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S & H Article

A Look Back at Donaueschingen, 2002 by John Warnaby



Donaueschingen can always be justified because it provides a vital forum for living composers, and even a few dead ones. It can also be justified as having presented a remarkable number of outstanding premieres since its inception in 1950. The 12-49sc survey of the first 40 years of Donaueschingen is an essential document for anyone interested in post-war European music, yet the number of fine scores omitted from the collection would fill several further discs.

Likewise, the discs documenting the main events at each Donaueschingen over the past decade provide a reliable guide to the most significant pieces. Three discs were required to do full justice to Donaueschingen 2000. Only two discs were needed the following year, though some worthwhile pieces were not included. Donaueschingen 2002 is also likely to be covered by two discs, but in this instance, there will be some rather weak scores that would not have made it in a more successful year.

In essence, 2002 was not a good year for Donaueschingen. The opening concert was disappointing, and all the smaller scale events were poor. Even normally reliable composers failed to make any impact. Thus George Lopez' attempt to suggest a new relationship between performers and audience, in Schatten Vergessener Ahnen - Shadows of Forgotten Forebears failed to provoke, largely because the orchestral material lacked originality. Similarly, pieces by Helmut Oehhing, Julio Estrada, and others, revealed little of their personalities.

It was therefore left to lesser-known composers to make an impact. Karen Rehnquist's Teile Dich Nacht, for choir, plus female folk singer, using the Swedish style known as kullning, was the most arresting item in the opening concert, though Franck Christoph Yeznikian's La Ligne, La Primombra, La Perte, for chamber orchestra made sufficient impression to suggest a significant composer for the future. Among works for smaller ensembles, Alan Hilario's Phonautograph, and Michal Nejtek's Thorn into the Flesh should be mentioned.

Thus, it was only with the final concert, given by the Symphony Orchestra of SWR, Badenbaden and Freiburg, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, together with the Experimentalstudio, Freiburg, that Donaueschingen's reputation was preserved. Two of the three works would hold their own in any company, and it happens that both were written partly in response to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Each questioned whether the creative impulse could adequately reflect such events, but they also demonstrated the necessity of confronting the various issues in artistic terms.

Notwithstanding her recent excursion into music-theatre, Chaya Czernowin's Maim Zarim Maim Gnuvim, - Strange Water, Stolen Water - for solo instrumental quintet, orchestra and 'live' electronics is probably her finest achievement to date. It is the first part of a triptych, and is essentially experimental in character, including a hybrid instrument called a Tubax, played by the saxophonist, Rico Gubler, but it is also the product of a remarkable sonic imagination. The solo instrumental quintet and 'live' electronics create a delicate tapestry of sound, but equally, the orchestra is deployed with considerable power when necessary.

Klaus Huber originally conceived Die Seele Muss vom Reittier Steigen as a cello concerto, but the decision to set a text by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwisch, written during the Israeli occupation of much of Palestine, meant that it evolved into a combination of concerto and song-cycle. At the same time, Huber added a solo baryton - another hybrid instrument, best known for its use by Haydn in a series of trios. The presence of the counter-tenor, Kai Wessel, might suggest a link with Huber's recent opera, Schwarzerde, yet there is no direct connection, though the new work has a certain affinity in terms of underlying atmosphere.

Huber's recent output has retained the rigour of his earlier scores, while acquiring a more mystical character than hitherto. His preoccupation, during the past decade, with the theory of Arabic classical music, together with the philosophical ideas of medieval Arabic scholars, has enabled him to capture the essence of Darwisch's poetry, and the result is a work which transcends the familiar criteria by which contemporary music is judged. Die Seele Muss vom Reittier Steigen should be added to the outstanding achievements which have emanated from Donaueschingen over the past fifty years.

John Warnaby



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