S&H Festival Review

MUSICA2000 at STRASBOURG 25-28 September 00 (PGW+AW)

Returning briefly to Strasbourg, following our extensive coverage last year of Musica99, we fitted in a short mid-week visit to Musica2000 en route to the ISCM NewMusicDays at Luxembourg, the dates of which clashed. Inevitably we had to miss most of Musica's chief features, which tend to be concentrated around the three weekends. The enticing programme included major works by Aperghis, Goebbels, & Rihm, and operas by Essyad, Eötvös, Vivier & Pascal Dusapin, who has succeeded Luis de Pablo as composer in residence at the Conservatoire (we intend to catch up with Vivier's Kopernikus at Huddersfield). This lovely photogenic city, criss-crossed with waterways, confirmed our previous good impressions. Accommodation was scarce (and more expensive) because the festival clashes with meetings of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, but we were fortunate to secure an excellent self-catering apartment at £30/night for two, overlooking the shunting yard - ideal for train-spotters! Parking is impossible, so it is best to abandon your car and enjoy walking and inexpensive public transport in eye-catching, futuristic trams. You can also avail yourself of Musica's courtesy mini-buses between venues.

Orchestre Léonardo da Vinci of Rouen

We arrived just in time for a memorable concert by the young Rouen Opera players of the Orchestre Léonardo da Vinci which, aside from its operatic responsibilities, is building itself a reputation in contemporary music under the inspiring direction of Oswald Sallaberger.[photo left] Their programme, in the acoustically superlative Auditorium France 3 at Radio Alsace, took a long journey between Ives' The Unanswered Question of 1906 and Webern's 1930 string orchestra expansion of the seminal Op 5 pieces for string quartet, ranging widely between them in a scrupulously prepared programme, with each item reflecting upon its neighbours.

There was nothing strident in the first half. Boulez's delicate Memoriale for flautist Lawrence Beauregard was a quiet meditation, the expert unnamed soloist's flutter-tonguing supported by muted tremolando and ponticello from six muted strings (those effects to be heard again in the Webern of so many decades before) preceded one of Takemitsu's shimmering liquid tapestries, Water-ways (1978) for a small group of piano, clarinet, two vibraphones, violin and cello, laid upon a muted background supplied by two horns, rather like Indian tanpura, kept up the generally quiet atmosphere established by Charles Ives, with his solo trumpet sounding from the back of the gallery. If Sallaberger's conducting seemed at first over-demonstrative for a small chamber group, it became increasingly evident that he was achieving remarkable concentration and precision and intensity, with an unusual degree of eye contact from the musicians.

The second half began explosively with Rihm's dramatic Chiffre II Silence to be beaten (1983) which impressed rather more than Matthias Pintscher's Choc, receiving its French premiere. At 20 minutes (and seeming more) this was an overlong creation for a large, noisy chamber orchestra, in which every instrument had to be played in unconventional manner à la Lachenmann, many of the effects, like a child's windmill blown by a percussionist, as much for eyes as ears. Nearly 30, with periods of study in London and many prizes behind him, this young German has on the stocks two prestigious opera commissions, for the Salzburg Festival & the Bastille Opera in Paris and he is is clearly one to watch; one must reserve judgement after a first hearing of a single work by a previously unencountered composer - but what will Pintscher be demanding of his singers?

It was a brilliant decision to finish after this with the Webern pieces, given by 31 strings and demonstrating the depth of performing expertise available to Sallaberger in Rouen to support his core group of musicians. The fully deserved ovation was as lengthy as for a star prima donna, and secured an unplanned encore before the audience could be persuaded to disperse.

Flauto Fuoco

A solo recital by Mario Caroli [photo left] introduced a young Italian flautist of superb accomplishment, who bids fair to become the successor to Gazzelloni, Artaud & Valade, 20 C. virtuosi who have inspired composers to expand the possibilities of the once humble, now ever-increasingly sophisticated, modern instrument. He inspired immediate confidence and there was never a false note or unintended sound to break the spell.

Ivan Fedele, composer of two of the four characterful pieces dedicated to this 26 year old Italian performed in Strasbourg's Italian Institute, confirmed in conversation my impression that Caroli has advanced flute playing technique to a new level for the new century. His Dedica was expanded from material used in a composition course, and Apostrophe ("Bravo") is 'a homage to intelligent virtuosity', exploring the range from ppp, soffiato to fff, penetrante - those pieces should be sought out by ambitious flautists.

There was little aural comfort, and no relaxation for player or listener, in this uncompromising programme for aficionados of contemporary flute. Extended techniques explore unlovely (some would think ugly) sounds which had been rigorously eliminated in conventional Western flute training, but are integral components of oriental flute playing. In his unaccompanied recital, Caroli did not resort to flutes of different sizes for variety. Most of the music demanded finger and breath control to the limits of possibility, and he was master of an exceptional dynamic range, his multi-pianissimo secure at the threshold of audibility.

At the other end, there were serious problems at the unfortunately chosen venue. The screeching, distorted maxi-fortissimi favoured by so many of the composers were ear-splitting, cutting like lasers and enforcing defensive action by covering the ears! (For protection of his own future hearing, Mario Caroli would be well advised to use ear-plugs whilst practising this repertoire!) The heaviest assault was Ferneyhough's in Carceri d'invenzione IIb, which can appear an oasis of relative simplicity when given in context as part of the whole work for large chamber orchestra.

James Dillon's Sgothan is fluid and expressive, but typically demands the inconceivable, e.g. simultaneously slowing tremolos whilst accelerating vibrato! Stefano Gervasoni's Ravine (2000) for Caroli is dramatic, taking its ideas from the multiple meanings of that word in various languages. Phillipe Hurel's Loops (the nearest to minimalism included) explores processes of transformation of deliberately banal little motifs, which are easily recognised; Hurel's interest is in the process of change.

Salvatore Sciarrino's Morte tamburo per flauto e acustica asciutta (1999) was possibly the most remarkable item of all (besides being the quietest!). It is one of a pair of pieces composed for - and no doubt with the co-operation of - Mario Caroli, requiring the flautist to double as drummer with lip and tongue. Another piece for every advanced flautist to essay. The small, necessarily restricted audience in the little room showed its appreciation of being present at a very special event, and were rewarded with two lyrical pieces for encores (by Jolivet & Debussy) which demonstrated that Caroli is equally master of the romantic flute.

The substance of this ground-breaking programme has been committed to CD for release at the end of the year, and will be reviewed in due course.

Three Pianists

Three very different pianists shared a marathon Nuit de Piano (18.00 - 23.15) which surveyed twentieth century piano music and featured Origami, Igra, Tangram & Mikado, the first four of Pascal Dusapin's projected series of seven studies, each named after a game. Ian Pace was the most flamboyantly virtuosic, his full length and demanding programme, given without an interval, traversing Sciarrino's substantial first sonata, whose separate gestures gradually gathered some continuity before returning to fragmentation, to Evryali by Xenakis, a sparkling whirlwind of a toccata at the extreme edge of possibility. On his journey there was a rather (late) Lisztian study by Wyschnegradsky, constructed from a notational 'magic square', and Finnissy's Snowdrift, which explores major thirds and minor sixths, the intervals especially proscribed by serialists. Those framed the two fast and finger-knotting Dusapin studies Igra and Mikardo, the latter dedicated to Ian Pace. But for me, all was eclipsed by the eleven short pieces of The Book of Elements (Vol. 1) by James Dillon, only recently released from exclusivity by its dedicatee, Roger Woodward. These are -perhaps unexpectedly - easily approachable and evocative, suggesting at first the pianism of Ravel and drawing some ravishing sonorities from Ian Pace's fingers.

With three of Maurice Ohana's mellifluous studies Vanessa Wagner established her sensitivity and predilection for gentler sonorities, and her hour took us through some (now) favourite classics - two single movement sonatas by Berg and Scriabin (his No 9) and Webern's concentrated Variations - and ended with the two slower Dusapin studies, No 1 Origami and No 3 Tangram, the latter composed for this pianist.

A fine pianist of an older generation, Alain Planès, dedicatee of the first Dusapin study, concluded the evening with the four in correct sequence, alternating slow and fast to their mutual advantage. Scores would have been necessary to compare the Dusapin performances by his three interpreters. They will be required also to decipher and fully appreciate the subtleties of their processes, and - hopefully - to allay lurking doubts about their length, averaging roughly double those of Debussy's, six of which preceded and (dare one suggest) upstaged those of Dusapin at the end of a very long evening. Alain Planès had quickly banished incipient weariness with a riveting account of Stockausen's Klavierstück No 9, its numerous, and once notorious, repetitions of the opening chord so exactly voiced as to become an internalised melody. His concentration and stillness at the keyboard recalled that of Jean François Heissier (one of Vanessa Wagner's prestigious teachers) heard at San Sebastian in August. Planès had an uncanny way to make you listen and think through pauses and long decays. The three recitals were ticketed separately, and many did not stay the course, but the whole was a rewarding and illuminating experience.

Rihm and Jodlowski

From the major retrospective of Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) at this year's Strasbourg Musica, we heard also Séraphin-Spuren (1996), a 63 min. work for small ensemble, with another, plus voices, on tape. Rihm's Séraphin series of interlinked compositions, 'like rock strata', took 'the shadow theatre of Artaud & Baudelaire' as its inspiration, and there was certainly menace and pain in some of the tortured vocalisations of the unseen chorus. The music was highly dramatic, with the three percussionists of Ensemble 13 dominating its other four members who took part (flutes, trumpet, cello & bass). The off-stage group, including heavy brass, often seemed to take centre-stage, and because there was no electronic manipulation of their contribution it would be impossible to disentangle the components as broadcast or recorded. The whole was co-ordinated (without employing light signals or click-track) by Manfred Reichert, who in 1973 founded Ensemble 13, which has maintained a long relationship with Rihm and recorded his music. At the time of Séraphin- Spuren's composition, Rihm was planning a future Étude d'après Séraphin with live electronics.

Live electronics ended the evening to accompany a remarkably sharp and perfect print of Eisenstein's 1924 film Strike, which looked magnificent on a large screen. The balletic movements of the conspirators, clambering over the factory machinery for furtive meetings whilst enlisting support, the choreographed crowd movements as revolutionary force gathered and the forces of repression, vested in firemen with water hoses, were counterpointed by Pierre Jodlowski, who from his console orchestrated familiar 'musique concrete' sounds from some eight loud speakers, to emphasise and punctuate the formal structures of this key creation from the silent era.

Family entertainment?

Vie de Famille is a sophisticated music-theatre creation by Jean-Pierre Drouet, renowned percussionist/composer and former collaborator with Kagel and Aperghis, and well remembered from London's Almeida Festival. It was given by Ensemble Aleph at Strasbourg's Youth Theatre, a very attractive and comfortable venue and its location and early timing attracted a large family audience of 5 to 50 year olds.

We were confronted by a stage filled with all the untidy paraphernalia and furnishings of a not very smart household, in which six musicians seemed to be living as a sort of loose-knit family. There was no physical separation between the living spaces; kitchen, dining, sitting & music rooms and toilet were all mixed up together, open plan fashion. The performers moved around doing their bits, working at the kitchen table, slurping spaghetti, practising music, watching TV, singing on the loo! All these activities were illustrated musically with consummate skill and economy . Although the musicians had a 'family' bond through the medium of music, they were on the whole strikingly isolated within their group, mostly performing puzzling actions on their own. When they played together there was a lack of human interaction between them. The cook-percussionist, Jean-Charles Francois, gave a virtuosic and, at times, angry display among the kitchen implements and also using various body parts as percussion instruments, including his well rounded, resonating tummy. For finale he gave a tongue twisting, repetitive recitation, with varied inflections and physical gestures to convey different meanings - all quite breathtaking.

As in many households, a TV presided over all the activities, always switched on, sometimes zapped to produce an uncanny collage of sound and vision. Sometimes it was being watched by some of the performers, sometimes turned towards the audience, notably once to convey pictures of war and violence, with the sound turned off, accompanied on stage by a trio enacting its own violent vodoo scene - a witch-like singer giving an angry display sticking pins into a rag doll, to insistent hammer blows accompaniment on the table by assistants on either side of her. A quite horrifying scene.

In a gentler vein, a pianist, Francoise Matringue, painstakingly painted her fingernails, tried on several fancy hats before settling on little feathered affair to put on top of her head, in a blue to match her perfume bottle. She then put on some pink household rubber gloves before proceeding to practise her tunes, becoming frustrated at her own ineptitude and taking it out on the piano by hitting the frame - all very musical in its unmusical way! To try to improve her performance she lifted the piano lid abruptly and up with it went the vase of flowers, which didn't slide down - a permanent accessory to a well polished instrument in a genteel bourgeois household. This scene poked gentle fun at a tradition of home music-making, without the nitty-gritty involvement of in-depth music-making.

The accordeon/synthesiser player, Sylvie Drouin, produced a nostalgic cameo of an artfully untutored chansonniere and the clarinettist, Dominique Clement, knelt down to practise as if he was doing penance in some holy place. The cellist, Christophe Roy, produced beautiful sounds but had to move around in search of a quiet and comfortable spot to practise. All those disparate and inconsequential fragments were united in a vivid sound pattern of great complexity.

All credit to the children of Strasbourg who were brought along and behaved impeccably whilst coming to grips with the confusing goings-on and the peculiar behaviour displayed by these adults! Many of their elders, probably even more bewildered, abstained from applause at the end. This show had evidently not matched their expectations of a tasteful display of family life. Hopefully, some of the youngsters will have been sufficiently intrigued and challenged to carry away with them a new notion of what music theatre can do.

This short visit confirmed our experience of Musica the previous year; Strasbourg's annual feast, under the intelligent direction of Jean-Dominique Marco, is one of the most admirable of Europe's contemporary music festivals, both focussed and varied, and important to the local citizens as well as to international visitors.

Peter & Alexa Woolf

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