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Sonia Wieder-Atherton releases debut album “Chants d’est” with event at Le Poisson Rouge

Chants d’est: Songs from Slavic Lands
Sonia Wieder-Atherton, concept and cello
Sinfonia Varsovia / Christophe Mangou
V5178 CD available October 27 from naïve


Sonia is boundless, as these Songs from Slavic Lands clearly show… . Sonia has chosen these pieces with reverence, and poetry is always close at hand as her sensual bow captures the quintessence of the music… . This singular voice…will bring you a breath of fresh air and make you happy.”

– Le Figaro


The French-American cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, whose questing spirit and imaginative conceptual programs have set her apart as an artist of unique vision, is one of naïve’s new exclusive artists.  Her solo debut album for the label, Chants d’estSongs from Slavic Lands, is an evocative collection of works and arrangements spanning Mitteleuropa – cultures born out of the vast, oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire where composers – like so many other creative artists – fought to retain their own language and identity.  The wide-ranging repertoire, from Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Rachmaninov to Mahler’s otherworldly “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” and Jewish traditional music, conveys many diverse emotions and moods, from the passionate and earthy to the sublime and transcendent.  Christophe Mangou leads the Sinfonia Varsovia in a new release that Gramophone has called “an intriguing and often amazingly beautiful collection.”

Sonia Wieder-Atherton sets the stage for Chants d’est with her comments in the album’s liner notes:

“Mitteleuropa is the center of Europe, the crossroads where several cultures merge.  Under its protecting wing, at once oppressive and fascinating, the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire assembled cultures that struggled to hold on to their identity.  Their resistance was channeled through love of their forbidden mother tongue.  The way they listened to it, their incessant study of the themes of its folklore, characterizes the highly individual universes of composers like Janácek, Mahler, and Martinu.  To interpret them is above all to explore their rapport with language.

“Further east, it is a question of transmission.  Music says what it is impossible to describe.  In all the regimes to which Russia has been subjected, there has been terror but also, beyond that, a force that sometimes implodes, sometimes explodes.  What is said is said on behalf of all those who do not have the right to speak.

“Attracted by these twin examples of resistance (one to retain a language, the other to say what is forbidden), drawn magnetically to this part of the world which I keep coming back to, I listened once more to the works I knew and loved, and I discovered others, written for solo voice, chorus, violin, orchestra, piano.  I asked Franck Krawczyk to help me trace a path through them or, in the case of Janácek, to base his own work on them.  And I chose to use a string orchestra to bring out the depth and tension in Rachmaninov’s Vespers and the intensity in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, and to underline the explosive virtuosity of the dances and other highly rhythmic pieces.

“Thus the road we follow takes us from a tragic song to a lullaby, from a lied relating a dream to a dance with gypsy inflections, as if we were being guided by the chapters of a single story.”

As an interpreter of a very broad repertoire, a designer of projects, and a musician sought after by many contemporary composers, Sonia Wieder-Atherton occupies a special place in today’s musical scene.  Following studies at the Paris Conservatory with Rostropovich and Maurice Gendron, she left for Moscow where she studied for two years under Natalia Shakhovskaya at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.  In 1986, shortly after Wieder-Atherton’s return, she won the Rostropovich Competition.  She has played as soloist with the Orchestre de Paris, the Orchestre National de France, the National Orchestra of Belgium, the Liège Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic, the Gulbenkian Orchestra of Lisbon, the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Orchestra of the NDR in Hanover.  She regularly plays with pianists Imogen Cooper, Georges Pludermacher, Laurent Cabasso, and Elisabeth Leonskaja; violinists Jan Talich, Raphaël Oleg, and Silvia Marcovici; Accentus Chamber Choir; and percussionist Françoise Rivalland.  Pascal Dusapin and Georges Aperghis have written numerous works for Wieder-Atherton, as have Henri Dutilleux, Wolfgang Rihm, Betsy Jolas, and Ivan Fedele.  She gave the premiere of Georges Aperghis’s Bloody Luna with the Remix Ensemble at the Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal this spring and recently gave the premiere of a work for cello and orchestra by Wolfgang Rihm, which the composer dedicated to her.  In 1999 she was awarded the Grand Prix del Duca by the French Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Sonia Wieder-Atherton will be in New York City on Monday, November 23 performing excerpts from the album at the popular downtown musical club (Le) Poisson Rouge.  She will be joined by members of the New York Niguna Ensemble, a septet comprised of strings, harp, and oboe assembled by the cellist (Niguna is the Hebrew word for improvisation).

Sonia Wieder-Atherton discusses the album and her approach to music and programming in the interview below.

An introductory video for Chants d’est is available at this link:


Track List

1.            Sergei Rachmaninov: “Nunc dimittis” from Vespers, Op. 37
2, 3.            Ernö Dohnányi: Andante rubato, alla zingaresca and Presto from Ruralia Hungarica, Op. 32b
4.             (Jewish traditional) Song in remembrance of Schubert
5.            Alexander Tcherepnin: “Tatar Dance” from Songs and Dances, Op. 84
6-12.            Franck Krawczyk (b.1969): Jeux d’enfants, after Janácek’s Moravian Folksongs
13.            Sergei Prokofiev: “The Field of the Dead” from Alexander Nevsky
14-19.            Bohuslav Martinu: Variations on a Slovak Folk Song
20.            Gustav Mahler: “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from Rückert-Lieder
21.            (Jewish traditional) Dance


A conversation with cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton


Q: Was the cello always your instrument of choice?

SWA: I came to the cello little by little.  I always needed sounds – that’s what I reacted to.  At first I played the piano but I wanted a string instrument so I began the guitar.  I wanted to be able to keep the sound going as long as I wanted.  Already I was striving for a “singing sound.”  Then, one day, when in Paris, I put a record on and it was a Vivaldi sonata for cello and I was hypnotized.  I was ten.  From that moment I knew it was my instrument.

Q: You live in Paris now, but you were born in San Francisco and lived in the States for a while.

SWA: Yes, I was born in San Francisco and from there we moved to New York.  I was four when we moved to New York and eight when we moved to France.  My strongest memories of the States are linked to sounds: from my childhood, I remember the different ways of talking in the North and the South.  I can describe that particular sound of American cars cruising the avenues of New York.

Q: Is it true that neither of your parents were musicians?

SWA: My father is American and taught American studies in the States and then in France.  My mother is French but was born in Romania, left for Lebanon, and moved after the war to Paris where she studied and taught philosophy.

Q: So what feels most like home?

SWA: I always try to make a single unit out of many different influences.  My parents are from very different cultures, and French was for neither of them their native language.  For various reasons, not only musical, Russia is also very important in my life.  To answer your question, I could say that home is where my cello is.

Q: So, finding connections between seemingly disparate things is something that apparently comes naturally to you.

SWA: I think that’s true.  One of the things that brings me happiness is to look at the big puzzle of life and begin to see a complete picture!

Q: Why and when did you go to Russia?

SWA: I went to Russia because I wanted to discover the secret of how Russian musicians, and in particular string players, made their sound.  I could hear that it was a completely different sound, a much more vocal way of playing, and that the body was more involved.  It seemed that the sound was made by the weight of the body.

Q: So, your debut album for naïve, Chants d’Est, takes you back to Russia?

SWA: Yes, Russia and Mitteleuropa.  Two ways of surviving.  Mitteleuropa is that rather small part of the world that struggled under the weight of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.  There were so many different countries, identities, cultures, and languages that were encompassed in that Empire, that had to fight to stand up for their rights to remain themselves.  This meant holding on to their own language, their own way of talking, their own traditions, their way of getting married, of being happy, of being sad.  As an interpreter, I tried to transmit these different languages: find the right rhythm, the right rubato, the right tone.  Sculpt the phrase…

Q: You’ve said the specific order of the program of Chants d’Est is important to you and that it embraces the sensation of a day passing.

SWA: The sense of time in the music is very important.  The strength of music is that it exists the moment it exists and then it is finished: a particular piece is very colored by what you hear before and after it.  That’s why I spend a lot of time working on the form of a program, like a film editor would do.

Q: So can you relate that more specifically to the program on this recording?

SWA: I imagined a journey of 24 hours – beginning with the Vespers.  A sound that takes you in its arms, just by the depth of the harmony and the slow rhythmical swing like the swing of a cradle…  Then a “personage” appears and begins to tell a story, like a psalmody, with melancholy.  Then a Tatar dance, and so on…  The end of the 24 hours is with Mahler and his questioning of life.

Q: What happens if you play the works on this disc in a different order?

SWA: The way the album is organized is one journey.  But, as always, there are other ways to make the journey.

Q: In live performances of this program you’ve also introduced some staging elements.

SWA: Yes, we have a staging that suggests that we are in a clear space in a forest, surrounded by trees.  The lighting helps musicians appear or disappear depending on who is playing.  In the Janácek piece, the woodwind players begin with their backs to the audience and, as they play, they turn around and the sound grows as if it was coming from far away and then they arrive and join the other musicians.

Q: You performed this program recently in Paris, in the Théatre de la Ville, but in December you’ll be doing it someplace else in the city.

SWA: Yes, we will play Chants d’Est in the Chapiteau [a circus tent], of the Romanes family, a family of gypsy musicians.  You can feel that particular warm atmosphere as soon as you get in: caravans all around the tent, the round scene that opens its arms to the public who sits on red benches.  It is a world where the “show” is part of life.  And there is a real intimacy with the public.

Q: It seems that you are very attracted to doing conceptual programs.

SWA: That is true.  For example, “At the Beginning Monteverdi” is a program for cellos, weaving together Monteverdi madrigals that I transcribed for two cellos and continuum with contemporary works for cello solo by Berio, Kurtág, Dutilleux, and Dusapin.  Resonances begin to appear between the works as if Kurtág’s sublime and simple phrase was a continuation of Monteverdi’s line, or the answer to a question.  For me, that is how music exists, not through an encyclopedic approach.

Q: You’ve made several recordings in the past for BMG, (sonatas, concertos, Schubert, Liszt, Shostakovich, Bartók, Ravel…) but this recording is your first for naïve.  Do you already know what you’ll be doing next for them?

SWA: naïve is planning to release an album of Jewish liturgical music that I recorded a while ago.  I was doing research for the soundtrack of a film by Chantal Akerman – Histoires d’Amerique – and came across the art of singing of Jewish cantors or “hazzans”.  Once again, music opened a new door for me: that specific sound, the very expressive, but very contained, very interior way of singing really moved me and influenced my bow technique.  It felt also as though I was coming home to my origins, as though I had always known this music, even before I was born.  It was a very strange sensation.

My next project is a program of music from countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.  This new program would then be a part of a triptych: the “Jewish Songs”, the “Songs of the East”, and the “Songs of the Mediterranean Sea.”

Q: Tell us more about your musical influences.

SWA: Maria Callas.  I listened to her for hours and tried to get closer to her way of building a phrase, to her colors.  She was the first person who I heard explain clearly that a sound does not always have to be beautiful – it could be a scream, a groan, a caress – it is an expression of something that is related to life.  When you’re 16 years old, it’s really something that changes your life.

Apart from my teacher at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, Natalia Shakhovskaya, an extraordinary pedagogue, there is also, of course, Rostropovich.  When he gave me lessons, he was a huge inspiration because at that time he really explained music-making as being in your “workshop”.  You take the work in your hand and you really enter in it with an immense respect for the text.  He encouraged us to ask ourselves lots of questions.  He explained how to work on a contrast – not just the idea in your head, but a physical sensation.

I would say that Rostropovich’s way of teaching was close to the work at the Actor’s Studio: I studied the work of the great acting teachers Stanislavski and Strasberg.  I think it helped me to understand the task of an interpreter, that demands knowing yourself, your fears, your “plus and your minus,” and to work on them.

And there is Thelonious Monk: there is something in his music-making that makes you feel he is inventing the music right there as it’s happening.  He is modeling the sound, doing the sound, in the moment!  Virtuosity with him is never the aim.

Q: So it’s safe to say you’ve had a wide range of influences!

SWA: People often say that I am eclectic.  I would answer to them that when you are in front of the sea, you see water but the sea is made up of water that has come from mountains, down streams, along fields, into coves, around reefs: it is not just water, on the surface, directly visible to us.  When you hear a great interpreter and you recognize his sound, it is because it is the expression of his inner world, of all the worlds that have influenced him, and that make him unique.  I am not talking about beautiful sound, I am talking about a sound that talks.

Q: How do you compare the experience of performing music in America to that of performing music in Europe?

SWA: Europe has a deep and rich culture, which is, of course, a source of inspiration.  But when you express your own creativity, you need to forget about it.  The weight of that culture can clip your wings!  America allows that freedom.  It is a very fertile place for creativity because there is an opening toward the future, a tremendous energy, and far fewer codes to break – codes that inhibit – to achieve what you try to do.  As soon as I arrive in America, I feel it!  And that is why I like so much being here, and playing here.



Monday, November 23

[Le] Poisson Rouge, NYC

Chants d’Est:  Songs from Slavic Lands

Sonia Wieder-Atherton, cello  

With New York Niguna Ensemble

Note:  doors open at 6:30 PM and event begins at 7:30 PM; general admission tickets are $15


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© 21C Media Group, October 2009

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