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Music with white plaster-buckets

Peter Hagmann reports from this year's bustling edition of the Donaueschingen Music Festival

The rain came down punctually on Monday morning – after a golden autumn weekend that couldn't have suited the Donaueschingen Music Festival better. There was no time for gentle ambling, however, because this year's festival organised by Südwest Rundfunk in the Black Forest was as busy as ever, with no less than 23 premieres in 8 concerts over 48 hours. Just getting a seat was difficult enough, as the events were sold out one and all. Concerts had to be shifted to bigger theatres or performed several times. Such was the scramble to get up to scratch on new music today, something many people consider an old white elephant.

This year's audiences, incidentally, were again full of young people, like those taking part in one of the "Next Generation" workshops running parallel to the festival. Contrary to popular opinion, concert organisers with dwindling audiences would do well to put new music on their programme.

The SWR Symphony Orchestra and Freiburg under Arturo Tamayo. All images:; ARD-Foto

But the question is: which new music? This autumn's Donaueschinger Musiktage again illustrated how wide the spectrum has become. Yet the most enduring impressions were made by three composers, all well over 50. One, Brian Ferneyhough, an Englishman living in California, is known for his incredibly dense and convoluted pieces. Even the orchestral work "Plötzlichkeit" (suddenness) bespeaks an intellectual approach that's hard to get your head round, and a complexity of musical expression that can only be approximated when played. Yet the vast reach of the work is what lends it vitality and so much sensuality that you are drawn in to scrutinise its every detail. Aided ably, it should be said, by SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg under conductor Arturo Tamayo, who give the score everything they've got.

The Arditti Quartet with Claron McFadden

Similar mastership, if entirely different in sound, is at play in Wolfgang Rihm's two studies for string quartet and soprano "Akt und Tag", which the Arditti Quartet brilliantly baptised together with soprano Claron McFadden. Dramatic energies are released into the tiny hall, in the long prefatory movement, for example, which suddenly cuts to the quick, or in the high intensity of sordino strings. The Arditti Quartet matinee was a wonderful demonstration that this venerable music genre, linked so closely to bourgeois musical affinities, harbours unimagined potential. Another example was "Lenger" by the 40-year-old Norwegian Ole-Henrik Moe, where top-sawing tremoli suspend all feeling for pitch, venting the brute noise element that creates sound.

A cellist rebelling in Mauricio Kagel's "Divertimento?"

Mauricio Kagel takes the opposite approach. His "Divertimento?", an amusing farce about the omnipotence and powerlessness of the conductor, was tailor-made for the Schönberg Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw. Okay, some parts seem unoriginal and others harmless, but Kagel has a masterful hand, which has only matured over the decades. Most importantly he has remained true to his own subversive questioning which, in view of the restorative tendencies in the music business, cannot be rated highly enough. In any event, the piece had considerably more bite than the unassuming little jest in Richard Ayres' Orchestra Suite "No. 37b", which juggles with conventional sounds. And it packs more punch than American Alvin Curran's well-intended "Oh Brass on the Grass Alas," in which over three hundred amateur musicians from Donaueschingen parade over a sports field.

Alvin Curran rehearsing with his musicians

Curran's performance is typical of the new forms of music mediation which the Donaueschingen Music Festival has actively pursued again this year. Another example is the "Second Labyrinth for Orchestra Groups", a routine performance from the SWR symphony orchestra under Hans Zender, of a rather uninspired piece by the young Munich composer Jörg Widmann, which for some strange reason picked up the Orchestra prize given by participating musicians. "Hyperion", a joint project between Austrian Georg Friedrich Haas and Stuttgart light-artist Rosalie was at least more unusual. The audience gathered at the centre of a empty, darkened hall, and the orchestra divided into instrument sections was distributed around the room lined with thousands of white plaster-buckets, filled with coloured lights. The light installation, which bore a strong resemblance to the Christmas lights in Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse, determined the music: crude, grating clumps of sound leading not infrequently to alarming pathos levels.

Georg Friedrich Haas: "Hyperion - Concert for Light and Orchestra." Light Installation: rosalie. With the SWR Symphony Orchestra and Freiburg under Rupert Huber

And the cultivation of boundary breaking did not end here. No, on it went at the sadly rather out-of-the-way jazz concert where the Steamboat Switzerland group with Dominik Blum (keyboard), Marino Pliakas (electric bass) and Lucas Niggli (drums) improvised to a piece by Felix Profo from Winterthur. And climaxed at the meeting between the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the Ensemble Recherche under conductor Lucas Vis. In "Semplice", Martin Smolka for example played with the differences in tone and mood in old and new instruments. It had its exhilarating moments, but as a whole it was too long for the compositional material. In general, and this goes for Wolfgang Mittlerer in "Inwendig losgelöst" as well, he failed to bring out the characteristics of the two instruments with sufficient intensity to play them off against each other with sufficient clarity.

Concert with the Ensemble Recherche and the Freiberg Baroque Orchestra

People like to talk about the Donaueschingen Music Festival in terms of more or less successful years, when it's less about success and more about experiment. Somehow though there does seem to be less yield this year. The event has long prided itself on being an elite musical gathering, a festival for composers with its finger on the pulse of new music. Things have changed. Donaueschingen not only has a huge gravitational pull, it's waistline has also expanded, especially since the SWR filled the funding fridge and both the Federal Cultural Foundation and the Ernst von Siemens Musical Foundation promised solid financial backing. It would be a shame if this were to come at the expense of quality – be it of the individual pieces (and that means the co-operations with the composers) or of the programming at a whole, which undoubtedly contains something better-toned trying to get out.


The article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on October 25, 2006

Peter Hagmann is music critic for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translation: lp, jab. - let's talk european