Music Festival

ECLAT (Festival Neue Musik Stuttgart 2000) 10-13 February 2000

Just as Huddersfield is the place to be in November; so is Stuttgart in February. Each new music festival has its own individual character. Eclat 2000 was held in Stuttgart's Theaterhaus, an outwardly unprepossessing building which used to be a glass factory. Converted into a performance arts centre, with no cash to spare for trimmings, inside it is now a vibrant, welcoming space, with four halls for cultural events, a large and attractive foyer/bar area and a good inexpensive restaurant below for artists and audience to meet, intermingle and eat. The main concerts took place in the 1100 seat Hall 1, often filled to capacity with an animated, mixed audience of all ages.

At Eclat there was a real sense of contemporary classical music being brought in from the cold, away from esoteric isolation of the new music 'ghetto' into which it had cornered itself so often elsewhere. Yet this was not achieved by compromising with the inherent difficulty of extending boundaries and eschewed reliance on the easy appeal of return to tonality and the cult of new and holy simplicities, which hold such sway, with commercial success, in UK.

The audiences exuded a feeling of excited anticipation and participation. Young and not-so-young groups, couples and individuals all bubbled with social exchanges like youngsters on a school journey eager for new impressions. Nothing here of the hospital waiting room atmosphere of people stoically awaiting something unpleasant; the Eclat audience seemed to know that it was in for something good.

In Europe now there is easy switching between languages, and we English met friendly tolerance of our poor linguistic skills. Indeed, the general atmosphere at the festival, and too in the city, was conspicuously friendly and helpful. Seating at Theaterhaus is unreserved, which simplifies arrangements without any visible resultant stress. The acoustics are excellent, wherever you sit, whether for a full orchestra or to hear the delicate sounds of harp and piano overtones and resonances from strings.

The ambition of this festival is to encourage people of diverse experience to come and try contemporary music at the cutting edge, and to trust that it will be enjoyable to take risks. The programme book was quite different from any encountered previously. Inexpensively produced in black and white, there is a basic CV of each composer and of the soloists and instrumental groups. But there were no programme notes whatsoever, an experiment which makes life harder for the reviewer, and which, so the Festival Director, Hans-Peter Jahn, told me, is unlikely to be repeated. That choice had been made overtly for philosophical reasons, although one wondered whether economics might have played a part in the choice? It reminded me of the BBC's Innocent Ear programmes (in which information was provided after the performance) and was likewise intended to encourage listeners to approach the music through its sound, without the baggage of information and opinion (so often, in contemporary composer's own notes or that of specialist writers, inscrutable and unhelpful) fed to them beforehand.

Darkness prevails during performances, though the lights are raised briefly during platform re-arrangements for you to quickly look up the next composer. Some of those played are well established and known in Britain, others less so and there were many names completely new to me - that being the chief advance attraction. There were no featured composers. Most of those chosen were represented by single works, so at best one only had a snapshot impression of unfamiliar composers, and impressions quickly blurred. The planning was collaborative, artists bringing their own choices into the programme.

Reactions are bound to be individual in these circumstances so I will limit myself to personal highlights, and to very brief mentions of composers I should like to explore further, and performing groups which we should try to hear. The general standards were high.

Two Radio Choirs

The generous accommodation on and off stage made it easy to combine two radio choruses, those of WDR Rundfunkchor Cologne and the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart on 10 February, some seventy professional singers altogether. Nono's Fragments from an Italian diary for 72-voice double choir made a fine start, with the always slightly distracting sight of singers checking their intonation with tuning forks. They were split by interposing Tallis's 40 part motet Spem in alium, not so familiar there as with us. The combined choirs gave Nicolaus A. Huber's Ach, das erhabene, the first example of a strong musico-theatrical emphasis in the festival. One choir was on the platform, the other at the back of the hall. The vocalisations included breathing and all possible 'non-musical' sounds in conventional terms, and at one point a choir member gave us some basic percussion by noisily throwing down onto the platform a ladder and a wooden crate. A woman sat incongruously at a table, full of food, which she munched noisily to bring the work to its finish.

Between the choral items, Florian Hoelscher, an impressive pianist, gave a complete performance of Marco Stroppa's miniature estrose (1991-91) a marathon for pianist and listener alike, lasting most of an hour. To my ears their gestures had much in common with Stockhausen's piano works and taken straight through they outstayed their welcome, but the reception was enthusiastic.

Friday marathon

Several groups shared the next concert, which lasted from 8 o'clock till close to midnight, so long it became that there was an announcement to offer the whole audience champagne and eats in the interval to keep us going!

Quartett Avance comprises clarinet (saxophone), trombone (euphonium) cello and piano. Cornelius Schwehr chose to negate the characteristics of the instruments, which played in a washed-out, muted and desiccated manner working out patterns which could not be grasped by the listeners - it could have been played by almost any group of four. Martin Smolka offered a parody of an 18th C. trio sonata, the violins replaced by baritone sax and euphonium in a jazz manner, supported by 'continuo' of prepared piano and the cellist who sat with them dutifully, but had practically nothing else to do! Original, and worth hearing.

The Linos Harp Quintet (flute, string trio and harp) introduced Sofia Gubadulina's Garden for joy and sadness for flute, viola and harp with an (optional) speaker for a short recitation near the end. She exploited high harmonics on the viola and some interesting new sounds, bending notes on the harp by stroking the strings after plucking, simulating effects familiar on the sitar. Delicious sounds, but maybe a little overlong?

The third group, Varianti, fielded four percussionists and piano. Schollhorn's Pentagramm was very cool and mathematical, the percussionists making little sensuous use of the multiple timbres at their disposal. Gerard Zinsstag's Diffractions for three players on untuned instruments, mostly playing in rhythmic unison, was a notable success.

But for me, a special high spot was a marvellous piece for unaccompanied oboe by a young Japanese composer, Misato Mochizuki. Her au bleu bois integrates all the advanced techniques explored in recent years so that they feel entirely natural; this is a piece that deserves to be taken up by enterprising young oboists as a change from Britten's Ovid Metamorphoses.

Orchestral rehearsal

I forsook the final orchestral concert on the Sunday to 'truant' to the Opera (reviewed separately) but did take the opportunity to attend part of its rehearsal by the magnificent SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart in its luxurious studio in the middle of a park. I listened to an impressive seascape Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer by a hotly tipped young Italian, Lucia Ronchetti, her vivid evocation of a story about onlookers watching a ship breaking up. This concert (with works by Lachenmann and Rihm, and another by Zinsstag - his Ergo for piano, winds and percussion) will be broadcast on 11 April. I look forward to hearing it on satellite digital radio (----

Ophelia's Schattentheater (KinderMusiktheater after a story by Michael Ender)

This music theatre piece was given four times. It is a one woman monologue conceived and performed by Dragica Ivanovic, a potent, moving presentation of an actress's disintegration and her struggles to hold onto reality and hope against the odds. She tries to put on a brave face to meet comprehensive loss of work and livelihood, home, status and identity, and she makes desperate, futile attempts to reach other people. She remains isolated, catching only shadows and unable to make real contact. She tries to stay in touch with her self, her own 'shadow'. This deeply serious and tragic theme must have been above the heads of the children in the audiences, but they responded to the magical presentation, with shadows and mirrors, demonstrating that good art can speak at many levels.

The New Stuttgart String Quartet underscores the stage events with a musical collage of Beethoven, Berg, Rihm, Scelsi & Webern, created by Hans Peter Jahn (director of Eclat) and Siegwald Malkow, the whole contributing to a hallucinatory intensity. Music, text (poetic and musical itself), movement and staging are interdependent in this imaginative yet basically simple production, designed to be not costly for transportation and touring. The props, mirrors and reflections create backgrounds and anchor the work - they are alive with allusions beyond what we see. Dragica Ivanovic is spellbinding, commanding the space and holding the audience with her vulnerability, at once heart-breaking and heart-warming. This was music theatre at its best, an intimate, intense drama, thought provoking and engaging emotions as well as aesthetic sensibilities.

Etoile Filante

The most elaborate event was Etoile Filante, on Saturday evening 12 February, a lengthy triple-decker presentation that used stage setting, mime and costume to create an accessible, enjoyable path into some very 'difficult' music by different composers for vocal ensemble and string quartet. These were linked through a staged space odyssey. The audience was taken on a journey of fun and discovery with new music. The New Vocalsoloists Stuttgart were sometimes distributed around the auditorium and joined in the stage action. The Arditti Quartet, decked out in emblems of ancient Greek culture (boots, aprons, feathered head-dress), entered and exited through a space capsule, bringing strands of hilarity into their impeccably played (serious) music; not all of them appeared entirely comfortable with these arrangements. Two mime artists conversed with each other and with us in an inscrutable private language. During Hildago's Incidental music for a pantomime they simulated weightlessness, dressed in business suits, perhaps to suggest the audience's disorientation in the many private languages of new music.

The downside had to be the dominance of visual impressions, leaving a blurred memory of the music, most of the pieces receiving world premieres. Only Xenakis's Tetras emerged from the competition unscathed, so forceful and powerful statement it is. For voices with strings there were James Dillon's Vapor and Hilda Parades's Can silim tun; for voices alone new works by Olga Neuwirth, Albrecht Imbescheid and Michael Levinas, and for the quartet alone (besides those mentioned above) Ivan Fedele's 1st string quartet. These may be easier to evaluate when broadcast on 28 March (SWR2, 6.05 UK time).

The Arditti Quartet returned to give a Sunday morning recital, not quite a usual one for them because, besides Kurtag's Op. 28 Officium breve and Robert Platz's Tau, they included their first performance anywhere of a late Beethoven quartet (apart from the Grosse Fuge, which sounds anyway rather like their modernist repertoire). Hans-Peter Jahn, in one of the stimulating pre-concert talks, discussed Beethoven Op.131 in the context of the programme as a whole, both the Kurtag and Platz built from sequences of short sections. He related the Beethoven not to forward pioneering as usual, but rather to early Dutch music, with works built up from contrasting linked sections.

CDs and radio broadcasts

The pioneering, exploratory work of Stuttgart's New Vocalsoloists (director Manfred Schreier) can be sampled in their two col legno CDs of previous productions for Musik der Jahrhunderte; WWE 20030 juxtaposes des Prez with Schnebel, Fernyhough, Dusapin, Neuwirth, Pagh-Paan, Bussotti, Xenakis and Scelsi; Iosis (WWE 20031) has Gesualdo set against Schwehr, Walter, Mundry, N. Huber & Dohmen - the booklet pictures give an impression of the theatrical element in these productions. Both are well worth considering by readers sufficiently intrigued to want to get a flavour of this unique festival.

There is a strong tie-up between the festival, SWR2 and col legno, so we may anticipate CDs of some of the concerts reviewed. For those who have access to continental radio, all the concerts are scheduled for broadcast fortnightly on SWR2, Tuesdays at 7.05 p.m. (continental European time) from 14 March until 25 April.

Peter and Alexa Woolf

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