there among all these really sick people, and their relatives, but also to my relatives — the musicians — and other people who are completely screwed by this situation. There was a lot of emotion to it. And it was the right piece for that.” The project as a whole touched him deeply. “Over months and months there was this flow of music, all from the same idea. With all these people putting their heart in, they all feel the trouble of the situation.” He appreciates the lasting significance of this project. “This is one of these things that we’ll remember. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Michael Bulychev-Okser

The video of the pianist Bulychev-Okser performing Thin Air premieres March 26 at noon EDT/ 6 p.m. CET. He founded the biannual George Gershwin International Music Competition in 2013 to promote young talent and highlight Gershwin’s life and music. He said it was an honor for him to participate in the project. “I immensely enjoyed being part of it, and just pouring my soul into every note of this compassionate piece.” Bulychev-Okserwanted his performance to create a picture of a personal constraint during the times of the pandemic. “I tried to bring in the stillness into the notes as I was playing it,” he said. “It is a look into the future, giving people comfort and relief from the fear and the pain.” That is a key concept that he likens to the optimistic nature of Gershwin’s music.

Brüggemann compares it to a message in a bottle: “As far as we are concerned, ‘Festivals for Compassion’ will run for as long as festivals around the globe want to mark their solidarity by sharing Thin Air.”

Gail Wein is a New York-based music journalist and media consultant. She is a contributor to Playbill, NPR, and The Washington Post, among others.