S&H Concert Review

World Music Days

The International Society for Contemporary Music has been using the name World Music Days for its annual festival since its foundation in 1922, long before the ethnic music contingent appropriated the term for it own purposes. There are now 47 national sections from all parts of the world including most European countries (east and west), many Asian countries including Japan, Korea and China, most countries on the American continent, plus South Africa and Australia.

Every year it has been the turn of a different national section to host the festival. 1998 was UK's turn with New Music Manchester 98. In 1999 it was Romania. This year, the Luxembourg Society for New Music (Lëtzbuerger Gesellschaft fir Nei Musek - LGNM) stepped hurriedly into the breach when plans to stage the 2000 World Music Days in Israel fell through. With the help of the International Jury, Artistic Director Marcel Wengler, himself a prominent Luxembourgeois composer and conductor, assembled a formidable programme of 27 concerts spread over 9 days, in which 129 works by as many living composers were performed. Women composers from many nations were represented in the programme, though none from Britain. In addition there were continuous exhibitions of three sound installations by German, Swiss and Dutch artists.

Not content with several fine concert venues in Luxembourg city itself, Wengler managed to turn the festival into a scenic tour of all the Luxembourg beauty spots by bussing his audiences, and ISCM delegates to concert halls, churches, music conservatoires, theatres and chateaux, all over this tiny Grand Duchy, squeezed between France, Belgium, and Germany. One concert even took place in a bank, and two in the nearby German city of Saarbrücken. The festival culminated in an afternoon "lunch-concert-spectacle" aboard the Marie Astrid Moselle pleasure boat. This included an on-board entertainment in the form of a performance of Edmond de la Fontaine's "De Scholdschäin" of 1855, billed as the first ever musical comedy in the Luxembourgish language, a strange mixture of German, French and Flemish incomprehensible to all but native Luxembourgeoises. The work was rediscovered and edited for modern performance by none other than Marcel Wengler himself. Who said only the English know how to make fools of themselves?

Delegates who had stayed for the entire festival were looking distinctly haggard when I arrived, fresh as a daisy, on the penultimate day, in time to catch three of the four performances of British composers. The German ensemble Musikfabrick under conductor James Avery gave the world premier of Ian Willcock's "Grave" as the final work in their concert in the Villa Louvigny headquarters of the Luxembourg Philharmonic. Written for a sizeable ensemble of eighteen musicians, this is a dark and pessimistic piece which, as the composer described in his spoken introduction, took as its starting point Ernest Jones' description of an enigmatic gesture of resignation made by Sigmund Freud on his death-bed. I found it difficult to recognise any specific connection between this biographical incident and Willcock's music, although the use of "weeping" microtones added to the music's tragic mood, marred slightly by surface speaker noise from an electric guitar which the composer insisted on incorporating into the ensemble.

Later in the day we were whisked off to Saarbrücken through an incredible blasted landscape of derelict industrial sites to hear a concert featuring members of Miso Music Portugal. On a stage too small for the array of percussion instruments, on a piano too small to do justice to the resonances of the music, and in a room too small for the sheer scale of some of the sounds, Paula Azguime's "De l'enfant Qui le Nie" was spoilt by major problems with the electro-acoustic equipment. "Trap for Two", a duet for two saxophones by Ukrainian Julia Gomelskaya, a student of Robert Saxton at London's Guildhall School, was satisfyingly and strongly written, with a good harmonic sense, but had few surprises up its sleeve. The simple bamboo flute of Japanese Tosya Suzuki was what really stole the show with a breath-takingly virtuosic performance of Hiroyuki Itoh's "Salamander II".

Next day's morning concert was in the beautifully restored Rococo setting of the Orangerie of Mondorf Les Bains, a tiny spa town near the French border. Amongst performances of five undistinguished piano works by Slovenian, Slovakian, Icelandic and Mexican composers, the Ciurlionois Sketches by Lithuanian Anatolijus Sendevoras caught my ear. But the real passion and artistry of the concert came in the last piece when pianist Béatrice Rauchs was joined by Luxembourg violinist Vania Lecuit for a performance of "Where two became one" by Israelian composer Nurit Jugend. The "two" of the title turned out to be the rivers Danube and Sava which meet in Belgrade. In a brief but poignant verbal introduction, the composer dedicated her work to "the free people of Belgrade" the day after the fall of Milosovic, even as Israeli police were gunning down Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza.

Leaving Mondorf, we were transported to the banks of the Moselle for an afternoon of eating, drinking and silly entertainment on the Marie Astrid pleasure boat, interrupted by a stop off at the village of Ehnen for a concert in the octagonal and dome-roofed local church featuring soprano Mariette Lentz, Luxembourg's answer to Cathy Berberian, and how! Her performance of Berio's "Sequenza II" was as beguiling and mischevious as I have ever heard it. The rather dry title of American Craig First's "Contrapuntal Variations" belied the astonishing complexity and virtuosity of this solo mandolin piece played with consummate skill by Greek Dimitris Marinos. The concert finished with beautifully conceived "Serenade" for Soprano and Harp by another woman composer, Japanese Harue Kunieda.

That evening, I encountered the Grand Duke's street walk-about in Luxembourg Centre, surrounded by a dozen square-shouldered crab-wise walking body-guards, while waiting for the coach taking us to the modern, and very well designed concert hall of the Luxembourg Conservatoire of Music. Here was the real climax to the festival, and British music was right there in pride of place, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Pascal Rophé and Tan Dun. The huge resonant richness of parallel chords in this many-times re-orchestrated score of "Giro" by Esa Pekka Salonen made an excellent start to the concert. Hugh Wood's predilection for chamber music came through in the intricacies of structure and counterpoint of his orchestral "Variations", written to a BBC commission between 1994 and 1997. The rhythmic joyful climax with clanging hand bell penetrating the sound of the full orchestra in Julian Anderson's "The Stations of the Sun" brought the first half to a blazing conclusion.

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened in the second half. This was a performance of Tan Dun's rather unpromisingly titled "Orchestral Theatre IV", conducted, or rather overseen in the character of the Judge, by the composer himself. The score gave new meaning to the idea of classical/ethnic fusion. Here was a western classical orchestra being made to sound like the traditional instruments of the Peking opera in a way which was totally effective. Violins decorating pentatonic melodies with portamento slides; cellos and basses sliding down and up to imitate the sound of the Chinese water gong. With the entire 1st and 2nd violin sections dispersed in small groups among the audience, the front stage area was clear for enactment of a story, devised by the composer, featuring characters drawn from the Peking Opera, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and 18th century Japanese writer Chikamatsu. Chinese opera soprano Shi Min in full traditional costume played Chinese concubine Yu Ji, American soprano Nancy Lundy sang the part of Juliet, while Japanese puppeteer Zehuai Zhang portrayed the suicidal Koharu with speaking voice and traditional full-body-size puppet attached to her arms and feet.

All of this happened on a wonderfully lit stage, strategically covered by video cameras which caught faces, hands, gestures, including the conductor himself, and even the actions of the percussionist with his bowl and water-gong, and displayed them on a huge screen behind the orchestra, sometimes freeze-framing on a significant expression or gesture. As the heavily charged emotion of the final notes faded away, the audience erupted with enthusiastic and prolonged applause.

Jolyon Laycock .

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