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
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
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
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
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
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