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Michael Pelzel takes his organ engagements very seriously. And in order to be sitting punctually at the organ on Sundays, he might even travel back to Switzerland in the middle of the night if necessary. But now the reformed church congregation in Stäfa on Lake Zürich will probably have to do without their organist for some time, since the organist and composer Michael Pelzel is living for a year in Berlin as the guest of the Berlin Artists-in-Residence Program of the DAAD.
Pelzel relates how from the beginning, the organ’s wealth of sounds and its power had fascinated him. And by this he means not the instrument’s monolithic monumentality, but rather its sonic subtleties. For Michael Pelzel is an extremely sound-oriented composer. The music of the fin de siècle, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is appealing to him and, in its opulence and refinement, it is also a model for his own works – which by no means cater to retro yearnings; rather, they are complex state-of-the-art scores.
Pelzel’s work covers the entire spectrum of instrumental music, from solo works to chamber music to works for orchestra. Of special significance are several of his chamber works for large ensembles, which will be performed in January 2015, during a portrait concert at the Ultraschall Festival. Until now, vocal music has not played a major role in his oeuvre, but this will change during the course of his year in Berlin.
Michael Pelzel seems in some respects to be a person deeply connected to his homeland. Born in Rapperswil in 1978, he feels an intimate relationship with Lake Zürich and its old, majestic paddlewheel steamers. He has been living for a long time in Stäfa, a lakeside village near Zürich. But he has already spent half a year in Africa – and now comes Berlin.
Prelude to the invitation from the Berlin Artists-in-Residence Program of the DAAD was the Busoni Composition Prize of the Berlin Akademie der Künste, which he received in 2011. (One of many prizes Pelzel has been awarded in recent years.) In his laudatio on that occasion, Enno Poppe praised the composer’s ability to “transform influences into something personal”: Michael Pelzel “is one of the most passionate composers I know”, according to Poppe. Indeed, among Swiss composer’s most striking character traits is his extraordinary enthusiasm.
That inner glow becomes clear, for example, when the tremendously well-read composer speaks about his favorite writer Hermann Burger. Before long Pelzel has begun to enthuse, becoming excited about details that would escape the notice of most others. His interests as a composer also hinge on such details. His careful design for the overall form is at once a cornucopia of finely drawn microorganisms and sounds. Everything in these works, to cite Enno Poppe once more, has been re-listened to many times and reworked to the utmost.
Pelzel has something else in common with Burger, that unfortunately little-known Swiss writer: his sense of eccentricity, his drollness. Not as a compositional means designed to call attention to itself, but born of a deeper, authentically felt affinity for the artificial, for artifice, which he transforms into art.
How else would someone come up with the idea of making Diabelli – the “prestidigitator” to whom Hermann Burger devoted a wonderfully concocted short story – the hero of a work of music theater? Pelzel is impelled by the virtuosity of the magician and of acrobatics, an interest in games of hide-and-seek and in illusion. And this is where we find ourselves on genuine musical terrain.
While in Berlin, Pelzel will primarily devote himself to his music theater project. He will be feeding off of an earlier “sin”, as he puts it, a musical he composed in his early years, which – although it sidetracked him stylistically on paths he did not pursue – did provide him with experience in creating music for the stage. Do not expect an “opera” in the traditional sense. Rather, an artistic spectacle, a carnival awaits us: a highly virtuosic arabesque, a flamboyant Mannerist étude.
And during his Berlin residency, Pelzel will most certainly be active as an organist, with works of his own and by others.

Text: Rainer Pöllmann, 2014

photo: Vinzenz Niedermann

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