Thursday, December 30, 2010

karriere eines wüstlings

This hit me in the head.

The Rake’s Progress is a game, a charade, operatic form as series of masks, expression disguised as classicism disguised as drama. Theatricality layers upon itself. Its most brutal, most pained moments are relieved from their burden by the incessant reminder that everything is fake, and thus ephemeral. But the gravity of those moments, the way that the heart tears when we hear the young Ann proclaim “I will go to him,” or witness the deranged, embittered Tom lament his lost love, ultimately linger. The power of the work is not in its clever games, but in the way in which emotion constantly manages to overcome them.

So even though I saw Spiderman and Darth Vader cavort around the Staatsoper stage, even though I got hit by a paper airplane thrown by a chorus member in the finale of the opera, I was still deeply moved by Kryzstof Warlikowski’s new staging of the Rake. Though his attempts to exaggerate the gleeful anachronisms of Stravinsky and Auden occasionally tilt towards excess, Warlikowski has created a captivating production, virtuosically directed and brilliantly sung.

Many modern Regietheater productions treat opera as a play-within-a-play, utilizing extra actors or bizarre scenery to cast a protective, Brechtian layer around the internal drama of the work. But where this is usually inappropriate for La Sonnambula or La Traviata, it fits the spirit of The Rake’s Progress. Before Warlikowski’s production begins, chorus members slowly enter a spectator box suspended above the stage. There is no curtain, and the opera starts with a brief spoken prologue from the “actors” playing romantic leads Ann and Tom, who point out that the very writer on whom this opera is based, Tom Rakewell, is sitting in the audience—and, of course, a spotlight fixes on an older gentleman, dressed in a tuxedo, sitting in the first row of the parterre. Throughout the opera, the spectator chorus feeds on the emotions of the characters, getting frisky during Tom’s seduction or going wild when he lands in an asylum in the end (which is when I got hit with the paper airplane).

This framing device emphasizes the idea of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism as a curtain unto itself, which Stravinsky and Auden acknowledge in the opera’s postlude, where the characters step out of their roles and tell the moral of the story. It also jells nicely with Warlikowski’s overall “concept,” which is a bit more problematic. Warlikowski’s Rake is a parody of modern American capitalist culture, but a very specific one—he actually re-casts Nick Shadow, the devilish tempter of Tom, as Andy Warhol himself. Rather than adventuring to London to find his fortune, Tom journeys from the heartland of America to the sexy, sleazy, and just a little bit artsy downtown New York and finds himself in Warhol’s famous 1960s factory loft. Video screens broadcast live footage filmed on-stage or images of Warhol and his circle.

Casting Tom’s adventures as a sharp indictment of American consumerism actually brings the opera closer to the composer’s original inspiration, the rather harsh social critique of Hogarth’s 18th-century engravings titled The Rake’s Progress. Hogarth’s lambasting of English society is diluted by Stravinsky’s anachronistic games and Auden’s wordplay; Warlikowski refreshingly restores this sense of denunciation.

That said, the criticism occasionally stretched itself a bit thin. During the auction scene, when all of Tom’s worldly goods are sold to pay off his bankruptcy, a veritable parade of kitschy characters including Darth Vader, Minnie Mouse, Elvis, a NASA astronaut, Spiderman (clearly a knock at the new Broadway show), and the bunny suit which seems obligatory to any Regie production, pranced around stage in a heavy-handed mocking of capitalism. And the procession of transvestites and hookers waltzing through Warhol’s loft, though perhaps historically accurate, seemed a bit much.

But mostly, the updating worked efficiently and effectively. Tom, Ann, and Trulove eat fast food in the opening scene, their only luxury a bottle of ketchup; later, Warlikowski demonstrates the bizarre domesticity of Tom, Shadow/Warhol, and the bearded lady Baba the Turk by showing the three at the breakfast table, Shadow reading the New York Times. The “audience” chorus suspended above the stage is dressed as a group of 1960s Mad Men-style conformists, and their gradual transformation from stuffy to liberated echoes the spirit of the times in which Warlikowski sets the opera. Though the Warhol juxtaposition often makes for a difficult fit, it generally seems to work; for once, an opera director has figured out how to symbolize contemporary culture without horribly overselling it.

But the true strength of the production lies not in Warlikowski’s concept, but in the acting of the main characters. The young lovers Ann and Tom, smartly cast as young singers, appear convincingly carefree in the beginning, and Florian Hoffmann’s portrayal of Tom’s corruption by society moves in its subtlety. Their modern costumes work well: Tom and Ann are dressed like hipsters, and Trulove (convincingly sung by Andreas Bauer) in jeans and a sleek cowboy hat, the Americana gentleman.

Gidon Saks’ Nick Shadow steals the show, striking an uneasy but powerful balance between trickster and demonic force. His stentorian bass-baritone captured a wide array of emotion—from the satisfying mix of fake-regret and mischief when he tells Tom that his wealthy father has died, to his bellow of “I was never saner,” when convincing Tom to marry Baba the Turk, to his chilling fury in the graveyard, in which, while wagering for Tom’s soul, he declares “I am, you may have often ten-times observed, really compassionate.”

Rounding out the excellent production, Ingo Metzmacher conducted a sharply-defined reading from the harpsichord, with vivid orchestral playing and just the right blend of neo-classical punchiness and Mozartean lyricism.

Monday, December 27, 2010

year in review

We can do lists and best-ofs and countdowns but it’s not a bad idea to talk about what 2010 might have actually meant for classical music, and to get a bit broader, for music history. Don’t get me wrong—it’s great to talk about favorite performances and CDs, but sometimes I wish critics would take on the bigger task of speculating about The Scene. And really, I think 2010 was a benchmark year for classical music. Finally coming to fruition is the shift that began a couple years ago, when a crystallization of composers, performers, organizations, and critics started to tilt the axis away from capital-C capital-M, hooty-tooty Classical Music towards something simultaneously more accessible and more artistic.

2010 marked a major coming-out party for a new generation of composers who have assimilated all of the basic things that anyone under 35 has: an understanding of the Internet and social media, and what that means for music production, performance, and composition. We had CD releases from Corey Dargel, Timothy Andres, Nico Muhly (2, and one on a big classical label), Ted Hearne, and Tristan Perich. All of these made it to at least one important critic’s top-10 list, and all of them corresponded to watershed performances in New York or Chicago.

And, despite being composers of the digital age (I would say MP3 age, but sounds way too 2003), each of them released a major, disc-length work. The typical model for a CD produced by a young composer is a mish-mash of orchestral and chamber works, recorded in different venues in different years. But all of those mentioned above understand the merits of making a serious artistic pronouncement, devoting themselves to crafting thirty- or sixty-minute works. Something just as important: all of these CDs were specifically and artfully produced and marketed in the manner of pop, not classical albums. This not only broadens the potential listenership (I can’t think of anyone who would consider this to be “new” or “contemporary” music in the same way that Stockhausen is new music), but really enhances the artistry. They feel like albums in the way that Kid A or Sgt. Pepper’s feel like albums—the recording as complete artistic experience.

We have also seen the emergence of a new scene, or movement, or whatever word you want to use for it. There is a natural grouping between labels like New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community, composers like Muhly and Judd Greenstein, and pop/classical people like Owen Pallett and Jónsi. But now, it has an official banner name: Ecstatic Music. The first Ecstatic Music festival will launch in only a couple weeks, but the hallmark have been there for a while.

What are those hallmarks? Collaboration is a big one, and one that I’ve spent an exhausting amount of time researching (in connection with Muhly and Bedroom Community). Ecstatic Music is as much a compositional effort as it is one of performing marketing, production—a holistic approach to blending different styles and methods of presenting music to a new public.

It’s so obvious that I don’t know why anyone didn’t name it sooner. Ecstatic Music is not grouped by a technique or an –ism, not compiled by any dogma or ideology. It is a spirit of creation in the best sense of the word, and thus perhaps the first new musical Zeitgeist of this century—musicians brought together by shared emotions rather than shared principles.

And regular old classical music trudges onward and upward. We witnessed the beginnings of three major tenures at three major symphony orchestras, with three different models. Dudamel at L.A. is plenty of flash and some substance, and it’s beginning to seem that the true innovations will be coming from Deborah Borda and the administration. The situation in New York is the exact opposite: Alan Gilbert is leading a strong push for artistic innovation, and the management seems to be along for the ride. Riccardo Muti will continue to do what Riccardo Muti does, and it remains to be seen whether Chicago can continue to succeed on his and Deborah Rutter’s outdated model of how to run a symphony orchestra (I’m speaking artistically; financially, they seem to be doing quite well).

Major organizations like Lincoln Center and Carnegie are stepping up their game, and New York is having a kind of institutional renaissance. The interplay between Lincoln Center, Carnegie, and Le Poisson Rouge has determinedly exploded any notions of Uptown/Midtown/Downtown, if there were any left. Ensembles like ICE and the JACK Quartet have captured large and enthusiastic audiences working within the structures of Lincoln Center and Carnegie, but also in touring around and playing clubs—and just as importantly, playing a broad range of contemporary music which reconciles or ignores the differences between high modernism and minimalism, serialism and pop.

We also suffered significant losses. Two of our greatest writers—Alan Rich and Reinhold Brinkmann—passed away in the last year. Rich’s death was particularly felt by me; I had only recently discovered his blog, and his writing provided an essential impetus to finding my own critical voice. Members of the old guard as disparate as Wolfgang Wagner, Bernard Coutaz, David Soyer, and Henryk Górecki will be fondly remembered.

Still, though, it was a good year, and definitely the perfect time for Seated Ovation to get its start. We began last December in San Francisco, swung by New York, and then parked in Chicago for a while. After much Chicago/New York commuting, we have finally landed ourselves in the musical paradise of Berlin. The scene here is always changing; I can’t even begin to speculate on what classical music meant for Germany in 2010.

But it’s almost obvious what it meant for America. We are moving towards the scene I have always wanted, the one spoken of in Alex’s Listen to This, where there are no boundaries between genres, where each concert is attended for the quality of the performer and the quality of the music performed, where classical institutions can program festivals which bring together Sigur Rós and Bach's Clavierübung. This is a scene only possible with the (unfortunate) destruction of the record store and the rise of iTunes, eliminating the need to segregate music written over a span of fifteen hundred years and encompassing every possible array of sound into a walled-off space marked “Classical.” When these walls are finally brought down, we won’t need to hook people on classical music, because its awesomeness will be all-too-apparent from the get-go.

Here’s to 2010, and to a great 2011.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

artist in residence

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Wolfram Brandl, violin
Christian Stadelmann, violin
Ulrich Knörzer, viola
Ludwig Quandt, cello
Andreas Ottensamer, clarinet
Stefan Dohr, horn
Stefan Schweigert, bassoon

Debussy, En blanc et noir
, Septet
Schnittke, Piano Quintet
Stravinsky, Le Sacre du printemps

When each piece on a program is a discovery, and when each performance of that discovery is a wonder, then you have The Perfect Evening of Classical Music. And on Sunday, Leif Ove Andsnes, the pianist-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic, brought us that Perfect Evening. Intellectual rigor and lush splendor combined to create a remarkable panorama of the musical twentieth century.

To start, Marc-André Hamelin and Andsnes gave the richly Gallic beauty of Debussy’s En blanc et noir a colorful verve, bringing sharp clarity to the blurry harmonies omnipresent in the composer’s late style (it was written in 1915, three years after Jeux). The duo made for excellent partners, Andsnes bringing his crystalline touch and Hamelin adding a lyrical wistfulness.

Stravinsky’s Septet, one of his first serial works written in the wake of his conversion by Robert Craft, was wholly unknown to me but is now a new favorite. It provides a delightful blend of punchy neo-classicism and Second Viennese School expressionism. The first movement is all pointy figurations, the second a haunting homage to Webern (complete with a Klangfarbenmelodie opening and a series of Brahmsian variations), the third a jagged double-fugue alternating between string trio and piano-plus-winds quartet. Andsnes and six members of the Berlin Philharmonic gave a super-refined, buoyant reading.

But the heart of the program lay in an exquisite rendition of Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, easily the best performance I have heard so in Berlin (and that’s coming up against some stiff competition). It is a heart-wrenching work of lament, written in the wake of the death of the composer’s mother, dwelling in a plaintive, spare sound world. The quintet begins with an aching, economic piano prelude, each note methodically placed; the string quartet glosses on top, in a kind of muted trance. The piano begins repeating a single, high-pitched note, a tinnitus-like effect, and the intensity grows, the strings’ hushed texture transforming into an abrasive buzz, which fades away though the tinnitus-note remains.

Suddenly, the quartet shifts into an uncanny waltz, and the piano joins—a memory wrenched out of the past, a painful experience painfully recalled. These polystylistic ruminations continue for a while. After the third appearance of the unforgiving repeated note, the music gives way to a stark, unadorned folk tune, played in one hand of the piano. It is a kind of hurdy-gurdy, eerily tracing a melody which sits in an uncomfortable place between major and minor. The quartet unfurls a set of variations on top of it, finally coming to rest on a soft major cadence; the piano repeats the passacaglia theme alone. We are left in a barren landscape, a wasteland of remembering. The dead silence which followed Andsnes’ final notes paid tribute to the severity and power of the performance.

Andsnes’ and Hamelins’ brutal Rite of Spring after intermission was just icing on the cake. What the two-piano version loses in urgency (no guttural woodwind shrieks or snarling brass flare-ups), it gains in rhapsody. The music can breathe a bit better, and one can appreciate the lazy, Debussy-like haze of Stravinsky’s harmonies. Andsnes and Hamelin added depth with tiny tempo fluctuations on-the-go, impossible to achieve when steering the oil tanker that is the Rite’s massive orchestra. With the pair’s mechanical brilliance and cool control, it was a fearsome but remarkably fun ending to an incredible evening.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


It can't be a coincidence that my copy of Listen to This arrived in Berlin the day after a cat arrived at my apartment. Herr Kater guarantees all facts have been checked.

Mr. Cat's owner, Volker Straebel, will be performing a concert of his own music on December 19 at Experimental Intermedia in New York. Go!

Monday, December 13, 2010

la vendetta di tito

The audience gathers in a stunning entrance hall filled with majestic statues and a massive, ornamented staircase, testaments to the glory of imperial might. The hall darkens, ethereal choral music begins, and projections blaze on the cupola ceiling, with scrolling text and animations telling the story of the Roman emperor Titus and his brief but noble rule.

A triumphant beginning to a sensational, modern re-interpretation of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito? Not quite. That chorus was a cheesy recording; the lame animations projected on the ceiling were barely above Powerpoint-caliber. These low-brow attempts at grandeur and drama continued for another hour and a half in the basilica of the Bode Museum, where Christoph Hagel has staged his (his, not Mozart’s) Titus.

La Clemenza di Tito is not an opera I’m particularly familiar with; I’ve watched a DVD and listened to the excellent Rene Jacobs recording, but never seen it live. I don’t consider it holy scripture, and if a director wants to futz around with the details, it’s his right. But there is a certain point where it stops being “Eine Oper von W.A. Mozart” (as it is billed) and starts becoming “Ein Theaterstück von Christoph Hagel.”

Maybe it’s when you switch all of Mozart’s recitative with spoken dialogue in contemporary German (a reworking of librettist Caterino Mazzolà’s text by Michael Illner). Or maybe it’s when you stage the overture as a flashback to the childhood of the two main characters. Or maybe it’s when you hire actors to speak the recitative, singers to stand behind them and sing the arias, and dancers to add another layer to the circus. But it’s probably when you go ahead and strip the clemency out of La Clemenza: instead of nobly forgiving the betrayal of his friend Sexstus and bride-to-be Vitellia, the emperor orders Sexstus to murder her. Sexstus stabs Titus and the opera ends.

Now that we have wrestled the opera out of the control of the composer, it would only be fair to judge it on its own terms. Does Hagel provide an artistic experience which compares favorably to Mozart’s? Well, no.

Hagel’s Titus gradually delegates away the responsibilities of creating credible characters and dramatic situations by doubling, and then tripling, each role. Actors speak the recitatives; singers sing the arias, standing behind them; a solo dancer (the striking, acrobatic Martin Buczko) slinks along the narrow strip of stage. Thus, the singers are freed from acting and the actors are freed from doing anything but delivering their lines, since it is the responsibility of the dancer to provide any inner emotions. Buczko becomes the only one of an ensemble of twelve actually emoting. It’s a fragile place to be when the only effective character in an opera is a silent dancer.

Initially Hagel uses Mozart’s music as a scaffolding for the German “play” in which most of the narrative takes place, but as the opera progresses, the boundaries between Italian music and German Schauspiel begin to break down. Characters confront their singing doubles, singers switch between Italian and German, and everyone seems to enjoy intruding into the music. During one aria, the members of the ensemble slap their knees rhythmically, do something like the Macarena, and even perform a Reichian clapping pattern, but it doesn’t seem to add anything relevant.

The inner confrontations, the glares between singer and actor, are compelling. But the doubling and tripling of roles, while occasionally enhancing these inner struggles, erodes one of the most important aspects of the original: Mozart’s keen sense of interpersonal relationships, the hierarchies of friendship, love, and class order present in all of his operas. The omnipresence of sex destroys any credibility of love, the constant bickering and backstabbing makes all the friendships implausible, and the dull costumes (all white and purple) don’t clearly establish the class relations between the different characters.

Hagel’s story roughly parallels the opera seria plot written by Metastasio, with the spurned Vitellia attempting to exact revenge on emperor Titus through her lackey Sexstus, Titus’s closest friend. Mozart crafts a heroically forgiving Titus, a cousin to his Sarastro in The Magic Flute; oddly, Hagel’s Titus is also mostly righteous (despite stilted acting) until his final decree of vengeance. Hagel attemps to explain away the problematic Titus/Sexstus relationship with the occasional appearance of the two as young boys, frolicking about the stage and implying that Sexstus’s jealousy began at a young age. It’s a treacly gesture of sentimentality, impregnating the present drama with a soap-opera, Slumdog Millionaire-style backstory (“They grew up as brothers. Now, they are enemies.”).

The music, conceived as the least important part of the production, was merely okay. All of the singers were good, not great; the booming acoustics of the basilica didn’t help anyone’s voices and the resonance destroyed the balance in any ensembles. The medium-sized Berliner Symphoniker played dutifully, conducted by Hagel himself in a showy and superficial reading.

The idea of a completely modern overhaul of Mozart has potential. I would have loved to see a Brechtian re-imagination of each aspect of Clemenza, providing a mirror to contemporary society, transforming Italian arias into clever cabaret ditties with a scrappy miniature ensemble straight out of Threepenny Opera. But re-imagining takes imagination, and Hagel’s hollow spectacle had everything but that.

(photos of "Titus im Bode" courtesy of Oliver Wia; cast list here )

Friday, December 10, 2010

the bandwagon

I've been regularly visiting the Hamburger Bahnhof, and not only for the sheer pleasure of watching reindeer get high. The museum's Friedrich Christian Flick collection includes a large number of works by Fluxus. In case you aren't familiar with Fluxus, it was a rag-tag group of conceptual artists in the late 1950s and '60s, inspired by the pioneering work of Cage. Fluxus sits in an odd place between music and art, better known to artists than musicians---Fluxus works are sprinkled all over art museums, even though you rarely hear the music played in a concert setting. As Alex noted in his recent article, the reputation of Cage is sealed in the art world; in the music world, it's still a bit precarious. So it's no wonder that Fluxus feels like it belongs more to art history than to music history. And music by composers like Nam June Paik and Dick Higgins is hardly performed today, to the extent that their happenings can even be replicated.

So these works stay in museums like the Hamburger Bahnhof. It's a shame, because most of them are so inherently musical. Like this:
This is part of a set of miscellaneous addendum for Paik's 1964 Robot Opera, in which K-456, named after Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18, played a recording of JFK's inaugural address and excreted beans (more here).

A closer look shows Paik's awareness of operatic history, recent (Karajan, Callas) and old (Gluck, Wagner). Paik truncates all aspects of opera into one, destroying any nuance---Met-Opera IS Soap-Opera, Callas IS Karajan, Wagner IS Puccini. All of the history and conflict and character of the genre rolls up into one grand sentiment of Old World, Old Money, which Paik mocks. We are not far from Cage's Europeras, about which the composer wrote, "For two hundred years the Europeans have been sending us their operas. Now I'm sending them back."

My real favorite is this Fluxus parade of toy cars, Paik's Moving Theatre of 1963:
Each car has a name or message written on it:

Paik writes, in his New Ontology of Music,
"In the 'Moving theatre' in the street,
the sounds move in the street, the audience meets Of encounters them 'unexpectedly' In the street."George Maciunas, a founding member who wrote the Fluxus Manifesto
A play on George Maciunas = GM = General Motors

There's probably some reference here that I'm not getting.
Mr. Cage's goofy little buggy
Duchamp's (even tinier) car

And, finally, a minuscule dump truck labeled "Picasso."

It's an irreverent work, a send-up of styles and influences---rather than Paik's models looming largely, almost menacingly (think of Brahm's refusal to write a symphony after Beethoven because of the "giant marching behind him"), they zoom along, bite-size and weightless.

For further reading, Seth Colter Walls on the women of Fluxus.

Also, REINDEER UPDATE: they were more active today, and I even witnessed a brief tussle between two of them (on the not-high side of the fence). The ones who were fed mushrooms seemed to spend more time licking their own feet, but I can't say for sure that was due to the hallucinogens.

Monday, December 6, 2010

hardcore, grandiose

Thursday, December 2 2010

Konzerthaus Berlin, Werner-Otto-Saal

Sonar Quartett
Helmut Lachenmann, Gran Torso

Paul-Heinz Dittrich, Sttring Quartet No. 2, "Nacht-Musik" nach Novalis

The Konzerthaus’s Werner-Otto-Saal is quickly becoming my favorite place in Berlin to hear new music. Tucked away in the opulent concert hall, a small black-box nook up a few flights of stairs, it has the stirrings of artistic adventure without really leaving the classical world—the Zankel Hall of Berlin. It was the ideal place to hear Jörg Widmann perform Boulez’s Dialogue de l’ombre double for clarinet in October and the piano duo Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher play Zimmermann’s Monologe last week. Both concerts were part of the Konzerthaus’s ongoing “2 x hören“ series, a smart bit of programming in which each piece is performed twice with freewheeling but mostly informative commentary provided by dramaturge Markus Fein in-between.

On Thursday, I attended my third performance there, a celebration by the Sonar Quartett of composer Paul-Heinz Dittrich’s 80th birthday. It was the kind of program you hardly ever get in America: music by two difficult living composers, hardcore modernism which rarely makes it stateside.

Though Helmut Lachenmann’s legendary status is secured here, he is still barely a presence in the U.S. Dedicated ensembles like ICE and the JACK Quartet bring his music to a wider audience (I saw ICE perform his Mouvement last summer), but most of his music goes unheard outside Europe. His name draws blank stares from most educated classical music fans and conservatory graduates—a ghost of academic journals, obscure CD releases, and Paul Griffiths’ New York Times Christmas recommendations.

And I had never heard of Dittrich before last week. There’s something particularly odd about “discovering” a composer who is 80-years-old and quite clearly well-known in his home country. Dittrich is an East German counterpart to the Stuttgart-based Lachenmann, who is five years younger. Lachemann transforms human performers into dedicated machines, mimicking the electronic clamor of musique concrète with a veritable arsenal of extended techniques, embracing the possibility that every conceivable interaction between the performer and his instrument can be music. Dittrich takes a more conventional approach to high modernism, with a severe atonality which occasional bursts into fits of lyricism.

Written in 1971, Lachenmann’s Gran Torso represents the composer at his best. Each string player goes to the extremes of what is possible with his or her instrument, pushing far beyond any boundaries set by the most far-out modernism of the ‘50s or ‘60s. But what emerges is not always abrasive. Gran Torso emphasizes the quieter spectrum of the string quartet, each controlled gesture barely above a mezzo-piano. The violist caresses the strings of his instrument with the wood of the bow; the violins slide their bows around, evoking the sound of a seashell held to one’s ear. When the occasional normally-produced note does crop up, it sounds like a foreign invader—Lachemann has tipped the scale so far towards non-standard technique that the crazy scratches become the norm. It feels like an entire world is being constructed as you listen.

After the extremes of Gran Torso, Dittrich’s Nacht-Musik (1987/1988) seemed downright conventional, and at times boring. Though Dittrich’s comments in the program notes laid out how he incorporated Novalis’s cycle of hymns into his quartet (breaking down the poem and attempting to mimic the effect and structure of the poem, rather than the meaning of the text itself), the music lacked the haunting beauty of the lyric. Dittrich dwells in clichés, his musical language seemingly lifted from High Modernism 101: angular solo sections, unison glissandi (which lack the ferociousness of Xenakis), super-quiet scurrying passages punctuated by louder notes (it seems like every string quartet written after 1945 has at least one of these moments).

It’s a shame, because the work does have a few gorgeous moments, but simply cannot sustain a length of forty minutes. About halfway through, the cello rocks between two notes as the other three instruments lock into a repeating pattern of squeals, an eerie clockwork which fades away into a shiver of tremolos, evoking Novalis’s “holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night.”

Dittrich’s quartet might have been aided by the Sonar players, who gave both works technically assured but mostly passionless performances. The grand gestures of Lachenmann’s music need to be grandly executed, and Sonar only delivered the notes (or, really, “notes”), not their searing intensity. What this music requires are actors of the caliber of the JACK or Arditti Quartets: musicians so fiercely devoted to the music that their bodies, not their violins and cellos, are the true instruments.