Every two years since 1992 choirs,
instrumentalists and dancers, representing cultures from all parts of
the globe, assemble to share friendship and express their disparate
faiths in the breathtakingly beautiful Italianate churches of the Allgäu.
The 18 C summer residence of the Archbishops of Augsburg, which was
located in Marktoberdorf, has been transformed into the Bavarian Music
Marktoberdorf remains a small,
rather isolated town in South West Germany, but it has become famous
for its music festivals, notably the biennial Musica Sacra International,
where a concept unique in Europe, and possibly in the world, has flowered.
It is the brainchild of the charismatic Festival Director Adolf Rabus,
who conceived Musica Sacra International as a small but significant
way to promote mutual understanding through music, in the context of
the fragility of peace, with globalisation of violence, regional intolerance
and international conflicts fuelled by rigorous compliance to religious
principles and, indeed, false interpretations of religious writings.
There was initial resistance in
this predominantly Catholic area; some priests were at first reluctant
to have Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews - representatives of all
religions - to perform in their churches, but prejudice has been overcome
and an enthusiastic public gathers in each of the concert venues, many
of them supreme jewels of High Baroque.
Despite all the vicissitudes and
financial difficulties which beset most cultural initiatives, Musica
Sacra International is firmly established as a fixture on the European
cultural calendar and an encouraging demonstration of faith in the possibility
of music to foster international friendship and understanding.
Many of the concerts we attended
were packed to overflowing, even in some of the largest churches, with
audiences attending patiently to exotic musics which will have been
unknown to most listeners. After a slowish start in 1992, the festival
has really taken off this year, with half of the concerts sold out.
Some of the artists we saw and heard were visibly taken aback by their
invariably enthusiastic reception, for example a group of five Tenores
di Biti from Sardinia, who intoned esoteric primitive chants with an
extraordinary guttural inherited sound, continuing for most of an hour.
They have a CD of sacred and 'profane' music on SIAE BLU 032.
Contrasting juxtapositions were
the rule; at St Martin's, Kaufbeuren the Tenores were followed by a
Jazz Requiem by Finnish composer Nils Lindberg, with choirs, amplified
solo singers and the Bavarian State Youth Jazz Orchestra, who gave its
Austrian and German premieres during the Musica Sacra days at churches
in Bregenz, Kaufbeuren & Kempten; a unique combination for choir
and 'real' jazz. Its expressivity veered between soprano and brass giving
a spine chilling intimation of screaming souls in purgatory and intense
quiet lamentation as a dialogue between keyboard and baritone saxophone.
A celebratory, riotous Sanctus must have grabbed the attention of the
All-Mighty above. A palpable hit, and one which attracted younger audiences
to these concerts of sacred music! Its professional premiere in Stockholm
(1994) is on Phono Suecia PSCD 78 and the Kafbeuren concert with Tenores
di Biti & Lindberg's Requiem is available from MSI K08. This is
a work which merits wide international currency.
Another typical festival programme
had the Italian organist Leonardo Carrieri playing Paquini, Bach/Vivaldi
etc on a brightly toned instrument, followed by a lengthy raga performed
by the left-handed violinist Manuj Baruah with such stunning virtuosity
as to make Paganini sit up in his grave - he will be playing at the
Pandit Nehru Centre in London on September 7. He was partnered by Soumitrajit
Chatterje, tabla, coaxing the most refined sounds with fingers and hands
alone. Both players displayed immense concentration keeping the underlying
tension at high pitch even through interruptions during lengthy climaxes
to adjust the tuning (CD MSI K12).
This concert had also the Vassil
Arnaoudov Chamber Choir from Sofia in Bulgarian-Orthodox music (banned
from 1944 until 1989 under the communist regime); intensely beautiful
singing under their director Theodora Pavlovitch, who also gave a lecture
on Whit Monday in the academic programme which supports this festival
(most of the lectures are given in English as the lingua franca in this
international choral world).
Another ambitious event had the
Goeyvaerts Ensemble from Belgium giving an accomplished account of Schnittke's
demanding Choir Concerto and an intricate setting of words by St Francis
of Assisi, a Marktoberdorf commission from Gianfranco Grisi, their composer
in residence last year, who had been set up in a composing hut in the
Music Academy grounds. In contrast with Mahler's Austrian lakeside retreat,
the Marktoberdorf resident composers are required to be available to
receive all comers whilst composing there for four hours a day! The
Goeyvaerts Ensemble ended with the ubiquitous Agnus Dei, an arrangement
of the Samuel Barber adagio; ideal to show off their sumptuous tone
in the superb acoustic of the extravagantly decorated Holy Cross Church
Amongst several memorable concerts,
one of the most remarkable happened at Altenstadt, beginning late because
of the organisers' determination to accommodate all comers. Six young
singers of the Finnish ensemble Rajaton have forged a unique sound,
magnificent as reflected by the curved wall of the Romanesque church's
apse. They presented sacred compositions and special arrangements made
for them. Rajaton means boundless, unlimited, and this personable group
has won international regard in music encompassing pop and folk music
as well as the sacred music they brought to this festival; in the post-concert
partying every night, sometimes till 4 a.m, we heard Rajaton give their
version of a Rolling Stones favourite. Rajaton was coupled in this concert
with a sequence of Nepalese dances, the exotically costumed Charya Nritya-Dance
Mandal dancing around the Allenstadt altar to delight and acclamation
(CD K14 from MSI).
There were only very few disappointments
and miscalculations. The Ugandan choir from Kampala would better have
avoided the type of hymn which derived from the baleful influence of
British colonisation; their technique was inadequate for European derived
repertoire. However, they came alive when connecting with their own
culture; with traditional rhythms, accompanied by drums, woodblock instruments
and shakers, they warmed up the audience in infectious dance.
There are daily 'cultural tours'
to the concerts in the area and coach trips through spectacular countryside
which take in wonders such as King Ludwig's bizarre Wagnerian Royal
Castle of Neuschwanstein. Meals (veritable banquets) were organised
in august historic surroundings, all for very modest cost; ideal for
visitors from abroad.
Invited guests, including some
fifty press representatives, were looked after in style, with shuttle
transport to and from their accommodation to chosen venues of their
own choice. Many visiting performers were put up in local residents'
homes, another crucial opportunity for members of the German public
to get to know people from remote cultures personally.
The documentation for these festivals
is impressive. Dolf Rabus is insistent that it is essential to provide
words and translations for fuller understanding at the concerts (something
for which Seen & Heard campaigned from its inception) and the festival
programme books have learned articles by specialists which discuss in
depth the music of the different cultures represented.
There are fine quality CDs of
each concert programme, made in MSI's own studio and, miraculously,
put on sale the following day; several of them recommended above. The
subsequent double-CDs of each of the festivals become collectors' items
of lasting interest. The compilations are well selected to make balanced
programmes of a satisfyingly high performance standard in live recordings
which capture the advantageous acoustics of the churches. The professional
production, illustrated and with texts included, is uniformly excellent
- they are well worth acquiring.
Peter Grahame Woolf
(Editor Emeritus Seen & Heard)
An expanded and illustrated version
of this report will appear shortly on Musical
Information about future festivals
and CD purchase from Musica Sacra International's website and by mail