Sunday, September 26, 2010

double retrospective, part one

With limited room for modern music in the regular classical concert season, it is difficult in America to gain a complete view of the shape European music took after 1945. A large group of composers tend to be lumped together: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Gy├Ârgy Ligeti, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Hans Werner Henze, Iannis Xenakis. Even in university classrooms, little is made to distinguish between these radically diverse composers. Rather than celebrate the differences between them, we cordon them off under the words “Darmstadt avant-garde.”

In America, this is partially due to a lack of context. Though we sent some of our best and brightest overseas (Cage, Babbitt, Feldman), found positions in our own universities for many of the Europeans, and have imported quite a bit of their style and technique, European high modernists still remains out-of-focus in the states. When they do regularly appear, it’s in ill-conceived festivals like the New York Philharmonic’s pairing of Berio and Beethoven in 2008, or when Pierre-Laurent Aimard is in town. Even when Pierre Boulez or Daniel Barenboim leads a performance of some radical work, it is paired with modernist classics from the first half of the twentieth-century.

Which brings us to Berlin’s musikfest 2010, a comprehensive, two-week survey of music by Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, and many others. Rarely in America do we have the opportunity to compare two living or recently-deceased composers; festivals in the U.S. are structured to engage contemporary figures with the distant, not recent, past. So we get our Berio paired with Beethoven, our Ligeti with Bach. This narrows our view of the immense field that was and is music after World War II, never allowing us to actually compare what Ligeti and Berio might sound like side-by-side.

Musikfest presented a far more fragmented reality than the one which places Berio and Boulez as like-minded colleagues. Berio falls into a loosely-defined group of European outsiders who dabbled in the avant-garde but ultimately sought out others means of expression. Where Boulez and others at Darmstadt abandoned all traditional and popular forms for a severe experimentalism, Berio, along with composers like Alfred Schnittke, Bernd Zimmmermann, and Hans Werner Henze, attempted to re-ignite the embers of musical Romanticism via eclecticism. If Boulez’s motto was “No compromise,” Berio’s might have been, “Well, why not?”

Berio found his escape through adopting nearly every musical style available, from swing to Schubert. Folk music, Italian opera, American fiddling, and Mahler are all colors in his palette, drawn upon with ease and irreverence. Boulez’s music incorporates non-Western elements and French symbolist poetry but he purposefully purifies those influences, scrubbing away extraneous materials and cleansing the music of resemblance to anything but itself. Berio embraces all his influences: in works like Coro and the Folk Songs, he dispels the purity which Boulez so fervently seeks.

That is not to say that Berio’s music lacks a modernist rigor, or that Boulez’s lacks expression. Though the latter was a dogmatist and the former far from it, both have written music of intense complexity and beauty. In works like Rituel in memorium Bruno Maderna and Le marteau sans maitre, Boulez creates gorgeous moments of crystalline timbres and exotic colors; Berio’s expressionism in Coro or the viola concerto Voci is of a more conventional sort, the kind listeners are used to hearing in Schumann or Ravel. Berio and Boulez represent opposite ends of a spectrum, but their actual music encompasses that entire broad range.

I attended nine of musikfest’s twenty concerts and went to almost everything in the second week. I regret missing out on Berio’s Folk Songs and Sinfonia, as well as a number of rarely-played Boulez works. That said, in nine evenings I think I gained some insight into the shape and nature of musikfest, and the towering presences of its two main composers.


This is part one of my review of musikfest 2010, which took place from September 2-21 at the Philharmonie and Kammermusiksaal in Berlin. You can check out their whole program here; parts 2 and 3 coming later this week.

1 comment:

  1. When I first heard Boulez, I was struck -- as though I'd been hit over the head by a hammer. I never warmed up to his youthful polemics but came to enjoy some of his music, slowly, over time. And a dogmatist he was: But I appreciate that he would later (on the podium) become a champion of the great composers of history. This is a great review.

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