Tag: Berg

2019: Looking Forward

Andreas Schlüter kopf einer gottin

Andreas Schlüter, Kopf einer Göttin (Head of a Goddess); Bode Museum Berlin, 1704. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

A new year is a good time for assessments and remembrances, for reflecting on moments good, bad, and otherwise. As well as a desire to keep more cultural experiences within the personal realm, I’d prefer look ahead, to things that spark my imagination and inspire expansion, challenge, and evolution.

Earlier this year a friend observed that my tastes have become (his words) “more adventurous” over the past eighteen months or so. Flattering as this is, it’s also a reminder of the extent to which I have layered over my past, one largely spent wandering through the vast, lusciously dark forests of curiosity and wonder. Decades of weighty responsibility cut that forest down and gave me a deep trunk, into which all the unfinished canvases of a fragrant, lush wonder were stored; I came to believe, somehow, such a trunk had no place in the busy crowded living room I’d been busily filling with the safe, acceptable predictability of other peoples’ stuff. My mother’s passing in 2015 initially created a worship of ornate things from her trunk — perhaps my attempt to raise her with a chorus of sounds, as if I was Orpheus, an instinct based more in the exercise of sentiment than in the embrace and extension of soul.

Contending with a tremendous purge of items from the near and distant past has created a personal distaste for the insistent grasping and romanticizing of history (though I do allow myself to enjoy some of its recorded splendor, and its visual arts, as the photos on this feature attest). Such romanticizing utterly defines various segments of the opera world, resulting in various factions marking themselves gatekeepers of a supposedly fabled legacy which, by its nature, is meant to shape-shift, twist, curl, open, and change. It’s fun to swim in the warm, frothy seas of nostalgia every now and again, but mistaking those waves for (or much less preferring them to) the clear, sharp coldness of fresh water seems a bit absurd to me. À chacun son goût, perhaps. 

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František Kupka, Plans par couleurs, grand nu; 1909-1910, on loan to Grande Palais Paris; permanent collection, Guggenheim NYC. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Rediscovering the contents of my own trunk, pulling each item out, examining it in the sunlight, looking at what it means now (if anything) and deciding whether to keep or bin, has been a slow if meaningful process; it has been a homecoming to myself, one groaning and gloriously stretching with every breath. Refreshingly, such a process has not been defined by the rather narrow tastes of a somewhat culturally dictatorial mother, but by things I like, things I miss, things have no need to feel validated for liking.

“You’re so serious,” I was once told, “serious and critical and intellectual.”

I don’t know if any of these things are (or were) true, but making a point of experiencing the work of artists who reveal and inspire (and challenge and move) has become the single-biggest motivating factor in my life. “Adventurous” is less a new fascinator than an old (and beloved) hat. Here’s to taking it out of the trunk, and wearing it often and well in 2019. 

Verdi, Messa da Requiem; Staatsoper Hamburg, January

The year opens with an old chestnut, reimagined by director Calixto Bieito into a new, bright bud. Bieito’s productions are always theatrical, divisive and deeply thought-provoking. Doing a formal staging Verdi’s famous requiem, instead of presenting it in traditional concert (/ park-and-bark) mode, feels like something of a coup. Paolo Arrivabeni conducts this production, which premiered in Hamburg last year, which features a stellar cast, including the sonorous bass of Gabor Bretz.

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Jean-Joseph Perraud, Le Désespoir; 1869, Paris; Musée d’Orsay. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Tchaikovsky/Bartok, Iolanta Bluebeard’s Castle, NYC, January

A double-bill exploring the various (and frequently darker) facets of human relating, this Marius Treliński production (from the 2014-2015 season) features soprano Sonya Yoncheva and tenor Matthew Polenzani in Tchaikovsky’s one-act work; baritone Gerald Finley and soprano Angela Denoke perform in Bartók’s dark tale of black secrets, last staged at the Met in early 2015. The orchestra could well be considered a third character in the work, so rich is it in coloration and textures.  No small feat to sing either, as music writer Andrew McGregor has noted that “the music is so closely tied to the rhythms and colours of the Hungarian language.” Henrik Nánási, former music director at Komische Oper Berlin, conducts.

Vivier, Kopernikus; Staatsoper Berlin, January

Spoiler: I am working on a feature (another one) about the Quebec-born composer’s influence and the recent rise in attention his work have enjoyed. Kopernikus (subtitle: Rituel de Mort) is an unusual work on a number of levels; composed of a series of tableaux, there’s no real narrative, but an integration of a number of mythological figures as well as real and imagined languages that match the tonal colors of the score.  This production (helmed by director Wouter van Looy, who is Artistic Co-Director of Flemish theatre company Muziektheater Transparant) comes prior ahead of a production the Canadian troupe Against the Grain (led by Joel Ivany) are doing in Toronto this coming April.

Vustin, The Devil in LoveStanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, February

It was while investigating the work of Russian composer and pianist Rodion Shchedrin that I learned about the work of contemporary composer Alexander Vustin — and became utterly smitten with it. A composer who previously worked in both broadcasting and publishing, Vustin’s opera is based on the 1772 Jacques Cazotte novel Le Diable amoureux, which revolves around a demon who falls in love with a human. Vustin wrote his opera between 1975 and 1989, but The Devil in Love will only now enjoy its world premiere, in a staging by Alexander Titel (Artistic Director of the Stanislavsky Opera) and with music direction/conducting by future Bayerische Staatsoper General Music Director Vladimir Jurowski.

zurich opera

Inside Opernhaus Zurich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre; Opernhaus Zurich, February

The Opernhaus Zurich website describes this work, which is based on a play by Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, as “one of the 20th century’s most potent works of musical theatre.” It is also one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen; anyone who’s experienced it comes away changed. Directed by Tatjana Gürbaca (who’s directed many times in Zurich now), the work is, by turns, coarse, shocking, cryptic, and deliciously absurd. General Music Director Fabio Luisi (who I am more used to seeing conduct Mozart and Verdi at the Met) was to lead what Ligeti himself has called an “anti-anti-opera”; he’s been forced to cancel for health reasons. Tito Ceccherini will be on the podium in his place.

Zemlinsky, Der Zwerg; Deutsche Oper Berlin, February

Another wonderfully disturbing work, this time by early 20th century composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, whose “Die Seejungfrau” (The Mermaid) fantasy for orchestra is an all-time favorite of mine. Der Zwerg, or The Dwarf, is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s disturbing short story “The Birthday of the Infanta” and is infused with the sounds of Strauss and Mahler, but with Zemlinsky’s own unique sonic richness. Donald Runnicles (General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper ) conducts, with powerhouse tenor David Butt Philip in the title role, in a staging by Tobias Kratzer, who makes his DO debut.

lucke grimace

Johann Christian Ludwig Lücke , Bust of a Grimacing Man with a Slouch Hat; 1740, Elfenbein; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Kurtág, Fin de Partie; Dutch National Opera, March

Among the many music happenings of late which could be called an event with a capital “e”, this one has to rank near the top. Ninety-one year-old composer György Kurtág has based his first opera on Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame. Premiering at Teatro Alla Scala in November, music writer Alex Ross noted that “(n)ot since Debussy’s  “Pelléas et Mélisande” has there been vocal writing of such radical transparency: every wounded word strikes home.” Director Pierre Audi and conductor Markus Stenz (chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra) bring Kurtág’s painfully-birthed opera to Amsterdam for three (nearly sold-out) dates.

Handel, Poros, Komische Oper Berlin, March

A new staging of a rarely-heard work by legendary opera director Harry Kupker, Handel’s 1731 opera based around Alexander the Great’s Indian campaign features the deep-hued soprano of Ruzan Mantashyan as Mahamaya and the gorgeously lush baritone of KOB ensemble member Dominik Köninger in the title role. Conductor Jörg Halubek, co-founder of the Stuttgart baroque orchestra Il Gusto Barocco (which specializes in forgotten works) makes his KOB debut. The combination of Kupfer, Handel, and Komische Oper is, to my mind, very exciting indeed.

woman bode

Southern Netherlands, Screaming Woman; late 16th century; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Opera National de Paris, April  

A new production of Shostakovich’s passionate, brutal, and darkly funny opera from innovative director Krzysztof Warlikowski, whose creative and thoughtful presentations have appeared on the stages of Bayerische Staatsoper, the Royal Opera, Teatro Real (Madrid), and La Monnaie (Brussels), to name a few. He also staged The Rake’s Progress in Berlin at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater. Here he’ll be directing soprano Ausrine Stundyte in the lead as the sexy, restless Lady, alongside tenor John Daszak as Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov (I really enjoyed his performance in this very role at the Royal Opera last year), bass (and Stanislavsky Opera regular) Dmitry Ulyanov as pushy father Boris, and tenor Pavel Černoch as the crafty Sergei. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher is on the podium.

Berlioz, La damnation de Faust; Glyndebourne, May

Glyndebourne Festival Music Director Robin Ticciati leads the London Philharmonic and tenor Allan Clayton (so impressive in Brett Dean’s Hamlet, which debuted at Glyndebourne in 2017) as the doomed title character, with baritone Christopher Purves as the deliciously diabolical Mephistopheles, and French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne as Marguerite. I love this score, a lot, and quite enjoyed a 2017 staging at Opéra Royal de Wallonie. Likewise the work of director Richard Jones, whose Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Royal Opera last year afforded some very creative choices and character insights; I’m very curious how he might approach Berlioz’s dreamy, surreal work, together with Ticciati’s signature lyrical approach.

hands neues museen

Pair of Hands from a group statue of Akhenaten and Nefertiti or two princesses; Neues Reich 18 Dynastie. At the Neues Museen, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Gluck, Alceste; Bayerische Staatsoper, May

A new production of Gluck’s opera about self-sacrificing love with a fascinating backstory: after its publishing in 1769, a preface was added to the score by Gluck and his librettist which outlined ideas for operatic reform. The list included things like making the overture more closely linked with the ensuing action, no improvisation, and less repetition within arias. Alceste came to be known as one of Gluck’s “reform” operas (after Orfeo ed Euridice). Two decades later, Mozart used the same chord progressions from a section of the opera for a scene in his Don Giovanni, which Berlioz called “heavily in-inspired or rather plagiarized.” The Bavarian State Opera production will feature a solid cast which includes tenor Charles Castronovo, soprano Dorothea Röschmann,  and baritone Michael Nagy, under the baton of Antonello Manacorda.

Handel, Belshazzar; The Grange Festival, June 

Described on The Grange’s website as “an early Aida,” this rare staging of the biblical oratorio sees a cast of baroque specialists (including tenor Robert Murray in the title role and luminous soprano Rosemary Joshua as his mother, Nitocris) tackling the epic work about the fall of Babylon, and the freeing of the of the Jewish nation. Musicologist Winton Dean has noted the work was composed during “the peak of Handel’s creative life.” Presented in collaboration with The Sixteen, a UK-based choir and period instrument orchestra, the work will be directed by Daniel Slater (known for his unique takes on well-known material) and will be led by The Sixteen founder Harry Christophers.

Festival Aix-en-Provence, July

The final collaboration between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (and the source of the famous “Alabama Song”), Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny will be presented in a new production featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Director Ivo van Hove (whose Boris Godounov at the Opera de Paris this past summer I was so shocked and moved by) helms the work; casting has yet to be announced. Music writer Rupert Christiansen has noted that it “remains very hard to perform […] with the right balance between its slick charm and its cutting edge.” Also noteworthy: the French premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s one-act chamber opera Jakob Lenz, based on Georg Büchner’s novella about the German poet. (Büchner is perhaps best-known for his unfinished play Woyzeck, later adapted by Alban Berg.) Presented by Ensemble Modern, the work will be helmed by award-winning director Andrea Breth and conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. This summer’s edition of the festival marks Pierre Audi’s first term as its new Director, and all five productions being staged are firsts for the fest as well.

sphinx altes

Sphinx of Shepenupet II, god’s wife of Amon; late period 25th Dynasty, around 660 B.C.; Altes Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Enescu,Œdipe; Salzburger Festspiele, August

The Romanian composer’s 1931 opera based on the mythological tale of Oedipus is presented in a new production at the Salzburg Festival and features a stellar cast which includes bass John Tomlinson as the prophet Tirésias, mezzo-soprano  as Jocasta, mezzo soprano Clémentine Margaine (known for her numerous turns as Bizet’s Carmen) as The Sphinx, baritone Boris Pinkhasovich as Thésée, and baritone Christopher Maltman in the title role. In writing about Enescu’s score, French music critic Emile Vuillermoz noted that “(t)he instruments speak here a strange language, direct, frank and grave, which does not owe anything to the traditional polyphonies.” Staging is by Achim Freyer (who helmed a whimsical production of Hänsel and Gretel at the Staatsoper Berlin), with Ingo Metzmacher on the podium.

Schoenberg, Moses und Aron; Enescu Festival, September

In April 1923, Schoenberg would write to Wassily Kandinsky: “I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me this year, and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but that I am a Jew.” The ugly incident that inspired this would result in his mid-1920s agitprop play Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way), from which Moses und Aron would ultimately spring. Essentially a mystical plunge into the connections between community, identity, and divinity, this sonically dense and very rewarding work will be presented at the biennial George Enescu Festival, in an in-concert presentation featuring Robert Hayward as Moses and tenor John Daszak as Aron (a repeat pairing from when they appeared in a 2015 Komische Oper Berlin production), with Lothar Zagrosek on the podium.

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Post-opera strolling in Wexford. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Wexford Festival Opera, October

It’s hard to choose just one work when Wexford is really a broader integrative experience; my visit this past autumn underlined the intertwined relationship between onstage offerings and local charms. The operas being presented at the 2019 edition include Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet (which I saw, rather memorably, with Ferruccio Furlanetto in the lead), and the little-performed (and rather forgotten) Adina by Gioacchino Rossini, a co-production with Rossini Opera Festival. The latter will be paired with a new work, La Cucina, by Irish composer Andrew Synnott.

Strauss, Die ägyptische Helena; Teatro Alla Scala, November

A reimagining the myth of Helen of Troy (courtesy of Euripides) sees Paris seduce a phantom Helen created by the goddess Hera, while the real thing is held captive in Egypt until a long-awaited reunion with her husband Menelas. In a 2007 feature for the New York Times (published concurrent to a then-running production at the Met), music critic Anthony Tommasini characterized Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto as “verbose and philosophical,” and posed questions relating to Strauss’s score thusly: “Is a passage heroic or mock-heroic? Opulently lyrical or intentionally over the top?” I suspect those are precisely the questions the composer wanted to be raised; he questions not just the tough questions around intimate relating, but ones connected with audience and artist. The piece features some breathtaking vocal writing as well. Sven-Eric Bechtolf (whose Don Giovanni I so enjoyed at Salzburg in 2016) directs, and Franz Welser-Möst leads a powerhouse cast that includes tenor Andreas Schager, baritone Thomas Hampson, and soprano Ricarda Merbeth as the titular Helena. This production marks the first time Die ägyptische Helena has been presented at La Scala.

Oskar Kallis, Sous le soleil d’été; 1917, on loan to Musée d’Orsay; permanent collection, Eesti Kunstimuuseum, Tallinn.

Messager, FortunioOpéra-Comique, December

I freely admit to loving comédie lyrique; the genre is a lovely, poetic  cousin to operetta. Fortunio, which was premiered in 1907 by the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart in Paris, is based on the 1835 play Le Chandelier by Alfred de Musset and concerns a young clerk (the Fortunio of the title) caught in a web of deceit with the wife of an old notary, with whom he is enamored. Gabriel Fauré, who was in the opening night audience (along with fellow composers Claude Debussy and Gabriel Pierné) noted of André Messager (in a review for Le Figaro) that he possessed “the gifts of elegance and clarity, of wit, of playful grace, united to the most perfect knowledge of the technique of his art.” This production, from 2009, reunites original director Denis Podalydès with original conductor Louis Langrée. Paris en décembre? Peut-être!

herbin composition

Auguste Herbin, Composition; 1928, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This list may seem extensive, but there’s so much I’ve left out — festivals like Verbier and Les Chorégies d’Orangehouses like Wiener Staatsoper and Teatro Real, outlets in Scandinavia (Den Norske, Royal Swedish Opera, Savonlinna) and Italy (Pesaro, Parma) and the UK (Aldeburgh, Garsington, ENO, and of course the Royal Opera). It’s still too early for many organizations to be announcing their upcoming (September and beyond) seasons; I’m awaiting those releases, shivering, to quote Dr. Frank-n-furter, with antici…pation.

And, just in the interests of clarifying an obvious and quite intentional omission: symphonic events were not included in this compilation. The sheer scale, volume, and variance would’ve diffused my purposeful opera focus. I feel somewhat odd about this exclusion; attending symphonies does occupy a deeply central place for me on a number of levels, as it did throughout my teenaged years. Experiencing concerts live is really one of my most dear and supreme joys. I may address this in a future post, which, as with everything, won’t be limited by geography, genre, range or repertoire. In these days of tumbling definitions and liquid tastes , it feels right (and good) to mash organizations and sounds against one another, in words, sounds, and spirit.

For now, I raise a glass to 2019, embracing adventure — in music, in the theatre, in life, and beyond. So should you. Santé!

Review: ‘Wozzeck’ at Deutsche Oper Berlin Misses The Mark

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Which came first, the concept or the opera?

This is the question I kept asking myself through Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of Wozzeck at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Having been frequently presented in Berlin over the past few years, this presentation is, admittedly, up against some stiff competition, but not having seen any of those stagings myself, I was going in fresh, curious if I might finally experience a production I liked. Alas.

Keeping in mind what I’d written about Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and how Regie can and frequently does divide opinion, Wozzeck is one of those works that is divisive by its very nature. It invites abstract production because of its entirely abstract nature — the work itself, through its score and story and frequent use of Sprechgesang, resists the idea of tradition, purposely poking, prodding, and sometimes happily eviscerating the entire concept. Creative choices can sometimes thrive in and around such works, and yet, I have yet to see a live performance of Wozzeck that completely satisfies; alas, last evening’s experience at Deutsche Oper  Berlin did nothing in altering this stymied state of music affairs.

Berg’s opera is based on the play Woyzeck, and though it was left incomplete by author Georg Büchner (who died in 1837), it remains a highly influential work, particularly within the German theatre world. So too Berg’s Wozzeck within a classical music corollary; even now, a century after its composition, the work remains revolutionary for its whole-hearted embrace of atonality. Solidly resisting all the predictable sounds and techniques which had dominated Western classical music (along with standard operatic forms) up to that point, the opera, written between 1914 and 1922 and premiered in Berlin, went on to enjoy immense success across Europe before it was labelled “degenerate art” by the Nazis in 1933. It is, as Britannica tidily puts it, “a dark story of madness and murder,” its titular character a soldier stationed in a town near to a military barracks in the early 19th century; an unfaithful wife, an illegitimate child, medical experiments, and murder are all part of the narrative which unfolds over 15 scenes, spread across three acts. It is, in a word, haunting; within Wozzeck‘s score can be heard the oncoming horror of the First World War, the breaking point of the social divides within late 19th century/early 20th century Europe, the desperation of people in an unforgiving place — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually. It is a deeply affecting portrait of alienation, a trait various productions have attempted to underline, amplify, and explore, with varying results, since its first production in 1925.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Tandberg places the action in the early/mid 20th century, in, as the program notes, the interior of a coffee house near the Oslo Royal Castle, on or around National Day in Norway, May 17th. The work opens with Wozzeck (Johan Reuter) and the Captain (Burkhard Ulrich) debating morality, though viewers will clearly note the line of soldiers with their pants down as Wozzeck tends to (ostensibly shaves) them; he later bends over for an examination himself. The carefully sterile set design, by Erlend Birkeland, reveals a precise geometry of repression, with square school-style tables in a canteen-like space framed by more boxes: a long bar, imposing doors and windows, where things are seen but remotely revealed, not even when soldiers can be seen frolicking and stripping naked. The scientific specimens the Doktor (Seth Carico) looks at through his microscope are projected via a tidy white circle upstage, which later drips with color, a display of fragility and cruelty at once. These are striking images, to be sure, but feel oddly distant to the work and its concerns. Those twin concepts — fragility and cruelty — and the way they interact, are vital to knowing and appreciating the life (inner and outer) of the central character, yet they are never explored. Wozzeck and the other characters are so smartly attired, it’s as if the subtext of destitution (so closely connected to that fragile-cruel dance) doesn’t exist at all. Surreal free-flows of ideas are fine, but the ones here have been placed not in service of the drama, but before it, which short-changes both the characters and our sense of them.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

This emphasis is most clearly expressed in the use of video. Tandberg, who previously directed Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Bizet’s Carmen at the Deutsche Oper, presents each of the fifteen scenes that make up Wozzeck as pseudo-vignettes, tenuously (and tediously) divided by the closing and reopening of a black curtain, onto which is projected an immense, black-and-white close-up video of the face of its title character, blinking and silent. Rather than being an insightful and excitingly confrontational choice, the technique, in its insistent repetition, draws attention to itself and becomes a frustrating distraction that kills the much-needed integration of drama, characters, and music; Berg’s score becomes a backdrop to an aesthetic, or series of aesthetics, that creates a disconnect between score, story, and an integrated experience of each.

It doesn’t help that musically this Wozzeck seemed over-dynamic and yet frustratingly gutless. Musical motifs for the Doktor, Captain, Drum Major (Thomas Blondelle), and Marie (Elena Zhidkova), while prominent, were not clear in delineating characterizations within Deutsche Oper General Music Director Donald Runnicles’s grey reading, which had an unfortunate and consistent tendency toward limpid tempos and lack of coloration. Wozzeck’s motifs were jaggedly unfocused and suffered further by being diffused against Tandberg’s over-enthusiastic use of curtain/video. Any sense of vocal nuance baritone Reuter might have attempted to bring to form a more satisfying and complete characterization was washed out by the sheer volume coming from the pit, though baritone Carico, as a demented Doktor, and Zhidkova, with her plummy mezzo tones, fared better. The surreal tone of the production, while brave, added little if any value to the experience and understanding of the opera. Alas, all was also washed out to sea, drowning in more than the blood that flowed, mercilessly, in the final scene.

A Gorgeous Grisey With Ensemble intercontemporain

Ensemble intercontemporain Musikfest

Ensemble intercontemporain, conductor Matthias Pintscher, and mezzo soprano Salomé Haller perform at the Boulez Hall as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

In a previous post, I wrote about how a recent concert attempted to (and was largely successful at) making its listeners examine their relationship with time, space, and sound. Despite some complimentary words, I still don’t feel I did a very adequate job in explaining just how Sir George Benjamin and the Berlin Philharmonic achieved such a mighty thing. Try as I might (many hours were spent frowning and sighing), I simply could not put into words the uniquely special effect this past weekend’s concert had within such a specific context. My more recent experience Monday evening with the Ensemble intercontemporain at Berlin Musikfest underlined this futility of language to describe the aurally sublime, while also providing clues about getting thoughts to page and expressing that unique and sometimes-elusive how. Masterful, powerfully moving performances of works by Berg, Boulez, and most especially Grisey, showed me the way.

Maybe it’s more precise to say that Ensemble intercontemporain showed me the way; the French group brought a special flair and intense focus that only musicians in a full-time group dedicated to modern works can bring. Formed in 1976 by Pierre Boulez (with the support of then-Minister of Culture Michel Guy), the group, which employs 31 soloists full-time, is dedicated to the exploration of instrumental techniques and the developments of interdisciplinary projects, blending theater, film, dance, visual art, video, and music. As their official bio reminds us, new pieces are commissioned and performed on a regular basis, and they also have a strong commitment to music education. Resident of the Philharmonie de Paris, they take part in various worldwide festivals and have consistently won acclaim for their meaty, fascinating programming.

ensemble intercontemporain

Photo: © Christophe Urbain

The ensemble’s palpable blend of exploration, experimentation, and education was melded with a deep poetry at the Boulez Hall in Berlin on Monday night, with the ten musicians (plus mezzo soprano Salomé Haller) in perfect alignment with conductor Matthias Pintscher. The first piece featured pianist Dimitri Vassilakis and clarinetist Martin Adámek in a wonderfully sensuous reading of Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano op. 5. Composed in 1913 , the work is notable for its brevity (it’s only about nine minutes in total), one which music writer Paul Griffiths’s excellent program notes remind us is “more characteristic of Webern”, another Schoenberg pupil known for composing expressive miniatures. The clear chemistry between the soloists here added to the inherent drama of the harmonies; while Vassilakis placed special emphasis on shaping lyrical piano lines, Adámek’s clarinet produced full, rounded tones, giving the piece a dreamy feel. It was a poetic performance packed with narrative intent, and a perfect introduction to the heart-and-head, forty-plus-minute opus of Gérard Grisey’s Vortex temporum I-III for Piano and five instruments, composed between 1994 and 1996.

It’s worth noting here that I think any listener who comes to the work of Grisey will have a very strong reaction to it; you can’t hear his work and remain indifferent. I first heard the French composer’s music as a teenager, and though I loved it, I was strongly discouraged from further exploration by an Italian-opera-loving mother who dismissed modern composition as “irritating noise that goes nowhere.” Moving past that pronouncement had its own set of challenges, but also a rich mountain of rewards; through regular (if sometimes covert) exposure, I began to listen to things in a far deeper way, finding it was music that went everywhere, most especially places I didn’t think I was smart enough to enter. (I still struggle with this feeling of utter intellectual ineptitude.) Shortly after my Grisey discovery (and directly related to it), I came across the work of Claude Vivier, which I had the privilege of writing about professionally earlier this year. A live presentation of the work of either composer is, for me, a thing apart; I never leave as quite the same person after such performances, and without speaking for them, I can only wonder if Grisey and Vivier might take some sort of delight in this.

Grisey’s Vortex temporum has an opening like circles in water, referencing what Griffiths smartly describes as a “little flurry” taken from the dawn scene of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. Grisey was part of the spectral music movement (though he disliked the term), one which music writer Alex Ross describes in his monumental 2007 book The Rest Is Noise as “often just a step or two removed from the singing and shimmering textures of Debussy and Ravel.” The presentation on Monday night at the acoustically gorgeous Boulez Hall brought this relationship to the fore. String players were flanked, on either side, by woodwinds (flautist Sophie Cherrier and clarinetist Adámek), with piano behind them, affording those of us situated in a certain spot to catch tonal flurries as they underwent various progressions of renewal, reiteration, and revolution, each sound stretched and distended, a “rotary tuning par excellence,” to quote the composer himself. The experience of this “rotary” and its subsequent metamorphoses would be experienced differently for each member of the audience on Monday night; my own view allowed not only observation Vassilakis’s flying fingerwork, but to experience the sound of the strings — lilting, twisting, floating, stabbing — in unique and unusual ways. I kept wondering how people in the seats ringed above me were experiencing such ethereal sound; surely it had to be different and no less sublime?

Boulez Saal Berlin

Photo: © Volker Kreidler

Between the musicians’ seating arrangement and the hall’s architecture (a long oval, and not dissimilar to a basketball court), perceptions and direct experience with the sounds being produced were being gradually if very clearly altered and moulded, highlighting the paradoxical nature of performance: individual and communal, personal and shared, epic and intimate. Echoes of ritual were also underlined, a connection with a wordless divine shaped by the shared and yet highly personalized experience set within formal parameters at once predictable (people blow into instruments or put bow to strings and sound is produced) and unpredictable (how do they blow in those instruments or touch that bow to strings?). Technique was utilized not merely in the service of imitation (for instance, the sawing of strings recalling the sounds in nature) but as part of exploration and meditation, which become twins in Grisey’s rich and spectral sound garden. A ravishingly virtuosic piano section (using purposefully detuned notes) became part of a larger continuum  of time and space, where even the turning of pages was part and parcel of an insistent and entirely holy sonic exploration.

grisey musikfest sciarrino

Program photo: mine. Grisey photo: Salvator Sciarrino. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Thus the slow fade of a chord melted cinematically away into a windswept bassline, and the slow repetition of notes transformed into a plodding foreboding storyline in and of itself. Ensemble intercontemporain have an inbuilt sense of drama, whereby they imbue theatrical knowing into every tiny moment and microtone. The act of listening becomes far more than passive; you are being asked (nay, demanded) to thread tone with three tempo levels which, as Griffiths writes, “for the composer represented human time (the time-sale of speech and breathing), the dilated time of whales, and the effervescent time of birds and insects.”

With sound at points becoming pure building blocks, Grisey challenges us: how do we hear this sound right now? Are we all hearing it the same? What images do we associate with this tone, or this, or… this? Ensemble intercontemporain forced its audience to ask these questions even as Pintscher moved the work invariably forwards with thrilling momentum, and into the third section, with its reprise of spiralling introductory chords, a hypnotizing sound with intricate waves of sound — sweeping, careful, then broad. Pintscher emphasized the relationship between strings, which provided a clear counterpoint to lyrical piano lines, which led to a  grandiose pseudo-finale, musically anticipated, but magically transformed and then distilled, like mists of raindrops, into a breathing single note. 

Haller intercontemporain musikfest

Photo: © Adam Janisch

Thus the influence of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître  (The Hammer Without A Master), performed in the program’s second half, was made all the more clear, as Boulez, even in 1955 (when the piece was composed), was examining what Griffiths terms “the co-existence of spontaneity and system.” With Boulez, however, his work (scored for contralto and six instrumentalists, and  sets to the surrealist poetry of René Char) examines the relationships between psychological and technological, natural and mechanical, historical and inexplicable. This was the work that established the then-30-year-old composer’s international reputation, and, as my seatmate on Monday reminded me, shares unmistakable similarities (especially in its last movement) to John Cage’s Sixteen Dances, composed in 1950-51. Again, the spatial arrangement affected listener perceptions and experiences, though as the program notes, “Boulez’s logic was a logic in how the music was made, not in how it may be perceived: there his ideal was an opacity of scintillation and speed, an encounter with something too fluid and fast to be grasped.” Being behind the ensemble and close to the percussion section (with a vibraphone to my left and xylophone to my right) afforded an intimate experience with this opacity. 

With a spritely opening and bouncy interplay of strings, flute, vibraphone and guitar, Pintscher emphasized the pulsating nature of the work, with both vibraphone and xylophone aggressive in their attacks. Haller’s luscious tone became a distant call, less intimate, more beckoning from afar, expressively swirling through Boulez’s syncopated lines. The lyrical woodwinds in the third movement were complemented and continued by jagged if bright percussion, which led directly into the prodding strings of the fourth movement. Overtones of Ravel’s gentle lyricism could be heard in the final section, though by then, heart and head were at bursting point. 

This was an immensely moving concert that answered the how in my music-listening explorations, even if it inevitably left the imprint of a million more whys. Perhaps there are some questions that defy answers, and maybe, just maybe, that is just where music comes in.

 

A Rich Meal With The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

rehearsal RCO musikfest

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under conductor Manfred Honeck rehearse for their performance at the Berlin Musikfest. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

Whether owing to or despite the recent dramas the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has endured, their concert at this year’s edition of the Berlin Musikfest was remarkable in every sense. Even more remarkable was the number of empty seats within the Philharmonie.

“Berliners,” commented a seatmate, her eyes rolling, “only tend to come out for their own.”

Whether there’s any truth to this observation or not, it was a pity to note; this was a gorgeous, rich meal of a concert which featured a mixed program of works with an interesting commonality: initial failure. I attended with a heap of curiosity, not only to see how replacement conductor Manfred Honeck might fare, but to see how he and the artists might fit the works of Webern, Berg, and Bruckner together — works which, at their respective premieres (in 1909, 1913, and 1889) failed entirely. There was a riot at the performance of the Berg work; audiences at the premiere of Bruckner’s Third literally walked out as the music was being performed. These works were not without formidable influences; as the program notes remind us, “the composers, over the generations, found their own answers to Wagner’s challenge” —  but it’s worth noting that other sonic echoes — that of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Second Viennese School leader Arnold Schoenberg especially — are entirely palpable (or anticipated), in both form and style. There is an immensity of intention which draws clear parallels to the elder statesmen of late romantic/early modern music, along with a palpable, grand dread. This quality is especially perceivable throughout the Webern and Berg works, as if they were somehow intuiting the immense social reset and the terrible tragedy just around the corner. It is music within whose bars you can hear empires crumbling, a call into the total void, a questing for authenticity and meaning.

Remaking old forms and probing new avenues were hallmarks of the compositional approach of the Second Viennese School, and for all the atonal explorations and aural adventuring, the works of composers like Berg, Webern, and their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, has, at least for me, sonically luxuriant leanings, even amidst the most sparse sounds. Central tonalities or not (some have them; some don’t, and this can be initially strange for new listeners), there is a heartbeat of the real in this music, and that makes it captivating; I’m always struck, hearing the work of Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, at their immense presence, their reaching for the essential, the real, and even, to my ears, the sensuous. One simply has to have the right orchestra, and the right conductor, to draw (carefully) such features out. The Royal Concertgebouw, as led by Honeck, provided just that this past Tuesday evening.

royal concertgebouw orchestra

Photo: © Anne Doctor

Certainly, Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5, Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs , Op. 4 (also known as the Altenberg Lieder), and Bruckner’s Third Symphony have enjoyed success since their respectively disastrous premieres. The Concertgebouw Orchestra underlined the unique beauty of each in a rich, well-paced program that was a treat to experience. Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5 (the 1929 orchestral version), running roughly eleven minutes in total, is an exploration of color and tonality —or austere atonality, as it were.  The first movement is characterized by a conversationality between strings, with whisper-like pizzicato effects, a sinuous string tone, and virtuosic demands on the Concertmaster; in this, Vesko Eschkenazy handled the lines with aplomb. Resembling at times a film soundtrack (Jaws came to mind), Honeck highlighted the idiosyncratic bass work in the third movement, rendering chewy timbres that led to a dramatically hushed conclusion, echoed later in the rippling opening of the fifth movement, with its interplay between textures and colors. Held with a tenuous balance, Honeck ensured the ending was pointedly unstable, a close that provided the perfect foray into Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs, which featured the vocal talents of soprano Anett Fritsch.

soprano Fritsch

Soprano Anett Fritsch (Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann)

As scholar David P. Schroeder rightly notes, this work “defined Berg’s future direction as did no other of his early works.”  The cascade of sound opening the work was characterized by the Concertgebouw’s luxurious approach, with a deft mix of phrasing and tempi. Honeck emphasized the sonic resplendence with a lovely balance of strings and vocality, leading with an expansive lyricism which finds the soft edges and colors within Berg’s fascinating score. Based around a series of epigrammatic texts by writer  “Peter Altenberg” (real name Richard Engländer), with whom Berg shared a complicated friendship, the work is a densely rich collection that balances beauty and melancholy in one tension-filled package; one can clearly hear early indications of Berg’s 1935 opera Lulu within its score. As composer/violinist Jonathan Blumhofer rightly notes, “The Altenberg-Lieder feature Berg at his most direct and concise, as well as his most sumptuous.” Fritsch’s rich sonority complemented the pithy prose, with Honeck providing plush phrasing and beautifully capturing the push-pull of sounds of the Second Viennese School and its aims.

If the first half of the program featured music that aimed for pure color in and of itself, the second half, thanks to Honeck’s quilt-like approach, used all the colors, and textures, and patterns, making Bruckner’s third sound experimental, even playful, though its length (280 pages) might leave some wondering how playful it could possibly be. Conductor Herbert Blomstedt commented in an interview late last year that the lengthy didn’t mean the work took any longer to play than usual symphonies — there are just so many notes within this particular one. Honeck and the Concertgebouw made a point to distinctly emphasize all of them, whether in fast runs or sustained tones, and while this could prove aurally exhausting, the maestro shaped it into a greater listening whole, using a variety of colors and textures, and an expansive, thrilling lyricism. 

honeck conductor

Conductor Manfred Honeck. (Photo: © Felix Broede)

With a broad, Mahlerian intensity, he led the first movement through a series of glorious builds made of brass and strings, each time a trip to a precipice offering a different and unique view. A thematic underlining by a fulsome brass section showed a clear relationship to the rippling upward ascent of strings, deftly modulated and colored. The lusciousness of sound carried over, beautifully, from the evening’s first half — perhaps a sign of the clearly positive relationship Honeck has with the orchestra, who seemed to relish playing under the Austrian maestro’s baton. Honeck (named Artist of the Year by the International Classical Music Awards for 2018) could be seen smiling broadly at various moments throughout the work — surely a good sign, for the performance, the orchestra, and the audience?

More’s the pity, then, that not more Berliners and music fans made the trip to see this performance. It was a rich meal that left questions, to be sure, but the right sorts of ones that left you hungry for yet more.

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