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Tonhalle Orchester Zürich
soprano (the snow queen/the old woman/the young man/the robber): Mojca Erdmann
speaker (narrator/Gerda): Delia Mayer
speaker (Kay/a crow): Max Simonischek


Conductor: David Philip Hefti
photos: Tom Kawara

Die Schneekönigin

Die Schneekönigin

David Philip Hefti composed his second music theatre work, Die Schneekönigin (The Snow Queen) in 2018, commissioned by the Tonhalle Society Zurich for its 150th anniversary. 

The plot centres upon the children Gerda and Kay, whose friendship is put to a severe test. Once cold winter's day, Kay gets a splinter in his eye and then begins to distance himself from Gerda. The reason for this is the Snow Queen, who first puts Kay under her spell and then lures him to her ice palace. Gerda missed Kay terribly, so she sets off in search for him. On her journey she meets all kind of strange figures. Again and again, in the guise of an old woman, a young man and a robber woman, the Snow Queen tries to divert Gerda from the journey, whilst herself taking more and more possession of Kay. A race against time begins for Gerda. But she is not alone: a friendly if mysterious crow accompanies her at every turn and eventually helps her to find Kay. At the last second, Gerda manages to warm Kay's cold heart with her tears and to scare the Snow Queen away.

Shimmering cold and cosy warmth, deep attachment and distant reticence-David Philip Hefti's Snow Queen is filled with contrasts, which face eachother in a charged relationship of tension. Musical motives develop from supposedly meaningless interludes to extistential expressions of emotion. The character's emotional conflict is evident in the different roles assigned to the three singing and speaking voices, as well as in the unnusual instrumentation, for the onstage orchestra includes instruments distributed throughout the performance space, such as a glass harp. The wine glasses are filled with water and tuned in quarter tones, sketching iridescent sound paintings. The music becomes spatially perpectival when heard from different corners of the concert haal. hefti's sound language expands this multi-layered, heterogeneous listening impression. The timbres he lets wander through the orchestra oscillate between artificiality and natural harmony, expressiveness and intimacy, chamber music and opulence, silence and noise. In so doing, Hefti constantly explores anew the limits of playing techniques and expressive possibilities. Wheter it is the cold chords of the Snow Queen, the warmth of the bass clarinet, or so called 'Sternschnuppen' (shooting stars) of the strings, flying through the room as overtone glissandi-
Hefti's music theatre piece, like the Snow Queen herself, wishes to captivate the audience.
Deborah Maier

St. Galler Tagblatt, 12 November 2018

The sound is cold. It’s got to be, too, because last Sunday, the podium of the Zurich Tonhalle Maag saw the world première of The Snow Queen by the Swiss composer David Philip Hefti (*1975), based on the tale by Hans Christian Andersen. These shivering sounds spread out like fresh snow, gently wafting as if a soft breath of air were caressing the powdery flakes, with those on top floating down, and those in the middle rising upwards. Strewn among them are short notes – are these icicles, snowflakes, or those tiny snow crystals that burn ice-cold on your face when the wind whirls them round?

What here sounds so sensuous is actually a jubilee present. On the occasion of its 150th anniversary, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra issued a commission for a new work. The result is a musical tale for soprano, two narrators and orchestra. A story that you can hear with your eyes too, because the Tonhalle Maag is here immersed in a blueish light while gentle snowflakes seem to dance across the ceiling and the walls. These snowflakes are followed by other forms – icicles and shards of mirrors – until finally the podium sinks into the mists (the director is Eva Buchmann). And it’s all crowned – literally – by a gigantic ice sculpture of a crown in the middle of everything. We see crystalline glitter and white fur, too, because in line with the storybooks, these make up the costume of the Snow Queen herself (Mojca Erdmann).

(...) the music is sensuous in how it mediates between the action and what we hear – though it is never intrusive. For example, when Gerda says: “The snowflakes whirled through the air in ever new patterns, while the oven gave warmth from behind”, the composer/conductor David Philip Hefti has the strings play constantly shifting patterns against a cosy, long chord in the wind. Here both the snow and the warmth are made audible. Thus Andersen’s fairy tale assumes a musical luminescence for the 75 minutes of its performance.

But this story is borne along just as much by the actors Delia Mayer (Gerda) and Max Simonischek (Kay/Crow). Thanks to their performative skill, the story really gets under your skin. They superbly manage a balancing act between intuitive depiction and precise coordination with the music – and they do it all with a sense of naturalism that leaves no one cold – snow or not.

Anna Kardos
The music-theatre work The Snow Queen was composed in 2018 to a commission from the Zurich Tonhalle Society to celebrate its 150th anniversary. It is dedicated to my son Luca. The semi-staged world première took place on 11 November 2018 in the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich, with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under the baton of the composer. The soloists were Mojca Erdmann (Snow Queen), Delia Mayer (Narrator/Gerda) and Maximilian Simonischek (Kay). The staging was directed by Eva Buchmann.

The Snow Queen, a story in music for soprano, 2 speakers and orchestra, was composed to a libretto by Andreas Schäfer based on motives from Hans Christian Andersen. It requires large forces, lasts some 75 minutes, and is intended for children (aged 8 years and up), young people and adults. Besides the orchestra on stage, a “spatial music” ensemble is also placed in the hall and can be heard from different directions. This work is equally suitable for concert or semi-staged performances, or a fully staged production. 

D. P. H.


Neue Zürcher Zeitung NZZ, arts section, 9 November 2018

«Everyone has to dance to her tune»

For the 150th anniversary of the Zurich Tonhalle, the Swiss composer David Philip Hefti has written a highly personal family opera: The Snow Queen, after Hans Christian Andersen.

Marco Frei

In The Snow Queen, the cold takes many audible forms. There are wine glasses filled with water – they sound as clear and transparent as frozen crystals. The serial techniques that always accompany the appearance of the icy queen also come across as frosty and cool – these are academic number games that freeze into lifeless formulae. In stark contrast to all this are the micro-intervals and overtones that that unite to create iridescent natural harmonies conjuring up an unsophisticated, real warmth. These are the contrasts that play the central role in the new family opera The Snow Queen by David Philip Hefti.

Breaking with tradition

The fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen itself seems like a variation of the tale of Orpheus, who desires to wrest his beloved Eurydice from the cold realm of the dead. Here it’s little Gerda who doesn’t want her playmate Kay to be transformed into an unapproachable, cold boy. For Hefti and his librettist Andreas Schäfer, this is also a metaphor for societal conditions – so this work, which is recommended for children of eight years and up, is both imaginative and highly topical too.

This much is already revealed by the thoroughly subversive break with the traditional gender roles. A boy that has been led astray by the Snow Queen – to all intents and purposes abused by her – is saved by a little girl. At the same time, we find expressed here the speechlessness of our own times, in which so-called “social” media offer much chatter and bluster, but in an anonymous, virtual space. “You could say: everyone has to dance to the tune of the Snow Queen”, explains Hefti in conversation. “She’s not just incapable of communicating, but is also overall unable to act socially or to show empathy. Kay is transformed by her and then shows no more emotion”.

For Hefti, the Snow Queen is thus a “perfect projection surface”. This is true not just for the topic’s potential for societal criticism, but also for Hefti’s music. Merging the contrasts of starkly different styles has long been one of Hefti’s preferred musical resources. “When I was starting out as a composer, I was into serial music. In concrete terms, I was very much attached to the Second Viennese School around Arnold Schoenberg” – especially Alban Berg. “But the older you get, the more you cast off what used to mould you, in order to develop something different”.

To be sure, serial techniques can still be found in Hefti’s music, but: “I use them to generate specific sounds and states of being”. This is also the case in The Snow Queen. Whether it’s an act of quiet reduction, a large-scale expression, noisy playing techniques or quarter-tone music: Hefti takes up everything that went before him. This is just as true with regard to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as that of avant-gardists such as Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono or Karlheinz Stockhausen.

“That’s not me”

In this comprehensive sense, Hefti’s music is unmistakeably anchored in tradition – a stance that he fundamentally shares with his former teacher Wolfgang Rihm. And it’s fascinating to experience how David Philip Hefti continually undermines the many layers of reference to tradition, or breaks them open from the inside out. Micro-tonal friction and noise-like, even percussive playing techniques open up his sound-world for what is other and original – in a positive sense, it’s virtuosic and expressive.

It’s precisely this that is made evident in Hefti’s most recent string quartet, his fifth. It was recently given its world première by the Merel Quartet at the “Zwischentöne” chamber music festival in Engelberg. It is also the second of a total of four works planned for his new cycle entitled “Nocturnal vigils”. This series is focussed on the night. In his Sator cycle, completed back in 2009, Hefti had already made five individual works cohere through using the same tonal material as germ cells; and by fragmenting his material, he makes dissolution tangible as a process.

Quarter-tones are diminished constantly until they form the smallest micro-intervals in a manner that is thoroughly subtle and sensuous in sound. Even in those of his works into which third-party music flows, it never sounds as if merely “transcribed”. We can observe this in exemplary form in works such as his String Quartet No. 3, Mobile, which subtly interrogates Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem, or his Wunderhorn Music for violin and ensemble with its Mahlerian references. Hefti isn’t of a mind to reinvent the wheel.

Hefti doesn’t regard himself as a revolutionary who breaks with the old like the avant-gardists did in Central Europe after the Second World War. He sees the reasons for this in his own origins. “I have the biographical problem of having been born in Switzerland in 1975. Existential fears, war and hunger are all unknown to me. So for me it wouldn’t be authentic to want to come across as a complete revolutionary. That’s not me”.

But what differentiates him quite fundamentally from other composers of his generation is his comforting refusal to engage with a post-modern “free-for-all” of “odds and ends”. Hefti’s music isn’t some multi-coloured mixed salad of all possible traditions and styles as arbitrary as it is garrulous. Instead, Hefti’s music is characterised by a constant search for an original, individual language of his own – as is also the case in The Snow Queen. This is Hefti’s second work in music theatre, after the operatic thriller Anna’s Mask, which was given its world première in his home city of St. Gallen in May 2017.

Hefti’s most difficult time

Hefti calls The Snow Queen “my hitherto best and most personal work”, even though the process of writing it was very difficult. While working on it, his first child was born – though with a severe heart defect that the doctors have meanwhile been able to operate on successfully. A child with a heart condition and an opera all about cold hearts – “That time was the most difficult for me, and yet at the same time it was the most wonderful in my life. Because my son is now completely cured”.

This text by Marco Frei is published on by kind permission of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung NZZ. © 2018 NZZ


31 okt. 2018

Tonhalle Orchester Zürich
o.l.v. David Philip Hefti

Soprano, the snow queen, the old woman, the young man, the robber: Mojca Erdmann
Speaker, narrator, Gerda: Delia Mayer
Speaker, Kay, a crow: Max Simonischek

Die Schneekönigin

Zürich (CH)




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