I am in beautiful Dresden – birthplace of the (mass produced) tea bag– for the annual three-week Music Festival that has taken place since 1978. After Mozart-joys, Malkovichean divertissement, Bach despairs and delights, and Thielemann’s Bruckner, it was time for a day of variety with, depending how you count, up six concerts.
All You Can Hear
It started with the “All You Can Hear” event at Dresden’s convention center. A promising and interesting concept with Kristian Järvi, the MDR Symphony Orchestra and the (strangely German) Baltic Youth Philharmonic (BYP)… an series of performances that vaguely suggested an open floor plan, a variety of different concerts (orchestral and chamber) to chose from, and active exploration on the part of the visitor who paid a one-time fee of 20,- got a stamp, and was then free to roam.
Except that when you got there, assuming you found the place on your first attempt, there was hearty little roaming, no open floor plan, and no concurrent concerts to hear. Reality proved pernickety on this first attempt at an ambitious and vastly intriguing concept and in the end it turned out a succession of regular concerts in semi-suitable spaces that no one was allowed to enter late, and during which people sat still to reverently listen to the music (including full observance of the ironclad “don’t-clap-between-movements-even-when-it’s-obvious-that-the-first-movement-is-eliciting-applause” rule)… only that they sat in rafters in a convention center hall, rather than on the cushioned seats of a concert hall.
Give the project thick carpets, creak-free seating, curtains instead of doors, parallel musical events, more open minds, and willing, enthusiastic, inexpensive participants (the BYP seems a good place to start) and something wonderful might come of that yet in years to come. The mixed audience was already there, from different social and economic strata, including a legion of tots that were ill advisedly fitted with little DIY-garden-hose French horns. Instruments that proved wonderfully effective in the reverberant halls. “Toooot, tooooooot!” they went, though far enough from the hermetically sealed concert spaces, to do any damage beyond the nerves of innocent bystanders and regretful mothers.
Palace of Culture?
If falling short of its own ambitions, the “All You Can Hear” thing was at least an opportunity to hear a fine Korngold Violin Concerto with Vadim Gluzman (and BYP), a really quite stupendous Beethoven Eighth with the MDR SO, all under Kristian Järvi, and the realization that for all its aesthetic limitations and acoustic difficulties, the convention’s center halls make a better venue for an orchestral concert than the city’s official performing space, the concert hall of the 1969 architectural and ideological sin of the Kulturpalast, Dresden’s “Palace of Culture”. Since the place, home of the spirit of Walter Ulbrich, is unfathomably protected as a listed landmark site, only a merciful fire might one day help the Dresden Philharmonic to a concert hall that underscores, not undermines its value.
There might be better orchestras in smaller cities, and better ‘second’ orchestras in bigger cities. But by that mix of quality and reputation that make the amorphous status of an orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic is easily the best ‘junior orchestra’ of a city the size of Dresden. That knowledge didn’t help during Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with an engaged Vadim Repin and Markus Poschner conducting, because you couldn’t hear very much from the seats I had, and what I heard sounded as seductive as Tango-dancing by numbers. Whether the thing ever came together on stage is questionable, if so, it didn’t reach me. A pity, too, because the preceding Coriolan Overture somehow did, and that was a most enjoyable performance. Not the fresh and exciting quality of the MDR’s convention center Beethoven, but well played and with enough promise to make the prospect of staying for Beethoven’s Seventh attractive.
Bartók Beneath the Conveyor Belt
Still, with the third movement of Prokofiev not getting better even as it was encored, it seemed prudent to move on to Volkswagen’s Transparent Factory, the spotless, Canadian maple hardwood floor production facility for VW’s Phaeton luxury sedan. It’s a fascinating place and even if the sales numbers for the Phaeton were better than they are, it’s understandable that VW – a main sponsor of the Festival – is very eager to show the place off in imaginative ways.
It’s certainly memorable to hear a program of Moldavian - Hungarian - Romanian folk-influenced works amidst five-and-a-half ton luxury vehicles in various states of un-finish, hanging on telescoping trapezoids from the ceiling’s conveyor belt. The mind raced to future productions of Die Walküre or the possibilities to stage B. A. Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. Instead the Kopatchinsky family turned up, famous violinist daughter Patricia (with a terrific Beethoven Concerto as part of her ever-increasing discography) up front, violinist mother Emilia and the cimbalom playing father Viktor in tow. A dapper buddy on double bass provided for the groove in Eastern European, Moldovan folk music larks that opened and closed the recital. I find the charade of really letting lose in such a concert, as properly suggested by such music, always an awkward affair. Especially in front of a (German) classical music audience… But there was no denying that it brought fresh air into a recital that came close to suffering from anoxia at several points.
Not during the Bartók Romanian Folk Dances though; those were played as well as I’ve ever heard. Partly thanks to Mihaela Ursuleasa’s pianism, but mostly because it was endowed by Kopatchinkskaja with the requisite seediness, that bit of musical lace that alluringly, suggestively hangs half of one shoulder… the complete confidence of knowing what she was doing, the ability to do it, and a thankfully shameless joy in sharing it. Which is really just the roundabout way of suggesting that it was authenticity that made the Bartók.1
György Kurtág’s Eight Duos for Violin and Cimbalom (op.4) tested my love for Kurtág, its pp glissandi softer sounding than the factory’s incessant AC. Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane – even in such a coy and wicket-wily performance – is a work I’ve always suspected of appealing more to violinists than their audiences, and while George Enescu’s Third Violin Sonata (on Popular Romanian themes) is one of the great works of its kind, I wish that the composer had made two sonatas from it. The first movement opens with a magnificent lilting lament but in connection with the Andante sostenuto it punishes any lack of concentration on the listener – before the third movement, just as long but subjectively brief, injects much-needed oxygen back into the affair.
1 As opposed to the airs other performers might put on when emulating such music’s spirit, which causes little more than vicarious embarrassment. There are various musical examples (Dieskau as Pappageno comes to my mind), but really the best analogy are male Russian figure skaters after the collapse of the Soviet Union who bought leather trousers and rocked out on ice, to cringe-worthy effect and music ranging from Bill Haley to Tom Jones. Or the most brilliant counter-cultural film maker of East Germany, Gregor Voss, and his first trip to the West.