MUSICA99 Strasbourg 18 September to 2 October 1999


For its first international assignment, Seen & Heard went to France in search of modern Spanish music! Musica, held each autumn in Strasbourg, is France's most important international festival of contemporary music. It has a lot to offer musical British holidaymakers. The city, in the beautiful Alsace region between the Vosges mountains and the Black Forest, is as picturesque as any in Europe. Its centre, criss-crossed by rivers, is compact, making walking a pleasure. Public transport is cheap and efficient, with an expanding network of futuristic trams which are an aesthetic delight.

The concerts and associated theatrical events are heavily subsidised, with full price tickets about £11 and various concessions. A festival card for about £70 covers entry to all 40 events including late night cabaret performances, this year with a Spanish flavour. Free transportation is laid on from the city centre to and between all the venues, most of which are within comfortable walking distance. With favourable exchange rates, the hotels and restaurants offer excellent value.

Musically, Strasbourg's contemporary music festival has a radical policy under the inspired direction of Jean-Dominique Marco, who seeks to support composers and countries which have fortuitously remained outside mainstream exposure, so that new experiences are assured. It operates with generous subsidies and financial support and enjoys ever-increasing public loyalty, with some 20,000 people willing to follow where the festival leads.

Musica99 had a Spanish theme and feted two great composers, Luis de Pablo of Madrid and the expatriate Roberto Gerhard, whose most important and innovative music was composed in England, where he spent his latter years. De Pablo, now in his 70th year, dragged his country into the musical twentieth century almost single-handed, and has taught most of its younger composers who are now thriving.

Although he is an enthusiastic Anglophile, with excellent English and a wide knowledge of English literature, exposure to his music in England has been, at best, sporadic. Roberto Gerhard, who was ignored in his native country and emigrated to England, enjoyed an Indian summer of creativity in Cambridge and belated appreciation. Neither composer is even now as well known in UK as he deserves.

Musica explores its chosen themes in depth, and the 1999 festival included works by no less than 46 composers from Spain and Latin America, with biographies and photos of them all in the 256 page programme, an invaluable source book. Several of them were represented by six or more works, with rare opportunities to hear their music for large orchestra, as well as those for smaller ensembles which have a better chance of being put on. Luis de Pablo himself had indeed been featured in UK festivals occasionally, most recently Huddersfield 1998, but never by performances of his music for full orchestra; it was a revelation to hear two of them live.

Spanish and south American programmes were brought to Strasbourg by our own Arditti Quartet and James Wood with his New London Chamber Choir, the latter giving French premieres of works by the Argentinean, Alejandro Vinao, and Mexican composer Javier Alvarez, both active on the British electro-acoustic scene. Famous ensembles known for occasional appearances in UK, such as Accroche Note, Ensemble Intercontemporain and the pioneering Les Percussions de Strasbourg, also participated. But for me, it was especially rewarding to have the opportunity to discover the healthy development of Spanish contemporary music, to join the enthusiastic very mixed audience for it, and to encounter instrumental groups equal to our best.

There were three concerts by three fine symphony orchestras, with demanding programmes carefully prepared and presented in comfortable halls with excellent acoustics. The formal opening concert of the festival was given by the National Orchestra of Spain, conducted by Luca Pfaff, in the Palais de Musique et des Congrez, its large modern concert hall as enviable as any of ours save Birmingham's. The superb Salle Erasme was filled by an audience of all ages, 2000 people prepared to take on trust a tough programme of French premieres of new music. The concert began with one of Luis de Pablo's most important works for full orchestra, the complex Senderos del aire, dark and densely scored, and better known in a recomposed version for chamber orchestra, Segunda Lectura, which was broadcast from Huddersfield last year and is available on CD.

The centre piece was a remarkable 1995 violin concerto by Jose Manuel Lopez Lopez, a representative of the next generation after de Pablo, a former pupil of his whose name was new to me. The concerto began assertively with the large orchestra producing a sound as of violin harmonics reinforced by bowed percussion. It was notable for original orchestration throughout and skilfully conceived balance between orchestra and soloist. Its success owed much to the violinist Saschko Gavrilov, a famous specialist in contemporary music, dramatic and virtuosic with a huge tone and commanding presence. To finish we heard Gerhard's last work, the coruscating 4th symphony New York, premiered in 1967 by the New York Philharmonic for its 125th anniversary. This programme would have been guaranteed to empty our Royal Festival Hall.

In the same hall the Orchestre National de France conducted by Pascal Rophe gave two world premieres and, for the first time in France, Cristobal Halffter's Versus of 1983. This disappointed, an arid and mainly noisy piece, which incorporated a medieval madrigal unconvincingly and sounded now rather dated. Halffter is the only Spanish composer heard at Strasbourg who is substantially represented in the R.E.D./Gramophone Classical 1999 CD catalogue, "the most complete listing of currently available recordings". There was another concertante piece by Lopez Lopez, Movimentos for two pianos which featured three percussionists positioned in a triangle to the sides of and behind the orchestra. The orchestral sounds were attractive and the interplay of the pianists, often exchanging but few notes at first, promised well at first, but did not deliver because this lively score proved fatally flawed by a miscalculation of balance. Heard live, the two pianos often became inaudible, despite the valiant efforts of the players. It would have been wise to have removed only one of the piano lids and to have re-arranged the platform, with the conductor retreating behind the pianos, as was Sir Adrian Boult's custom whenever he conducted piano concertos, so that he did not deceive himself with his head in the piano. I am sure it will have sounded fine as broadcast.

That Orchestre National concert included the most astonishing premiere heard during my visit. Alberto Posadas composed Apeiron in 1993, when he was only 25. It was very much in the idiom of Scelsi's little known last orchestral pieces, still ignored by the British musical establishment, with slow timbral transformations of notes and chords developing cumulative power. Posado even ended with a tintabullation which reminded me of the last minute of Scelsi's Pfhat, in which all the orchestral players tinkle triangles! Had he soaked himself in the orchestral music of Giacinto Scelsi, a twentieth century composer especially dear to me about whom I have written extensively, one might fairly have accused him of plagiarism. But Posadas confirmed, in one of the festival's pre-concert discussions with the eminent Belgian musicologist and Scelsi specialist, Harry Halbreich, that he had not known Scelsi's music at all when composing Apeiron. (The pre-concert discussions took place in the forum of Strasbourg's largest record and hi-fi shop, FNAC, close by the buying throngs and were well-attended! Would London record collectors be tempted into concert halls if discussions were put on in the Virgin or EMI shops?) It was uncanny to what extent Posadas had in this piece virtually reinvented a whole world of musical thinking which even now has not become as well known as it merits (the only performances of Scelsi's orchestral music in UK have been of two of his late works given under Martyn Brabins in the BBC Maida Vale studio).

The final concert during my ten days at the festival was given by the excellent local symphony orchestra, the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, under its permanent conductor Jan Latham-Koenig, who trained in London, and used to be active on the British scene. This was a well-balanced programme of four works, all worth hearing and hearing again. Partita for 15 players by Jesus Torres was composed for Spain's National Youth Orchestra; varied and contrapuntal, with episodes for different groups and two prominent percussionists - it might go well with the Schonberg 1st chamber symphony. Tomas Marco's 2nd Symphony Espacio cerrado (meaning locked in space) is a powerful single movement in which heavy writing for massed strings prevents rapid wind figurations from escaping a feeling of desolation. Marco says his 3rd symphony, commissioned at the same time, is lighter, treating the same material differently "like a photo and its negative". Fons vitae by Jesus Rueda was a rich orchestral tapestry, ending with lyrical expressivity. Lastly, Treboles by de Pablo was a fine example of this youthful elder statesman of contemporary Spain's consummate skill in orchestration and devising large structures, different in each composition. Intriguingly marked Cosmatesco, Melodia con accompagnamento and Tenebre Scherzose, the outer movements of Treboles are nervous and dynamic in rapid tempo, with a central slow movement which features the approximate pitch of two ocarinas to accentuate strange harmonies. Exhilarating and masterly, demonstrating why de Pablo should be and is held in such high esteem in France.


Many chamber groups took their turns, most of the players very young and formidably well equipped. Proyecto Gerhard from Madrid was formed in 1996, the year of Gerhard's centenary.

At the splendid auditorium of France Radio 3 Alsace, which was recording the entire festival, they included two of their eponymous composer's major chamber works, the Concert for 8, including guitar and accordion, and Libra of 1968, one of his final pieces with astrological titles. They also included Lopez's A Tempo for cello and 8 other instrumentalists, which showed freedom and imagination, all the instrumentalists enjoying the extended techniques to which we have latterly become accustomed.

The Plural Ensemble, another group from Madrid (flute, clarinet, strings and piano) excelled firstly in the important art of programme making. Their choice of pieces and accomplished performances put paid to any lingering chauvinist thoughts that the best new music specialist performers and the best new music are likely to originate from our own islands, or if not, certainly to reach them. Under the unobtrusive yet expert direction of composer Fabian Panisello, we heard short pieces by seven composers whose names are unlikely to be known to most readers, followed by de Pablo's piano quintet Metaforas, the premiere of which I heard at the Almeida Festival in London. It was that concert in 1993 which led me to pursue a special interest in this composer, and to urge his inclusion as a featured composer at Huddersfield, that cherished hope eventually fulfilled last year. Yet de Pablo remains a marginal figure in UK, although widely recognised across Europe as one of the continent's most significant composers.

Based upon what we heard in the Plural Ensemble's concert, Camarero, Posadas, Rueda, del Puerto, Torres and Panisello himself, most of them at some time Pablo pupils, all merit wider investigation, as does Guerrero, who appears also to have been a gifted teacher until his untimely death. (Posadas, still only 31, has already been singled out above for his early orchestral work which displayed such astonishing maturity and suggested enormous potential). Ensemble was tight and the group members were good listeners to each other, with Panisello keeping a firm grasp upon the proceedings and even conducting some of the smaller chamber items. Their pianist was notably sensitive and fleet fingered in the rapid arabesque figures which featured in much of the music heard throughout the festival, suggesting to some listeners a possible Spanish quality within the lingua franca of contemporary musical idioms. This programme deserves a broadcast on our own Radio 3.

Barcelona 216 brought two of Roberto Gerhard's 'astrological' works from his later years, Gemini and Leo, together with Rugged lines memos by the Argentinean born Martin Matalon, an invigorating concert suite which featured trumpet, bass and an array of exotic percussion.

The Chamber Orchestra of the Theatre Lliure from Barcelona, conductor Josep Pons, introduced a piece by the young Basque composer Ramon Lazkano which made the strongest impression. Scored for an unusual combination of a doubled group of strings and percussion, with solo bass flute and bass clarinet, the prevailing colours were dark. It grew into a genuine allegro (so much contemporary music is basically slow, with fast figuration superimposed!) and after a pause a dreamy, quiet ending with finger drumming. He seemed to have an individual voice, hard to characterise yet distinctive, so I bought a CD of his works recorded by the pioneering Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, which confirmed that he has something personal to say and his own way to say it. After playing that CD on the car journey home across France, I chanced to hear the broadcast of this same concert, which confirmed my feeling that Lazkano is definitely a name to watch out for. I look forward to keeping in touch with his development.

Accroche Note has a versatile line up, with a charismatic singer, Francoise Kubler. With clarinettist Armand Angster she gave the world premiere of de Pablo's settings of Puntos de Amor, settings of words of St John of the Cross. Readily accessible music, the combination of voice and clarinets alone proving unexpectedly satisfying and self sufficient, Puntos de Amor could be programmed effectively with Schubert's popular Shepherd on the Rock? Accroche Note's concert ended with an engaging and refreshingly extravert showpiece, Pueblo Mulato by the Cuban composer Tania Leon, in which Francoise Kubler was accompanied by a larger group.

Conjunto Iberico is a cello octet, founded in Holland by Spanish cellist Elias Arizcuren. At first sight and hearing, ranged in a semicircle on stage, this is an attractive novelty, the sonorities beguiling, as we all know from, say, the famous cello passage in Debussy's La Mer. But within minutes one comes to realise that this is a remarkably satisfying and self-sufficient medium. Possessed of a rich low register, yet comfortable in the heights and with harmonics and chords, the cello has few limitations to a composer's imagination. What other group of eight identical instruments could one imagine engendering an ever expanding repertoire and becoming famous worldwide for its concerts? Its almost limitless potential has become evident in the numerous works especially composed for Conjunto Iberico and their seven CDs on Channel Classics. Their programme at Strasbourg included Miro by Tomas Marco, four pieces inspired by paintings of Joan Miro which explore the characterisic rich dark tones of the cello, bringing to mind the prominent cello in Sibelius's 4th symphony; Su-Itzalak by Ramon Lazkano which explores particularly microtones and harmonics, and Ritornello by Luis de Pablo who brings back his material, subject to complex variations, and making virtuosic demands upon these expert players.


Luis de Pablo, with Ramon Lazkano as his assistant, had recently completed a year's part time residency at the Strasbourg Conservatoire, generating interest by introducing the young musicians to Spanish music in general and to the contemporary idioms of their own works. Lazkano had worked with a student group preparing a highly enjoyable Sunday morning musica99 concert, which surveyed Spanish music through the ages for singers and players of the oud, baroque and modern guitar, harpsichord and piano. This was presented in style by a group of up and coming musicians who seem likely to make sure that composers in Spain will continue to have increasing opportunities to hear their own very difficult music, however difficult, that likelihood resulting from recent advances in playing techniques and a detectable enthusiasm for contemporary music which they convey in conversation. One of Lazkano's own works included, entitled in Basque Illargi Uneak, can also be heard on the CD of his music.


One theatrical event must be mentioned, Les lieux de la, a "choreographic spectacle" mounted by Mathilde Monnier at the North Pole Theatre, Strasbourg's dance centre. That was the most overwhelming and shattering experience of my whole visit. A dozen dancers of astonishing athleticism and energy explored the complexities of modern social relationships to a score by Heiner Goebbels for guitarist Alexandre Meyer, with several electronically treated instruments and taped sounds. Whilst not purporting to be music capable of standing alone, Goebbels' contribution to this unforgettable evening was wholly apt for creating the disturbing moods evoked by the dancers, and was an essential component of the complete experience. Should Les lieux de la come to UK, definitely one to see and see again.


It is dangerous to attempt to generalise at all about the diverse Iberian music showcased at Strasbourg. Without venturing upon detailed musicological discussion, some trends were encountered repeatedly. The music we heard appeared, for the most part, to have been carefully notated, and not everyone indulged in the more radical extended instrumental techniques. It was often fairly complex without becoming inscrutable, gestural rather than elaborately formal, and the composers revelled in displaying the virtuosity of their interpreters, with rapid decorative figurations almost a finger print for some of them. There seemed to be little interest in the various varieties of minimalism which have been received with such enthusiasm in UK, whether of the extravert and undemanding Reich/Glass system type, or the Holy Simplicity which has also swept the board in UK.

This festival confirmed my doubt whether all good music eventually reaches London, an assumption all too easily made. Spain, not long ago considered a back water for contemporary music, and virtually ignored by the British new music establishment, has quietly been equipping an enthusiastic group of younger musicians and composers, many of whom had studied additionally in France and had made themselves familiar with all the recent developments. It is salutary to see from their biographies and CDs how many are performed and broadcast regularly in most European countries, but with UK conspicuously absent from the lists.

I would conclude by urging the BBC to explore the Musica99 tapes made in Strasbourg by both national radio, Radio France/ France Musiques and by Radio 3 Alsace, with a view to presenting something of these concerts for British listeners. If schedules preclude presenting this music at peak times, what about trying to negotiate an exchange arrangement to broadcast some of Radio 3 Alsace's tapes in our Radio 3's Through the Night programmes, a fairly recent innovation with great potential for widening the repertoire?

A few recommended CDs: (some of these will be reviewed also in the CD review section of Classical Music on the Web):

Lazkano Le Chant du Monde LDC 2781 109

Lopez & Saariaho RTVE Sibila SIB-003

De Pablo Segunda Lectura etc Stradivarius STR 33329 (de Pablo discography available on request; 14 CDs !)

Conjunto Iberico: Channel Classics GG 9428 (Pablo, Marco; Turina & Halffter) CCS 10597 (Lazkano etc)

And one for those who are intrigued by Posadas and don't know Scelsi:

Scelsi Aion, Pfhat and Konx-Om-Pax, Cracow Philharmonic cond. Wyttenbach, Accord 200402

A note and an apology:

A profile of Luis de Pablo is posted on the Composers from other countries section of Music on the Web. Forgiveness of Spanish speaking readers is craved for the spelling of Spanish names without inclusion of their accents.


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