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Ionarts at Large: American Night at Munich’s Musica Viva

American contemporary music is supposed to be difficult to program in Europe. It’s still too modern for the traditional concert clientele, but too bourgeois for the avant-garde-happy audience reared on—and expecting—the heavyly intellectual fare of Boulez, Stockhausen, or Ferneyhough. The listenable, downright popular (shudder!) American contemporary music of Glass, Reich, Adams, Del Tredici, Argento, Corigliano et al. is too “middle brow” an attendee sympathetic to these composers suggested, “and European culture just doesn’t do ‘middle brow’. Only extremes.”

But perhaps times are changing and the ears are regaining primacy over the mind when it comes to music, because the Herkulessaal in Munich was not only very well filled, but the response was also wholly positive after what amounted to “Easy Listening Night” at the 7th Musica Viva concert in 2009. Steve Reich’s Three Movements for Orchestra (1986), the oldest work on the program, was the curtain raiser. Full of the pleasing predictability of Reich’s propulsive beat it was just the work to warm up the ears for Elliott Carter’s 2001 Cello Concerto. The searching and confused solo cello opening—courtesy Jan Vogler—is pierced by orchestra stabs that are as short as they are vigorous, which then mellow considerably as they travel through the orchestral sections one by one. The orchestra has one surprising moment approximating lyricism, the cello part is often barely played, timidly screeching like cats at night with broken hearts. Atypical for Carter, the meandering work makes it difficult to perceive any musical purpose or goal, though the end has a coy smile that gives Carter, even when at his most modern, a human touch that many of his modernist colleagues lack.

The dashing, ever-suave Kristjan Järvi led the Bavarian State Orchestra through all works with panache, his looks, self-consciously sexy stance, and debonair movements conveying the air of a young, classical Jon Bon Jovi on the rostrum. John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007) was more notable for the incredibly well played solo trumpet part and the finale’s bracing build-up than for the music itself. While it’s easy to get a bad suite out of a great opera (Rosenkavalier!), it’s rather difficult to get a good suite out of a modest opera. A competent botch job that benefits from the omission of vocal parts, the Doctor Atomic Symphony nearly manages that feat, though.

The surprise of the evening was Udo Zimmermann’s Cello Concerto “Songs from an Island” which received its world premiere performance. Zimmermann is in charge of the Musica Viva series, so seeing a composition of his—the first in over a decade—wasn’t terribly surprising. The work itself, its quality and listenability, was, though. It starts with lengthy, fragmented quotes from Schumann’s “Ich hab im Traum geweinet” (Dichterliebe, op.48) which allow the cello to do what it can do best: sing. While the cello is almost incidental to Carter’s concerto (any instrument—a dulcimer, for example—might have served equally well), here it is stipulated by Zimmermann’s music. Purpose, the little cousin of Truth, is established and the mind can begin to grasp and the ears can go on a journey with the composer.

Zimmermann seems to feel naughty for throwing this tonal bone to the listener. The liner notes spend considerable time justifying the daring occurrence of harmony. As a truly modern European composer one would not want to be considered a reactionary, after all. Perhaps Zimmermann is right about being worried. (“Is that allowed? Is this an Anti-Concerto” the notes disingenuously question and eagerly postulate. ) After all, this ‘taking the listener by the ear’, gently, and harmonically pulling him his way… this acknowledgment of purpose (in instrumentation and structure) is the very negation of Zimmermann’s (and the whole avant-garde music scene’s) underlying and often trumpeted notion of the “paradigm shift” that had allegedly occurred in our listening habits.

The concerto is gorgeous, even when it gets busy, noisy, and tangled. The heartfelt reception and genuine applause must have been quite different than the usual, cool admiration. Via perceptible ideas and motifs, through recognizability and musical craftsmanship Udo Zimmermann has arrived, if not at truth, so at least in reality. A warm “welcome back”.


Tartuffe said...

I knew that Carter was over 100 but Adams is really getting up there!

jfl said...

I was a little surprised myself. :-) Apparently he had a whole other career going before he turned to composing, too.