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S & H Contemporary Festival Review

Wittener Tage fuer Neue Kammermusik: 9 - 11 May, 2003 by John Warnaby.


This year's Witten weekend, organised by West German Radio, took place during the second weekend in May, with the result it was possible to attend a couple of events in Munich during the previous week. There was no Biennale this year, but both events would normally have been incorporated into the celebration, and will be in 2004.

The first was a Musica Viva chamber music concert on 6 May, part of a mini series organised by Josef Anton Riedl within the main programme. The four works were mixed in the sense that they were variable in quality, but also scored for different instrumental combinations. There were two percussion sextets framing the programme. The first of these detained us for far longer than necessary. However, Adriana Holszki's Jagd die Woelfe Zurueck was definitely a success.

In between, Roger Reynolds' Brain Ablaze .. She Howled Aloud, for one, two or three piccolos, computer processed sound and real-time spatialisation, performed by three flautists, led by Karen Levine, demonstrated it was perfectly feasible to write a half-hour piece for such a monochrome ensemble. Reynords has an imaginative grasp of how conventional instruments can interact with computer technology, as well as an ability to mould works of considerable diversity into an overall scheme. Brain Ablaze.. will form part of The Red Act Project, based on Ancient Greek drama, where there will also be a theatrical element.

George Lopez' Gonzalez the Earth Eater, for tuba and small ensemble, played by members of Triolog, was partly inspired by William S. Burroughs The Soft Machine. Lopez is a composer of considerable originality, though his output tends to be inconsistent. Gonzalez the Earth Eater is one of his most arresting works, not least for the interplay between tuba andaccompanying instruments.

Members of Triolog were again in action the following day, which brought the last of this season's Klangspuren concerts. In this series, young composers are invited to present their own works alongside pieces which have proved influential. The featured composer on this occasion was Kenneth Hesketh, who gave his presentation in English, but outlined his career with such fluency that the audience seemed to have little trouble understanding him. He was born in 1968, and while he has not yet acquired the individuality of Julian Anderson or Thomas Adès, he can certainly match their technical facility.

Hesketh chose three of his own pieces, together with short items by mainly 20th-century composers. An arrangement of a piece by Don Paulo da Firenze already revealed that an interest in early music extended to his own compositional procedures, and thus both his set of miniatures, entitled Cautionary Tales, as well as the most ambitious dei destini incrociati, employed techniques derived from composers of the 'Ars Subtilior' period. The supporting items included Henze's 5 Nachtstuecke, knussen's Autumnal, and an intriguing keyboard sonata by CPE. Bach, in D major, WQblefa - 2.

The Hesketh programme suggested a comparison with several European composers of the same generation, or even younger, featured during the Witten weekend. Indeed, in the first two concerts, on 9 May, only Carola Bauckholt did not belong to the younger generation. Ultimately, the impression was that the radicalism of the Central Europeans, particularly, was more direct, with little or no hint of compromise.

This was well illustrated by the first of the three world premieres featured in the opening programme, given by Klangforum, Wien, conducted by Emilio Pomarico. Arnulf Herrmann, born 1968, is German, but, unusually, he is a product of mainly non-German composition teachers. Accordingly there is less emphasis on the contrast between sound and noise, using 'advanced' playing techniques. Direkt Entrueckt has a conventional structure, and is largely concerned with the transformation of material, so that basic ideas recur in unfamiliar contexts. The harmony is often abrasive, occasionally influenced by jazz. However, there are lyrical episodes, and wit is another feature of Herrmann's sound-world.

Elena Mendoza-Lopez' Dort, Doch, Auch, Nicht, Vielleicht, for thirteen instruments in five groups was less inventive, despite the carefully planned spatial arrangement. On the other hand, Aurelliano Cattaneo's Minotaurus, Dreaming, for soprano, counter-tenor and two ensembles - setting texts by Eduardo Sanguinetti and Friedrich Duerrenmatt - revealed a young composer, born 1974, capable of combining a radical outlook with a vocal sensibility.

Whether by coincidence or design, several pieces in this year's Wittener Tage featured the viola. The first of the performances in Haus Witten was devoted to three pieces by Walter faehndrich; it was again featured in one of Bernhard Lang's performance pieces, while two of the items in the main concert schedule were for solo viola. In the second programme, Gustav Friedrichsohn's Bis an das Ende, played by Christophe Desjardins, subjected the instrument to a rigorous exploration, but was ultimately over-long. Nevertheless, it was more rewarding than Carola Bauckholt's Kugel, for three celli and noise makers, played by Cello Blue, where the attempt to create an element of contrast was simply obtrusive. Juerg Widmann's three Etudes for violin, written for his sister, was altogether more successful, and made a greater impression than the more experimental Signale, for vocal ensemble, heard in the fifth concert.

The third concert on 10 May, featuring members of Neu Vokalsolisten, Stuttgart, plus instrumentalists, opened with Gerard Grisey's Solo pour Deux, for clarinet and trombone. It is a minor work, yet it initiated Grisey's investigations of spectral harmony, thereby playing a major role in his subsequent development. Likewise, Roman Haubenstock Ramati began a new phase of his career with the graphically notated Alone I and II. In the version presented at Witten, the graphics of Alone II were interpreted by clarinet, trombone, accordion and percussion, and the performance was notable for its humour.

Haubenstock-Ramati was also represented by a performance at Haus

Witten. In 1991, he sketched an electro-acoustic composition entitled Morendo. Bernhard Lang's completion involved adding a virtuoso part for bass flute, played by Eva Furrer, and the result, re-titled Morendo, Double, echo, was received with well-deserved enthusiasm.

The remaining items were vocal. Virtually all Joerg Birkenkotter's compositions have been non-vocal but he was inspired to set Arthur Rimbaud's Depart by the poetic language, particularly its sonorous quality. The scoring is for two voices, trombone and percussion, and the composer has attempted to establish links between voices and instruments, while reflecting the sound and meaning of the text.

The most theatrical item was Markus Hechtle's Still, setting a text by Giacoco Leopardi for speaker, four male singers, plus accordion, grouped around a table. On one level, the piece alluded to 19th-century domestic music-making. At the same time, the imposing presence of the speaker, Andre Wilms, emphasized the work's disturbing aspect. The work showed that in the right hands, a post-modern approach can produce some intriguing results.

Theatrical projects underpinned the three items in the fourth concert, again on 10 May, with Klangforum Wien, and the soprano, Petra Hoffmann, sharing the programme with Ensemble Recherche, plus the viola player, Christophe Desjardins. The main items were Emmanuel Nunes' Improvisations I and II, for ensemble and solo viola, respectively: preliminary studies for a forthcoming monodrama after Dostoevsky. Improvisation I was complex, but used the ensemble with great subtlety, while its partner stressed the element of virtuosity, but with a repeating gesture helping to clarify the overall structure.

Hardly less significant was Lied von Verschwinden, for soprano, ensemble and electronics, from the opera, Berenice, by Johannes Maria Staud, scheduled to receive its premiere during the 1994 Munchener Biennale. The piece certainly made considerable demands, though without employing extended vocal techniques. Unlike Nunes' improvisations, it was not a preliminary study, but will be incorporated into the opera. Whether the scoring is retained remains to be seen.

Ensemble Recherche and Neu vokalsolisten, Stuttgart were responsible for the fifth concert on 11 May. Nunes' Rubato, Registres et Resonances, for violin, clarinets and flutes, reflecting his continuing preoccupation with JS Bach, was less convincing than the improvisations. Nevertheless, it was more rewarding than the choral items which framed it. Joerg Widmann's Signale was particularly disappointing, comprising little more than overlapping sequences of vocal glissandi. Michael Jarrell's .. car le Pense et l'etre sont une meme choses, for chorus with tam-tam, was far better, but his prowess as a vocal composer does not match his stature in the instrumental or orchestral sphere.

In recent years, Harry Vogt has been remarkably adept at selecting the most worthwhile pieces for the final concert. On this occasion he was 50 per cent successful, with one outstanding score off-set by a rather predictable item. Leaving the best till last, it can be said that the first half minute of Bernhard Lang's Differenz Wiederholung 9 - Tulpe Puppe for voice, ensemble, and electronics, was very promising, but then he relied on this single idea for the remaining 25 minutes, or so. In short, there was not enough differenz, and too much wiederholung. Like many composers, Lang finds it virtually impossible to escape the confines of minimalism.

By contrast, Enno Poppe's Wand, for ensemble, teemed with ideas, melodically and harmonically. Wand may not be quite as consistent as the recent Scherben, or Oel, but it illustrates the fact that his style is continuously evolving. On the one hand, there were microtonal inflections; on the other, there was an ambitious, almost 'symphonic' approach to his handling of the ensemble. Poppe is undoubtedly a composer to watch. Klangforum Wien were conducted by Emilio Pomarico, and they were joined by the vocalist, Salome Kammer, for the lang.

There were several other performances, together with a number of installations in Haus Witten. However, despite the recent proliferation of these events, in conjunction with various attempts to reduce the formality of traditional concerts, the familiar format remains the best way of presenting new music. When the 2003 Wittener Tage is documented on compact disc, most of the items will be selected from the main programme.

John Warnaby


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