Thursday, April 21, 2011
Friday, April 15, 2011
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Having only seen Alan Gilbert conduct once, in last summer’s wishy-washy New York Philharmonic season closer, I was eager to watch him take the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in the first weekend of April. In the fall, a troupe of young guest conductors paraded through Berlin, each demonstrating the skills which mostly justify their PR machines; I was curious to see if Gilbert could match up to them, if not to the more recent august appearances of Bernard Haitink, Herbert Blomstedt, and others. Filling in for the baby-incapacitated Gustavo Dudamel, Gilbert proved a worthy if not astounding leader. His program, modified slightly from Dudamel’s, provided a good swath of standard repertory to make for easy judgment—two opportunities for collaborating with soloists, in Berg’s Seven Early Songs and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, and one opportunity to shine alone, in Stravinsky’s Firebird.
In 1928, in the wake of the successes of Wozzeck and his Lyric Suite, Alban Berg orchestrated a collection of unrelated songs from his student years. Each of the seven lieder, though endowed with a Mahlerian glimmer, floats without ever quite touching down, a problematic case of a composer re-interpreting his youth—what could be a fascinating set of gems in a song recital becomes overblown and indulgent with full orchestra. Stotijn sang clearly and with strong projection, but her voice lacks color; the combination with Gilbert’s somewhat directionless conducting yielded the result of the songs having the same shimmering boredom.
Things improved dramatically with the Mozart, where pianist Emanuel Ax and Gilbert made an excellent pair. Gilbert conducted with elegant sweep and an appealing tautness, giving each individual phrase its own character. Ax provided his usual exquisite, crisply articulated dynamism, and the two musicians fed off each other’s energy—a rare instance when a seasoned soloist and younger maestro see eye-to-eye.
In the Firebird, the Philharmonic gave a characteristically astounding performance, with notably excellent contributions from woodwind principals Albrecht Mayer and Emanuel Pahud. The slinky work of arch-Russian early modernism features every hallmark of what a great conductor must bring to a performance: sharp senses of rhythm, balance, color, and momentum. Gilbert brought almost all of it. He tends to micromanage, focusing on giving big cues rather than stepping back and letting the orchestra take care of itself, but his approach usually works; his precise, clear gestures lent a sense of deliberateness throughout, and the work’s forty-five minutes felt well-paced. What it lacked, though, was a sense of the new—a master of a repertory staple like this would point out a few new details along the way, bringing out an exotic timbre or bizarre little phrase—and Gilbert generally stuck to the basics. But in the final moments, when the submerged, silky music suddenly turns towards razing, Romantic grandeur, Gilbert rose fully to the occasion, exuberantly taking command of the orchestra in broad, slashing conducting. For two minutes, he seemed like the best conductor in the world.
What more can be said about Simon Rattle’s Mahler? Last week we reached the Fifth, with only one more symphony to be performed this season. Rattle’s Five has a special importance—it opened his first concert as music director of the Berlin Phil—and his performance showed that it is perhaps the one Mahler symphony he has contemplated the most. In his readings of the First through Fourth, Rattle resolved the unsettling contradictions of Mahler’s music, transforming the composer’s inherent weirdness into blooming, comforting waves of sound. Not so in the Fifth, where Rattle achieved a refined strangeness in the sharp contours of the second movement and the busy bliss of the finale.
In the opening, though, Rattle brought Mahler’s massive contrasts almost to an extreme, juxtaposing the searing main theme with an excruciatingly-slow crawl—an unfortunate loss of intensity. But his careful planning and controlled climaxes, for the most part, paid off: the famous Adagietto unraveled as one long, gorgeous line, with not a single cough in the resonant Philharmonie heard over its ten minutes, as the entire audience seemed to hold its breath. Principal trumpet Gábor Tarkövi deftly handled the difficult solo part (if not quite reaching the same greatness as his American counterpart Chris Martin and Phil Smith), and Stefan Dohr displayed his otherworldly horn sound in the scherzo, flawlessly combining brawniness with regality and pure, singing tone.
The concert opened with Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, a solemn processional for chorus, brass, percussion, and organ. Rattle conducted the work with a restrained reverence, a reminder of his impressive career in early music. With sublime brass tapers and glowing, restful cadences provided by the RIAS Kammerchor, the music proved a perfect complement to Mahler’s funereal loftiness.
Monday, April 4, 2011
In a related note, the Berlin Philharmonic and Staatskapelle orchestras raised 116,000 Euro for UNICEF and Japan in their joint benefit concert last week. That's a hefty sum; I imagine it's the most any classical organization has raised so far (feel free to prove me wrong). The concert was broadcast on their astounding Digital Concert Hall, and will be available for archived viewing soon; while you're on their website, check out Leif Ove Andsnes' splendorous Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2. Their countdown to Simon Rattle's Mahler Fifth is at 3 days (I'll be there on Wednesday).
This month is a good one to be in Germany. Along with those Philharmonic concerts, Berlin will see a Berliner Ensemble staging of Wedekind's Lulu directed by Robert Wilson with music by Lou Reed as well as their seminal 150th performance of Die Dreigroschenoper; new productions of Die Walkure and Wozzeck at the Staatsoper with Barenboim at the helm; Andsnes' perfectly-programmed solo recital; Othmar Schoeck's Notturno at the Konzerthaus; Bernd Alois Zimmermann's grim Ekklesiastische Aktion paired with Bruckner's Ninth; and over in Cologne, the world premiere of Stockhausen's Sonntag, the final opera of his Licht cycle, a full three decades after the first performance of Donnerstag. I will attend all and report back.
Saturday, April 2, 2011
Three events at TRAFO, a cavernous two-story power plant which could go toe-to-toe with the Park Avenue Armory, strongly addressed the festival’s multimedia theme. Licht-Zeiten, a collaboration between composer Michael Wertmüller and video artist Lillevan, merged a dense industrial wail with flickering shafts of plasmatic light. The ensembles Steamboat Switzerland and courage teamed up to perform Wertmüller’s ballistic, pounding score, a mix of strident string counterpoint, extreme oboe shredding, sawing cello solos, and an absolutely killer dissonant organ sermon resembling a strung-out Bach prelude (courtesy of organist Dominik Blum). Lillevan projected his visuals directly on the actual performers, so that the entire stage shimmered with light, abstract geometric shapes shifting in tandem with the music. Though the piece lasted a little too long, the frantic top-speed mania was almost always engaging, a potent combination of image and sound.
It would seem impossible to kick it up a notch after Wertmüller’s sonic blast, but the following set by Carsten Nicolai, aka alva noto, did just that. With earplugs in (provided upon entry), the sheer volume of alta noto’s pumping, teeth-shaking beats still overwhelmed. Nicolai combined overlapping, heavy electronic bass crunches with flowing, pulsating multicolor rays thrown up on a gigantic monitor—a forty-five minute techno phantasmagoria, with hundreds of people bouncing along in TRAFO’s massive hall.
The next night, Ryoji’s Ikeda’s datamatics audio-visual show provided an even more staggeringly loud but somewhat stiller, roomier experience, with jackhammer pulses punctured by moments of pure, ringing tone and crackly subterranean noise. Though the huge screen provided an overflow of information, with rapidly moving vectors reminiscent of 1980s arcade games, the music dwelled, with beats that lay back instead of pointing ahead.
MaerzMusik’s most beautiful mystery came in the form of Justė Janulytė’s Sandglasses, a transcendent piece fusing music, light, video, and electronics. Janulytė surrounded four amplified cellists each with floor-to-ceiling translucent columns, onto which artist Luca Scarzella projected images which rippled between the pillars. Spiraling cyclones slowly swirled across the room, providing a visual manifestation for the whispery, twinkling drones of the cellos and electronics. Occasionally, the clouds of light crystallized into frozen sheets, turning the pillars opaque before gradually dripping with water and shattering apart. Over the course of the fifty-minute work, the music gradually crescendoed to a supersonic, organ-like roar and the murky purples and blues of the meek twisters transformed into blood-red storms and then explosive, fiery typhoons—mystical, benign forces of nature densified into apocalyptic portent.
Ken Ueno’s portrait event, presented by the American Academy in Berlin, exemplified the typical new music concert: a glacial piano piece (Disabitato, given an exacting performance by Heather O’Donnell); a world music piece (the tranquil, slowly unfurling Kizu for Japanese koto and Kyoto Kawamura’s dipping, intimate voice); a crazed, extended technique-laden woodwind piece (the tactile I screamed at the sea until nodes swelled up, then my voice became the resonant noise of the sea for clarinet, played grippingly by Greg Oakes); a radical improvisation (a duet of sustained, expanding growls sung by Ueno himself with Robin Hayword, a specialist in microtonal tuba); a timbral large ensemble work (the eerie, spectral Talus, a concerto for violist Wendy Richman and string ensemble).
The typical new music concert, though, acquires its variety from featuring works by a number of composers. Ueno, as he explained in an on-stage interview, sees his compositional process as a kind of channel surfing between styles, in which each piece embodies its own set of distinct rules. Rather than building towards perfecting a certain style, with individual pieces acting as stepping stones, Ueno captures a certain artistic spirit in each work and moves on. The result is eclectic but also unified, a multiplicity of rhetorics which somehow always feel like Ueno’s own. The best piece of the bunch was Two Hands, a placid work for violist Kim Kashkashian and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, a success as much for its compositional rigor as for its luminous performance—Kashkashian, the dean of American viola, gave each individual gesture a sense of inevitability, the kind of radiant deliberateness one hears in a great reading of Mozart or Bach.
MaerzMusik ended on a somewhat sour note, with Michael Nyman’s gleeful, saccharine score to Dziga Vertov’s 1926 Šestaja čast’ mira. The film, a sort of Soviet propaganda collage, tours the riches of the early USSR while indicting Western capitalism; the Nyman band’s bright, driving lyricism, though a lively accompaniment, didn’t distance itself particularly from Vertov’s problematic politics. A shaky ensemble end, in which a violinist seemed to miss the final cut-off, could have been in homage to the abrupt end of Einstein on the Beach but was more likely a result of insufficient rehearsal. The lusty booing which followed made an unfortunate conclusion to the otherwise well-received festival.
To generalize about an extraordinarily diverse festival unified by a broad theme would be trivial, so trivial I will be. The swath of works performed over the ten days exemplifies more of the Berlin sensibility about music than any overlapping commonalities of style. Composers wrote in a variety of genres and media, paying careful attention to blending acoustic with electronic, musical with visual, and classical with non-classical. MaerzMusik divided evenly between musicians trying to break out of classical traditions, musicians trying to break into classical traditions, and those who had nothing to do with classical traditions whatsoever. The variety of tastes and habits resembles less the current New York post-classical scene than an overall sense of different artists all working on the edges of each other’s genres. With the decades-long prominence of electronic music in the city’s experimental university studios and techno clubs and the overall prevalence of modern music on the concert stage, Berlin has had much less angst than New York about merging the old and the new, so the inattention to what was classical or non-classical at MaerzMusik did not feel particularly unusual or newsworthy. What was unusual and newsworthy was the sheer amount of focused, intensely-wrought new works, each of which forged organic and elegant bonds among multiple artistic media: a vision not of what could be possible in a future tomorrow but what is already present in a radical today.