Press, August 2017:
“I’m researching places of longing”
The Zurich musician, actress and author Helena Rüegg has lived all over the world since she was a child. She recently returned to her old home for a special concert – Portrait of Frank von Niederhäuser, SFD
“Only standing room,” call the bouncers to the line of people waiting. The Winkel multi-purpose building in Altdorf fills up quickly despite the dense seating. The rush to the Sunday afternoon concert of the 10th Alpenône Festival is enormous. The organizers have a mixture of joy and surprise on their faces. Two locals, in the broadest sense of the word, are expected on the stage of the converted industrial building: cellist Kristina Brunner and saxophonist Albin Brun, both of whom come from nearby Lucerne and each have a Schwizerörgeli with them. The Iranian santoor player Alireza Mortazavi only knows those who heard him the night before in Altdorf. And the name of the bandleader on the bandoneon is probably the first time everyone read it in the program booklet.
Helena Rüegg greets the packed hall in Swiss German, but the slight hint of an accent underlines her confession: “I was looking forward to this return”. When queuing in front of the hall, one could hear what prompted the approximately 250 music lovers to go to the concert on this summery afternoon.
Helena Rüegg’s instrument is mentioned just as often as the concept of her quartet, which is being heard for the first time and plays Swiss folk music and songs with exotic instruments. The audience’s interest is rewarded in the concert. Rüegg and her three exquisite partners settle their adaptations and compositions in mixed areas of archaic and melancholic, appealing and exotic, of Ländler and tango, musette and jazz. They send the Vreneli abem Guggisberg along with Simes Hans-Joggeli to Persia. “Chumm, mir wei ga Chriesli gwünne” sounds in a beguiling minor key, and with E-Scottish it’s not just composer Brunner’s cello that grooves.
In an interim announcement, Helena Rüegg sums up what this idiosyncratic quartet is all about. “What is far, what is home? We want to meet these questions, if not with answers, at least with hunches.” Rüegg also says after the concert that she is researching places of longing. The 58-year-old from Zurich has been a citizen of the world since she was three years old. At that time, her family moved to Germany, where Rüegg has lived on and off since then. In between there were stations like Paris, Rotterdam and of course Buenos Aires, where she studied the bandoneon.
“As a child, I was often in Ticino, where we spent our holidays,” she emphasizes, adding in relation to her Altdorf festival appearance: “I do have a connection to the Alps.” Sung Swiss folk songs – from the “Röseligarte” collection. These memories have inspired her for the project “Fernweh”, with which she will give further concerts after the successful premiere in Altdorf. The success of their performance at the Alpenône is not only based on the gripping music.
Helena Rüegg takes her audience on her sound journeys, which are also journeys of the soul. “I’m a minor person,” she says, pointing out that the bandoneon and Schwizerörgeli are not tuned the same way, they even rub against each other: “We call this new mixed sound Bandörgeli.” Frictions, mixtures and ditches: Helena Rüegg’s life was and is never straight. “I’m a curious person and I find it boring to rest on the tried and tested,” she explains. That’s how she found her way to the bandoneon, which is played only rarely in Europe and mostly by men.
Originally an actress with engagements on major German stages, Rüegg felt the desire to give her life a new turn at the age of 32. “So I moved to the end of the world – to Buenos Aires.” And there she studied the instrument that accompanies her to this day. Although Helena Rüegg is a member of various top-class tango ensembles, she also improvises, which only a few dare to do on this already difficult instrument. Or she plays Swiss folk songs.
Helena Rüegg sits on stage with the bandoneon on her knees. She seems highly concentrated, but never static. Her eyes are in constant contact with her fellow musicians, she uses pauses in playing for gestural accompaniment, and between pieces she stands up and speaks to the audience. This creative restlessness means that Helena Rüegg is not “only” on the road as a musician. She writes non-fiction and novels, works as a radio journalist, gives courses – and attends some herself.
Of course she has an encore, she assures the enthusiastic audience in Altdorf, who frenetically applaud their satisfaction at the new discovery of a musician, one who is somehow “local” in the hall. Of course she has an encore, and she will also – let her know after the concert – be sold againOf course she has an encore, she assures the enthusiastic audience in Altdorf, who frenetically applaud their satisfaction at the new discovery of a musician, one who is somehow “local” in the hall. Of course she has an encore, and – she lets it be known after the concert – she will be playing more in Switzerland again. After the concert in Altdorfer Winkel she gives a TV interview. Then she’s gone. Disappeared. escaped The next day, Helena Rüegg reports – by email – from Barcelona. She will travel back home at some point. Oh yes: At the moment her home is in the south of France.
Cellist Stephan Breith and Helena Rüegg on the bandoneon give a remarkable concert in the unfortunately not full evangelical church in Bleidenstadt.
By Mathias Gubo, 03/20/2018
BLEIDENSTADT – Stephan Breith is honestly enthusiastic: He calls Helena Rüegg’s bandoneon “a small miracle box”, which proves right at the beginning of the 148th concert in the series “The long way into the 21st century” in the evangelical church in Bleidenstadt what in sticks to him. For the well-known “Air” by Johann Sebastian Bach, the bandoneon virtuoso takes over the part of the entire string section, Breith can play the solo parts on his cello.
Bach, just called “Johann Sebastian” by Stephan Breith, is also the one who repeatedly gives the two musicians the opportunity to refer to the roots of a composition. Because for the cellist, who launched this concert series 18 years ago, Bach is not only “the greatest mathematician”, but also the composer to whom all his successors refer again and again. Also Astor Piazzolla, the creator of modern tango, whose composition “Oblivion” is one of the highlights of the concert. When Rüegg pointed out that this piece of music could even be heard in a James Bond film, Breith responded coquettishly: “Who is James Bond?”
What is a bandoneon? The answer to this question is given by Helena Rüegg: “The most illogical and anarchistic instrument” one could imagine. It was originally invented in Karlsfeld in the Ore Mountains as a “miner’s piano”. During processions it often took over the function of an organ.
It has two tones per button, depending on whether you pull or push the instrument. It was so popular in the 1920s that there were more bandoneon clubs than football clubs in Germany, Rüegg reports.
But while it lost importance in Germany over time, it made an unexpected and completely new career in Argentina. The tango ensembles there recognized that his sound and his musical possibilities ideally suited them. So the bandoneon started a new career, out of the brothels in Buenos Aires and into the concert halls of the whole world. At the latest with Astor Piazzolla it came out of its niche existence.
No wonder that Helena Rüegg fell in love with this extraordinary instrument. She studied bandoneon at the tango department of the Rotterdam Conservatory, in Buenos Aires and in Paris. Her world career then picked up speed, she gave concerts on all the big stages, recorded CDs and wrote the standard work on tango. Today Rüegg lives in the south of France, but nevertheless makes music together with Stephan Breith, who moved to Schleswig when he retired but is still loyal to Bleidenstadt.
“Great dramas in three minutes” play Breith and Rüegg in the further course of their concert. Compositions by Piazzolla, Kurt Weill, Leo Koscielny or Helena Rüegg. You can hear and experience music full of life and love, full of hate and forgiveness – typically tango. Hector Stamponi’s wonderful tango waltz “Flor de Lino” will be performed. Unfortunately, none of the spectators found the courage to follow Rüegg’s request and dance to it. Even if many a foot under the pews gets into violent movement. As an encore then Bach again, a sinfonia from the cantata “I stand with one foot in the grave”. Stephan Breith’s very personal passion devotional.