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Tenth Münchener Biennale: 05 – 20.05, 2006 reviewed by John Warnaby




Christoph Staude: Wir, after the novel by Evgeny Zamyatin; librettist: Hans-Georg Wegner. Premiere: 5 May, 2006. Münchner Rundfunkorchester, conductor: Christian Hommel; stage director: Helen Malkowsky.

Aureliano Cattaneo: La Philosophie dans le Labyrinthe; librettist: Edoardo Sanguineti. Premiere: 9 May, 2006. Charles Maxwell, counter-tenor; Michael Leibundgut, bass; Klangforum Wien; conductor: Emilio Pomarico, technical director: Werner Kraft.

Bar Code: Idea and text: Cornel Franz; sound material and advice: Siegfried Mauser and Peter Ruzicka. Premiere: 13 May, 2006. Salome Kammer – soprano; Thomas E. Bauer – baritone; sampling and turntables: Alexandra Holtsch; turntables: Illvibe. Production: Hochschule für Musik und Theater München in co-operation with the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding.

Klaus Schedl: City Scan: München; concept and music by Klaus Schedl, text and title: Ulrich Rueger. Premiere: 16 May, 2006. Production director: Philipp Kolb, in co-operation with Bayerischer Rundfunk.

José Maria Sánchez Verdú: Gramma: Gardens of Writing, chamber opera. Music, concept and libretto: Sánchez Verdú. Premiere: 18 May, 2006. Idea, book, concept: Sabrina Hölzer; book, stage, concept: Mirella Weingarten; Members of Lucerne Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Rüdiger Bohn. Overall Directors: Werner Kraft, Peter Klemm.

Under the general title, Labyrinth-Widerstand-Wir – Labyrinth-Resistance-We, the Tenth Münchener Biennale presented a further five stage works in two weeks. On this occasion, the overall theme offered the possibility of an integrated approach, with each work adding a new perspective. Hence, the order of presentation formed part of the logic. There were also concerts featuring mainly composers of the post-1945 generation or their immediate successors, and these provided an intriguing comparison with the latest music-theatre creations.

The starting-point for the operas was Evgeny Zamyatin’s novel of 1920, entitled “Wir” in the German translation. It was the progenitor of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s utopian fictions, and, with hindsight, can be read as foretelling the downfall of the Soviet Union, with its conformist ethic.

Besides reflecting the increasing influence of various media, Christoph Staude, and librettist, Hans-Georg Wegner, confronted the problem of finding a compositional counterpart to the restrictions imposed on society as envisaged by Zamyatin. The nameless characters in the novel were identified by number, and state music was described as ‘clear, in order, in the language of advertisements: square, classical and good’. In keeping with the idea of ‘quadrangular harmony’, which extended to the installation, built of cubes, the choir sang conventional homophonic music in common time, and they moved in a square. Indeed, these restrictions were essential to the dramaturgy of the opera, as their gradual abandonment illustrated the growing resistance to the ‘one and only state’ and the chaos that ensued.

Yet at least one critic considered Staude’s literal interpretation of his main source as naïve. By adhering to Zamyatin’s notion of state music, he created a straitjacket which obviated the possibility of expressing the complexities of the novel in music-theatrical terms. Some elements of transformation resulted in a degree of orchestral variety, while the growing resistance embodied in the main protagonists provided scope for some characterisation. However, the static nature of the choral writing created insoluble problems, so that the composer’s distinctive personality was only occasionally revealed.

In Wir, the choir represented the great benefactor – the collective entity around which had been constructed a labyrinth of restrictions designed to regulate the social order. Accordingly it performed the major role in comparison with the soloists, whose music was not particularly grateful, and who had fewer opportunities to make a strong impact.

In La Philosophie dans le Labyrinthe, Aureliano Cattaneo, and his librettist, Edoardo Sanguineti, constructed a poetic labyrinth, which explored the myth from several perspectives, including that of the Minotaur. They drew on a variant of the myth used by Friedrich Duerrenmatt, and thus, Cattaneo’s musical labyrinth, contained two dream sequences from his earlier score, Minotaur Dreaming, for soprano, counter-tenor and two ensembles, which formed the core of the new work. At the same time, he was influenced by such composers as Alban Berg, who devised strict contrapuntal structures whereby the original material could give rise to reflections, or mirror inversions of itself.

The result was an opera of ideas, very different from Sanguineti’s earlier collaboration with Berio, or Globokar, where elements of protest reinforced the modernist sensibility of such scores as Passaggio. In contrast, La Philosophie dans le Labyrinthe was post-modern: concentrating on style, in which the emphasis was on creating a precise balance between music, text and action.

With the exception of the Minotaur, who sang unaccompanied, and whose music was reflected by an accordion in the smaller of the two ensembles, the main characters were represented by a singer, a dancer, and an off-stage voice, who constantly interacted with each other. On one level, the opera followed the outline of the myth of the Minotaur, while a visual level, associated with a video, reflected the ancient tale in reverse. There was also a dream-like level, associated with off-stage voices, and with the smaller ensemble of accordion, baroque flute and saloon piano.

Despite the theatrical aspects, which culminated in the death of the Minotaur, at the hands of Theseus, this was essentially an ‘abstract’ piece, in keeping with the philosophical implications of the title. Stylistically, the music was not only consistent throughout, but also with Minotaur Dreaming, performed at Witten in 2003, as well as the recent compositions Cattaneo presented at the Klangspuren concert on 17 May. The interchange between the two ensembles was carefully planned and very effective, while the score was often surprisingly dramatic.

The libretto was characteristic of Sanguineti: a mixture of poetry, myth, elements of symbolism, word-play, and occasional narrative. Above all, Sanguineti showed his experience with a text that allowed plenty of scope for the composer’s imagination. This was in keeping with Cattaneo’s lyrical impulse, which was given full expression in the vocal writing. The counter-tenor, Charles Maxwell, was particularly busy, undertaking three roles, while the bass, Michael Leibundgut, was particularly impressive as the Minotaur. Besides singing unaccompanied, he encompassed a vocal range from deep bass to falsetto, yet established a powerful presence in each register.

The third presentation – Bar Code – reflected another aspect of post-modernism in that the piece was entirely constructed from pre-existing material. It was concerned with the way the electronic labyrinth increasingly dominates all aspects of our lives. At the same time, it alluded to the self-indulgence associated with post-industrial capitalism, which has encouraged political apathy.

Bar Code was a collaboration between the Hochschule für Musik und Theater and the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding, and was designed to appeal to a young audience. The text was provided by Cornel Franz, while Siegfried Mauser and Peter Ruzicka were responsible for the sound material, together with advice on its deployment. Additionally, the students benefited from the practical assistance of Thomas Bauer and Salome Kammer, who were the main protagonists.

However, it was Alexandra Holtsch who combined her expertise as a theatre musician, DJ and an exponent of computer music to weld the enterprise into a coherent entity. She worked mainly with samples of minimalist and ‘pop’ material, together with brief extracts from the repertoires of the principal singers, to create a score which formed the basis of the performance. The production involved actors and dancers, as well as singers and a chorus, and incorporated elements of improvisation. There was even some ‘live’ interaction between those on stage and the turntable artists. Bar Code was clearly inspired by the disco scene. At 70 minutes duration, it was slightly too long, but it never lacked vitality, thanks to the enthusiasm of all concerned. It indicated that the future of turntable and sampling artists need not be limited to the ‘pop’ scene.

Klaus Schedl also used recorded samples, in conjunction with an elaborate computer programme developed at Ircam, in City Scan: Munich, for soprano, clarinet, percussion, ‘live’ electronics and computer sounds. The concept involved combining sounds particular to Munich, as well as the voices of its citizens, with recordings of its recent past, culled from the archives of Bavarian Radio, to create both a historical and a contemporary picture of the city.

Schedl took his recording equipment into the interstices of Munich – its labyrinthine tunnels and sewers – whereupon he devised his computer programme, enabling him to process the material in various ways. He was even influenced by suggestions from the public as to how the recordings might be used.

Unfortunately, the computer programme was also a labyrinth, in which the individuality of Munich’s soundscape was lost. Despite screen projections indicating the provenance of the basic material, the general opinion was that Schedl had failed to reveal the city’s unique sonic identity. Moreover, the instrumental contributions, which were designed to interact with the electronic sounds, were unimaginative and ultimately predictable.

Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that at least one critic was impressed by Schedl’s achievement. He described City Scan as ‘avant-garde for the masses’ maintaining that Schedl has created a genuinely original, yet highly communicative score. His enthusiasm was laudable, but only when Schedl has applied his concept to other cities will it become clear whether he has succeeded in capturing the distinctive sonic character of each.

Hans Werner Henze initiated the Münchener Biennale to promote and explore the potential of music-theatre. It was therefore appropriate that in the year of his 80th birthday the final event virtually re-invented the genre. José Maria Sánchez Verdú defined his chamber opera, Gramma, for soprano, tenor, two baritones, speaker, vocal ensemble and 19 instrumentalists, as ‘gardens of writing’, but its subtle ambiguities embellished his metaphor with richer connotations.

The Muffathalle, a venue usually associated with ‘rock’ concerts, had been transformed into a classroom, a public library, or even – in view of the two monks in the cast – a monastery. Each spectator sat at a desk equipped with a book and a reading light. The singers, orchestra and conductor were arranged in pyramid formation overhead and were barely visible. There was no stage. It had been supplanted by the book, which was accompanied by a page explaining its role during the performance. When the reading lights were switched on, the spectators were invited to consult the book. When they were switched off, the spectators listened in contemplation. Thus, each spectator became an active participant in the work.

The work, devised by Sabrina Hoeltzer and Mirella Weingarten, combined the staging and libretto of Gramma. The words sung by the vocalists were extracted from various sources, including Plato’s Phaidros, Homer, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. In conjunction with illustrations of myths and fragments of the score, all the texts were concerned with memory, thereby reflecting the dispute between Theuth, who considered writing an aid to wisdom, and Thamos, who thought that relying on an external source would encourage forgetfulness.

The division of the music into six sections or ‘stations’ – each based on a different compositional process – dramatised the myths chosen to illustrate different facets of the central argument. Sánchez Verdú explored a rich palette of vocal and instrumental textures, so that the progress of the opera was characterised by the interplay between the sonic labyrinth which filled the hall, and the written labyrinth confronting each spectator. Not the least significant aspect of the work was that it reflected on the debate concerning the relative importance of words and music in opera.

In short, Gramma returned to the philosophical dimension of opera and posed questions for which there are no definitive answers. Yet it also suggested a new approach to listening to complex music. Sánchez Verdú relied on familiar techniques of the avant-garde, but created a challenging score which his colleagues developed into a unique theatrical experience. It would be surprising if anyone lost concentration as Gramma unfolded. It would also be surprising if any spectator refused the opportunity to retain the book, including the CD, so that some aspects of the experience could be repeated in their own surroundings.

The five music-theatre productions were supplemented by other events. The seventh concert in the 2005-2006 Musica Viva season formed part of Hans Werner Henze’s 80th birthday celebrations. Peter Ruzicka conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, but the programme was curiously planned, with the first half lasting about an hour, and barely 20 minutes of music after the interval. The highlight was Nachtstücke und Arien, with the soprano, Michaela Kauner, followed closely by Antifone, for chamber orchestra, also from the 1950s. In comparison, the two orchestral works from the 1990s – Fraternité and Appassionatamente, illustrated Henze’s consummate craftsmanship, but had little else to offer.

There was also a morning event, devoted to readings of the correspondence between Henze and Ingeborg Bachmann, interspersed with Henze’s piano music played by Oliver Tainton.

Unfortunately, the concert by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Peter Hirsch, coincided with the Witten weekend. It was therefore not possible to hear a programme featuring Luigi Nono and his pupils, including the world premiere of Nono’s Fucik, for speaker and orchestra, originally composed in 1950 and recently rediscovered at the Nono archive in Venice.

However, on the evidence of the Klangspuren presentation, introduced by Siegfried Mauser, it was clear the Aureliano Cattaneo is a significant new voice in Italian contemporary music. His choice of programme, including Scarlatti Sonatas, Fauve, a striking piece for solo violin by the French composer, Bernard Cavanna, and the Adagio from Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto in the transcription for clarinet, violin and piano, exemplified a judicious balance between tradition and novelty. This was equally apparent in his own compositions, of which Trio IV was receiving its first performance. Throughout, members of ensemble Triolog were in excellent form. They were undoubtedly helped by Cattaneo’s urgent need to communicate through his music.

On the other hand, this was not the strong point of the young Vietnamese female composer, Tran Thi Kim Ngoc. She was invited to inaugurate a series, as part of the Siemens Arts Programme, whereby young composers will present their work in art museums and exhibition halls, and she nominated the Glyptothek – the museum for antique sculpture. The audience processed through a number of rooms, but the music became increasingly desultory, and ended inconclusively. The scheme sounds promising, but it deserved a more auspicious launch.

The Münchener Biennale is not without its critics. There were suggestions that it was too serious, and that the publicity material failed to make a strong impact. The latter may be true, but it should be remembered that the Münchener Biennale was always intended to promote the entire spectrum of new music theatre. There may not have been many masterpieces, yet the Biennale has probably provided more opportunities than any other European city. Four more composers have been commissioned for the next event, Enno Poppe, Carola Bauckholt, Klaus Lang and Jens Joneleit.




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)