Far from civilization

Workshops, improvisation and works in progress animate two European festivals

Lower Austria


Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, September 16

“The danger with orchestras is that they will always try to play beautifully. It’s hard, because they are creatures of civilization, and so they naturally want to play beautifully. But you musn’t let them”: musical “civilization” is very much in the Viennese composer Heinz Karl Gruber’s blood, but he is clear about why, for him, the term has become if not quite one of abuse, then at least one signifying a serious default. Art that is “civilized”, for Gruber, is lacking: it isn’t doing its job.

His remarks on the unfortunate civilizing tendencies of orchestras were addressed to the members of a composer-conductor workshop he ran at the 2011 Grafenegg Festival. It is the first workshop of its kind at the five-year-old festival, held each August in the grounds of Schloss Grafenegg in Lower Austria, an expansive neo-gothic folly built in the 1850s by an ancestor of its current owner. Constructed around the remains of a medieval stronghold with a central courtyard, the castle expands through a Renaissance staircase, climbing up to a network of interconnecting rococo chambers abutting halls in baronial gothic style. A small secret doorway in the panelling of the grand baroque library leads into a chapel in perpendicular gothic style, with a fan-vaulted ceiling painted a deep midnight blue, from which golden stars twinkle garishly. Both the paint and gilding – like most of the restoration which, at length, followed the castle’s occupation, ransacking, and subsequent abandonment, in 1955, by Soviet troops – were carried out with the help of government money. The condition of the financial aid was that the castle and its surrounding parkland must be put to some worthy public use. The current Lord of Grafenegg, Prince Tassilo Metternich-Sándor, found the solution to the castle’s survival to lie in opening the house and gardens to visitors, drawing them in with concerts featuring local artists. Alfred Brendel was a regular guest performer.

The tradition flourished, and the grounds now feature a remarkable outdoor stage called the Wolkenturm – a kind of multi- angled sculpture which bursts out exuberantly from the surrounding tree-clad parkland – and an alarmingly severe indoor auditorium, built in record time after the first fullfledged festival (during which it rained). The indoor hall seats 1,400 and the Wolkenturm – a creation of Marie-Therese Harnoncourt (the niece of the conductor) and Ernst Fuchs – seats 1,700, with a further few hundred spilling out in pleasingly un-Viennese fashion on to the grass embankment.

The Grafenegg Festival has grown in just a few years to become a regular fixture for international touring orchestras and artists. This year they welcomed the Concertgebouw, Philadelphia Orchestra and Seoul Philharmonic, among others. As composer-in-residence at the 2011 Festival, Heinz Karl Gruber presented the symphonic poem Northwind Pictures for its world premiere by the Tonnkünstler, with Ian Bostridge and Angelika Kirchschlager among the soloists. But one senses he feels his most important task to be the workshop, which he entitled “Ink Still Wet”, and which he sees as injecting an important dose of musical reality into the festival. He specifically requested his workshop be for composer-conductors. It is by learning to communicate directly the substance of their scores that Gruber thinks composers can best come to terms with the realities of writing music. His method – which consists of abrupt practical advice and tangential anecdote, both boomed out with equal intensity – clearly achieves results. Within the space of a few days, I witnessed an accelerated blossoming of talent among the six chosen composers – four of whom were students, the remaining two established composers already in their fifties. Consisting of six short works for a percussion- rich chamber orchestra drawn from members of the Tonnkünstler, the concluding concert was a genuine triumph for the composers concerned; it was also a forceful vindication of Gruber’s modus operandi of bringing each composer into physical contact with the forces under his direction, and encouraging them through energetic gesture and (in rehearsal) raucous vocalization to demonstrate the authentic source of the musical flow.

Although the items in the programme were works in progress, several stood out. Two of them were by young British composers (In Recognition by Adam Clifford and Exo 2 by Christopher Petrie) and another – perhaps the best, all told – by the Viennese Bernd Richard Deutsch. The Ink Still Wet concert possessed an energy and vitality which the previous evening’s guests from Seoul could not match, however sparkling and brilliantly coloured their rendition, under Myung-Whun Chung, of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As with the rest of the programme – Messiaen’s Offrandes oubliées and, with Nikolaj Znaider, Brahms’s Violin Concerto – it was a focused, vigorous performance. But unless one feels some substantial interpretative problem has been solved, or progress been made, standard concert programming of this kind rarely has the visceral sense of music being made on the spot that comes naturally to programmes of works, however unfinished, whose ink has yet to dry.

And this is precisely Gruber’s idealistic motivation. He explains that even when a composer eventually succeeds in convincing a conductor to perform one of his scores, after many meek overtures, their role in the musicmaking process remains an advisory and frequently apologetic one. “But it is the conductor who should be apologising”, bellows Gruber, “for always conducting Brahms and neglecting the music of today. It is this music which should and must be the lifeblood of culture. By positioning himself on the podium, the composer can once again place himself at the centre of things.”

Gruber’s vision owes much in outline, if not in content, to that of Pierre Boulez, who is surely the composer most responsible for energizing the field of post-war music by placing himself centre stage. One of the more recent flowerings of Boulez’s career as a composer-conductor is the annual Lucerne Festival Academy, which he established under the auspices of the wider festival in 2004. For three weeks each year, some 130 young (aged under twenty-five) orchestral musicians, as well as a handful of conductors and composers, descend on the lakeside resort. Given Boulez’s standing, and schedule, one might expect the weeks in Lucerne to be taken as a working rest-cure, the grand maître dispensing gobbets of generalized wisdom while others see to the nuts and bolts. The instrumental tuition is undertaken by others – by members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, which Boulez founded in 1976 in order to raise standards in the performance of contemporary music – but until this year Boulez himself handled the packed rehearsal schedule himself. Add to this an intensive three-day conductor workshop, and his constant availability to Academy composers, and Boulez, now aged eighty-six, often works twelve to fourteenhour days. Although his direction and advice remain as exacting and acute as ever, one looks in vain for the heartless firebrand of legend. Indeed, I can think of no single figure in a comparable position who exhibits the same levels of patience and open-minded generosity as Boulez displays during these three weeks.

Boulez’s schedule was reduced this year following a cataract operation, though he was still present to rehearse and conduct the Academy Orchestra in a performance of his own Pli Selon Pli, and to take the conducting and composing masterclasses. The remainder of the orchestral programmes was taken by Boulez’s former protégé David Robertson, while the other major project for the orchestra was directed by the 2011 festival’s artiste étoile, the Swiss violist, composer and performance artist Charlotte Hug. I attended one of Hug’s rehearsals for her Nachtplasmen project. There were some perplexed faces among the students, to be sure, and on the podium Hug has neither the natural authority of Boulez nor the focused enthusiasm of Robertson. But then the score from which Hug was conducting, using a codified gestural language previously worked out with the orchestra, was a long rectangular lightbox, suspended obliquely above the heads of the players and showing a constantly changing display of tangled lines and shadowed shapes. The work is effectively an improvisation for a large orchestra. Things weren’t working when I arrived, but they were working beautifully before I left.

The Lucerne Festival was initially established in 1938 by Toscanini as an alternative to Salzburg, then under Goebbels’s control. Both events are of course entirely different today, but there is a sense in which the cosiness of Salzburg contrasts strikingly with the cool and collected modernity which characterizes Lucerne’s festival and which emanates, above all, from the edifice designed by Jean Nouvel to house it. The building, whose sharp lines seem to cut right into the mountain- ringed lake it borders, also houses an art gallery as well as the main concert hall, one of the world’s best when it was completed in the year 2000 and still seen by architects and acousticians, as well as their employers, as the venue to beat.

As at Grafenegg, I attended a number of superb concerts, including Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, both on blistering form, and a memorably intense performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet by the Hagen Quartet. Yet what has stuck with me was the work of another quartet, Charlotte Hug’s Stellari Quartet. Their performance of Hug’s Slipway to Galaxies took place in the art gallery, among an installation of the elegantly traced designs in which Hug records her sound imaginings. Like the orchestral work, the piece is improvisatory, much of it revolving around the use of a detached bow to play softly across all fours strings at once. One attunes to the mood as it grows in intensity, and as the light fades, eventually to pitch black. One’s listening eventually maps on to that of the performers, whose minuscule interactions and inter-responses bring with them an inter-personal sensibility of great sensitivity and fineness. After what seems like an eternity (the performance lasts an hour or so), dawn breaks, bringing extraordinary peace and what seemed to me like a new, more open pair of ears. Indeed, though it all seemed as far from “civilized” music as it is possible to get, I would be hard put to think of a work whose effect was at the same time more – how to put it? – civilizing.

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