Monday, January 31, 2011

eclectic music

Upon my return from Dresden, I had the fortune to sample a smattering of Ultraschall, a yearly Berlin new music festival produced by Deutschlandradio Kultur and rbb kulturadio. With up to four concerts a day, it was much too big for me to cover completely, but I chose carefully--five total programs, culminating in a triple concert evening last Saturday. This is not your Bang on a Can or Ecstatic Music fest, but the truly hardcore European new stuff: almost unrelentlingly atonal, pushing the boundaries beyond Boulez and Ligeti to the limit. And that limit, most of the time, is Lachenmann.

It also gave the opportunity for the JACK Quartet, a New York group which seems to be everywhere at once, to make its Berlin debut. What JACK brings to impossibly difficult repertoire is what the Juilliard or Emerson Quartets bring to Schubert: a deep, thoughtful sense of conversation. The communication between members, the lightning-quick rapport during a ghostly portamento unison in Chaya Czernowin’s rather drab quartet or the barely-audible whispers of Aaron Cassidy’s Second String Quartet adds an essential visual aspect to the music-making. It gives nothing less than reassurance of the artistry of the composition, of the correctness of the crazily complicated musical language. The theatricality of their gestures is what sells the music. When a scurry ripples through Cassidy’s music, the JACK players convince the audience not only that they are playing those notes exactly where they should be, but also that in the act of composition, Cassidy made the best possible choice in placing each note. It is almost calming sense of deliberateness—that even the most maddeningly avant-garde shrieks and hisses are all part of a rational, understandable language.

All of those skills made Julia Wolfe’s Dig Deep a terribly awesome experience. We got to hear the quartet’s rich, full-bodied sound in all its glory, sawing away at Wolfe’s raw groove. Of the three Bang on a Canners, I find Wolfe the least interesting, but Dig Deep was a relief after five months of minimalist and postminimalist concert withdrawal. Wolfe sets up a tight, typical BOAC groove, and interrupts it regularly with fiddle-like flights of fancy, refined interjections which spin into an intoxicating lyricism towards the end. There’s really no better way to close a concert.

I checked back in with Ultraschall on Wednesday evening for a profile of the German-born British composer Alexander Goehr, a relatively unknown figure whose documents have been recently acquired by the Akademie der Künste archive (where I am researching). The portrait, sponsored by the Akademie, included a fascinating roundtable discussion with Goehr, the brilliant pianist Stefan Litwin, and archive director Werner Grünzweig. Goehr is remarkably charming at 77 and spun stories about his early meetings with Aaron Copland and his role as a young member of the New Manchester Group, a British composer collective including Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle (he remarked that they foolishly thought they were the next Second Viennese School).

The first concert featured a performance of Goehr’s Wahngedichte, a setting of anti-war poems written during the height of the Vietnam protests. Goehr acknowledged that at the time he was more interested in the literature of the poems than their political overtones and quite candidly admitted that a set of classical lieder written in the 1960s has little importance in real-life political discourse. Mezzo Monica Brett-Crowther sang the spare, almost limpid Expressionist songs with a clear, compelling voice emphasizing the suppressed rage of the lyrics, sensitively accompanied by Litwin. Weirdly enough, a delightful film followed, a short BBC feature documenting the premiere of Goehr’s opera Arden Must Die.

With the second concert came Goehr’s more recent works, which were a bit problematic. Since Brass, nor Stone… (2008), for string quartet and percussionist, featured moments of off-kilter jazziness alternating with fits of rhapsody, and a cycle of Kafka songs, Das Gesetz der Quadrille, had a certain bluesy resplendence, with almost Debussy-like harmonies. Each work was enjoyable if a bit lengthy, a problem exacerbated by Goehr’s excruciatingly-long Piano Quintet, one of the more boring works I have heard in recent years. It’s a simple, melodious Romantic thing completely lacking character—Dvořák without the folk tunes. Moment-to-moment, the music sounded great, especially with the refined playing of Litwin and the Pellegrini Quartet, but the quintet lacked any sense of direction, meandering for close to forty minutes. Perhaps Goehr has lost his edge in recent years; I would like to hear more before making a judgment.

Saturday was Lachenmann-fest, a three concert marathon at Radialsystem, each with a single major work by the eminent composer. The works surrounding Lachenmann’s proved just as engaging as those by the composer himself. In the first concert, the Sonar and Bordun Quartets performed Walter Zimmermann’s eerie Fränkische Tanze, a series of antique dances played on glassy harmonics by one quartet (the Sonar), accompanied by an unsettling drone played by another (the Bordun); the almost Ivesian displacement produced a lingering, almost haunting effect. The Sonar players followed with Michael Hirsch’s String Quartet, a twitchy, episodic work of tiny fragments which seemed to build towards something without ever quite reaching it. The ensemble recherche gave a heated rendition of Allegro sostenuto, one of Lachenmann’s classic works, a grand trio for clarinet, violin, and piano. Lachenmann crafts fierce dialogues between the three instruments, delicate gestures alternating with bouts of extreme violence. Frequently, the clarinetist stood to play directly into the piano and the pianist hit the resonator with a hammer or ran a credit card along the strings; somehow the cello escaped unscathed.

This would all seem absolutely nuts if it weren’t for the orchestral concert which followed, perhaps the wildest a full Mahlerian-size ensemble can get. Two works composers Simon Steen-Andersen and Iris Ter Schiphorst, made Lachenmann’s massive, muted orchestral rumination Staub seem rather tame. Andersen’s Ouvertures is a concerto for amplified Guzheng, a plucked Chinese zither which the composer turns into a mindbending web of rhythmical genius, locking in grids of crossrhythms in-between deafening synthesizer meltdowns and orchestral smears. Liu Le, the soloist, seemed to embody the instrument itself, fearlessly embracing Andersen’s wild extended techniques, which elicited the strangest and most exotic variety of sounds I’ve ever heard. Christoph Grund, the keyboardist in Schiphorst’s Dislokationen, matched Le’s intensity, playing amplified piano with one hand and keyboard sampler with the other as gigantic rap grooves blasted in the background. Schiphorst sets up huge backbeats in the orchestra and electronics, with a pulverizing piano part and occasional sample of a rapper screaming something about the motherfucking remix. The Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester Berlin took it all in stride, with conductor Peter Rundel masterfully keeping everything together.

Things mercifully cooled down with the last event of the night: Nicolas Hodges’ solo recital, with music of Brice Pauset and Lachenmann. Pauset’s two sets of Canons for piano, contrapuntal noodling punctuated by moments of crystal stillness, showed promise for the French composer, whose music resembles Boulez without the edge (I did not particularly enjoy the premiere of his monodrama Exercises du Silence at the Staatsoper earlier this month). Lachenmann had the final word with his Serynade, a relatively relaxed piece—no credit cards or hammers here, just frozen clumps of lingering cluster chords, often played by entire elbows rather than just fingers. Serynade is an entrancing work, full of submerged violence and obsessive repetitions, and Hodges gave it a consummate performance, with intimate tenderness and theatrical bravado—a fine send-off to an eclectic but engaging festival.

Edit: Originally I said Steen-Andersen and Schiphorst were Dutch. In fact, Steen-Andersen is Danish and Shiphorst German.

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