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Donaueschingen Music Days, 2003 by John Warnaby

Last year's Donaueschingen Music Days were preceded with a 'live' discussion, organised by Bavarian Radio on 16 October, concerning the future of the avant-garde. Among the participants were Isabel Mundry and Georg Nussbaumer, representing, respectively, concert music, and the increasing trend towards installations and performance art. They embodied the underlying theme of the 2003 Music Days, and there was even an attempt to combine the different media in a single concertante event on 18 October which was hardly the most enlightening experience of the weekend.

However, the repertoire was generally more successful than in 2002. It did not reveal an obviously outstanding work, but it ensured that most of the concerts were memorable. In contrast with recent years, the first orchestral concert proved more rewarding than the concluding concert. Apparently, some aspects of the performances by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France, conducted by Emilio Pomarico, were criticised, but the three works constituted a varied and challenging programme. Appropriately, the order of presentation reflected their increasing significance, but in each case, the complexity of the compositional process was largely justified.

Plongements, by the Argentine-born Ricardo Nillni, opened the proceedings. Initially, there were echoes of Grisey's spectral music, and the complex compositional processes, based on mathematical models, were clearly derived from spectral thought; but they were also sufficiently flexible to enable Nillni to realise his own imaginative ideas. A different background was reflected in Walter Zimmermann's Subrisio saltat I, for cello and orchestra. There was insufficient variety to completely offset the minimalist basis of Zimmermann's score, though there was a sense of contrast between soloist and orchestra which helped the work to evolve. The composer's introductory note also suggested an ironic dimension, stemming from early German romanticism, but it would need a detailed knowledge of Zimmermann's output, especially his use of Franconian folk melodies, to fully appreciate this aspect. The revised version of Emmanuel Nunes' Nachtmusik II had more explicit origins in an earlier work. Besides being a revision of the earlier orchestral score, which, in turn, was derived from Nachtmusik I, both pieces were integral to a 'family' of works with the overall title The Creation, in that they shared the same rhythmic principle. The latest manifestation of Nachtmusik II clearly benefited from compositional procedures the composer has refined over many years. It was very much in the modernist tradition for which Donaueschingen is best-known, but also had an epic character, particularly in the concluding pages, with their tolling bell-like sonorities.

Two concerts by smaller ensembles, concentrating mainly on composers of the younger generation, were also rewarding. Ensemble Mosaik, conducted by Robert HP Platz, presented three relatively unfamiliar composers whose training was sufficiently rigorous to ensure that they created music of genuine interest, notwithstanding the elaborate technology at their disposal. Pierre Jodlowski - a French composer with a strong bias towards electronics - incorporated an eight-channel sound system and interactive video into a work for small ensemble. The integration was generally successful, though the co-existence between the worlds of new music and popular culture was sometimes uneasy. Still, People - Time compelled attention despite Jodlowski's undue reliance on minimalist gestures. Arnulf Herrmann's Panorama, for ensemble, 'live' electronics, speaker, and interactive video did not involve popular references. It lacked the vitality and humour of Direkt Entrueckt, introduced at Witten, but suggested that the composer's future may lie mainly in music-theatre. On the other hand, Enno Poppe's Rad, for two keyboards, achieved the same level of inspiration as his earlier scores. It demonstrated that Poppe's harmonic language is sufficiently developed to enable him to undertake a major exploration of micro-intervals.

The concert by Klangforum Wien, conducted by Fabrice Bollon, was slightly less successful, by virtue of one disappointing item, and another which was not wholly convincing. The former was Dror Feiler's Point Blank: written in anger, apparently, but undermined by gratuitous aggression; while Sergej Newski's Fluss, for speaker and ensemble - an expressionist portrayal of mental anguish - suffered from inadequate musical support. Reinhard Fuchs' Blue Poles, for ensemble, was slightly too long, but revealed another talented Austrian composer. In contrast, James Clarke's Final Dance was a model of concision. Clarke favours pieces lasting approximately ten minutes, and on the evidence of Final Dance, this is the appropriate length for his highly concentrated style.

There were various forms of over-indulgence, and several pieces suffered from undue exaggeration. Vadim Karassikov's Beyond the Boundary of Silence, for clarinet, violin and piano concentrated on visual gestures, subjecting the audience to half-an-hour of almost total silence as the three players fiddled with their instruments. It was deemed not worthy of broadcasting in full.

Many of the pieces presented under the collective title, 'Musik fuer Hunde', were equally devoid of genuine substance. For example, it was difficult to discern the significance of Antoine Beuger's 48-hour wort fuer wort (geraum), consisting of sepulchral readings interspersed with electronic sounds in an otherwise silent environment. 'Musik fuer Hunde' was also devised to unify the various strands of the Donaueschinger Musiktage by encouraging composers and conceptual artists to create a sequence of events that could be realised in terms of installations, performance pieces or concert items. One of the themes - which was extended to some of the concert pieces - was the relationship between sound and noise. Rolf Julius' work took the form of an installation; a performance entitled Piano Concerto No. 2; and a concert presentation, entitled Zwischen Schwarz und Rot, in which noise predominated and there was little distinction between ensemble and electronics. Georg Nussbaumer's Von der Wiege bis zum Graab emphasised noise to an even greater degree. In keeping with the title, he installed various objects at different locations, designed to symbolise, sonically, or visually, the life cycle, together with environmental and other issues. This was the basis of Part III of his overall scheme: an elaborate wooden construction, in the form of a galley, he contributed to the Concertante event, but it needed an extended verbal explanation, rather than the sounds themselves, to clarify his concept. In comparison, Peter Ablinger's Altar was more inventive. The starting-point was a series of recordings made on one of Donaueschingen's busiest crossroads. The second stage was a complementary study, presented at the Concertante event, while stage 3 was Drei Minuten für Orchester, in which an 'analysis' of 14 seconds of the original recording was combined with the piano part of the Complementary Study. Drei Minuten für Orchester opened the final concert, given by the Orchestra of South-West German Radio, Freiburg and Baden-Baden, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, and, within its brief span, displayed more invention than is customary in Ablinger's orchestral scores. The original programme comprised a further three recent works, but Klaus K. Hubler's Vanitas did not appear until the 2004 Eclat Festival, where it revealed a considerable change of style from the composer's earlier creations.

At Donaueschingen, Vanitas was replaced by Chemins I, for harp and chamber orchestra, in tribute to Luciano Berio. It proved superior to the remaining items. Nevertheless, the two first performances merited serious consideration. Isabel Mundry's Penelopes Atem, for female voice, accordion and orchestral groups, was clearly the product of a modernist sensibility. The piece was inspired by contrasting city-scapes which she interpreted as a metaphor for the wanderings of Odysseus as opposed to the interior isolation, within her own home, of Penelope. Hence the contrast between voice and orchestra as each sought to articulate its expressive content. Penelopes Atem has been followed by Gefaecherter Raum, for vocal and instrumental soloists, instrumental ensemble, chorus and orchestra, introduced on 5 March, as part of the current Munich Musica Viva season. Together, they suggest that Isabel Mundry's forthcoming opera, based on The Odyssey, will be a work of considerable significance. In comparison with Penelopes Atem, Georg Friedrich Haas' Natures Mortes, for orchestra, was less challenging and consequently achieved a more immediate response. Haas' recent output has not matched his earlier achievements, though the outer sections of Natures Mortes compelled attention by virtue of his attempt to construct a harmonic language from the overtone series. Unfortunately, the central episode was monotonous, involving two sequences of pulsations, whose timbre was gradually changed over several minutes. In the concluding passage, however, Haas was far more imaginative, allowing the textures to change with greater subtlety, so that the piece came close to capturing the cantabile manner mentioned in his programme note.

This year's Karl Sczuka prize for a radiophonic, or electroacoustic composition was won by Asmus Tietchens, with Sechs Heidelberger Studien, based on the sounds of old printing machines. Lasting a little over 20 minutes, the piece had the distinct merit of concision, yet managed to explore a variety of different sonorities and rhythms.

During the weekend, Edition Zeitklang expanded their range of discs with several new releases. The Artistic Director is the composer Bernfried Proeve, and the intention of Edition Zeitklang Music Production is "to promote highly gifted performers and composers and extraordinary contemporary music ensembles on a broad basis by publishing CD monographs. Another of our concerns is to present new art forms on CD ..." The repertoire is not confined to contemporary, or even 20th-century music, but the majority of discs concentrate on recent developments. For instance, there is a disc of microtonal piano music; another is a portrait of Brian Ferneyhough.

At the same time, Col Legno issued an outstanding new recording of Luigi Nono's Io: Frammento da Prometeo and Das Atmende Klarsein, together with the documentation discs of Donaueschingen, 2002. The three discs of the latter made possible further consideration of most of the items, but this only confirmed the impression that the 2002 Donaueschingen Music Days would be remembered for Klaus Huber's Die Seele Muss vom Reittier steigen.

John Warnaby

As in previous years, CDs from the 2003 festival will be released during 2004.




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