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Ionarts-at-Large: Munich Biennale (Part 1)

The 12th Munich Biennale opened on April 27th with a production of Philipp Maintz’ opera “Maldoror” set to a French text by Thomas Fiedler, based on Comte de Lautréamonts (a.k.a. Isidore Ducasse) “Le Chants de Maldoror”. Evil is its theme, with overtones of child abuse, murder, and domestic cruelty.

The production Georges Delnon and Joachim Rathke is effectively simple: A hamster wheel-like metal cage across the dark stage, upon which the libretto—in graphically spruced up form—was projected like a running commentary. By the end of the 90 minute opera (feels twice that long), the various secondary protagonists (wife, kid, husband) lie dead on the cage rundles like canaries in a coal mine.

The only cruelty still emitting from the opera, meanwhile, is the composition itself. Interesting for ten minutes, it can’t escape the fact that it is a tiresome rehashing of what all too many composers have come up with before: endless clusters, blocks of sound moved into another, and no music anywhere in earshot: technically efficient and crafted with aplomb, no doubt, but devoid of soul. If I want a modern opera mainly made up of clusters I could just as well stick with Aribert Reimann’s Lear, and at least enjoy myself for the whole length of the work.

The individual contributions were outstanding, though, as Martin Berner (Maldoror), Marisol Montalvo (“the soprano voice”), and Otto Katzameier (Lautréamont) breathed life into the lifelessness; especially Montalvo who opened with an ode to the vastness of the oceans and closed with a hymn about transcendence. The Aachen Symphony Orchestra—perhaps known to some record collectors for their SACD cycle of Bruckner symphonies—played under their music director Marcus Bosch, although it often sounded as if only the percussion section had made the trip to Munich.

I attended the second performance on April 29th.

Next up for me was the Munich Philharmonic with its contribution to the biennale, an orchestral concert on April 30th, showcasing the music of Hans Thomalla (*1975) next to modern classics like Luigi Nono and Arnold Schoenberg and the surprise-delectableness of the evening: Gérard Pesson’s “Nebenstück – d’arpès la quatrième Ballade op.10 Johannes Brahms” for clarinet and string quartet from 1998.

Nono’s microtonal “A Carlo Scarpa” (1985) is a piece that whispers and shimmers like the flittering air on the autostrada under a mercilessly tar-melting summery sun—interrupted only by indistinctively low, snapping pizzicatos. Even in a performance that could have been considerably more accurate or loving, a musical heart shines through the notes; music emerges from the surface of mere sound.

Then the Pesson: Strings breathe like the gentlest of steam locomotives might, slightly uphill, shortly before happy hour. From these hushed rhythmical phrases arises a romantic, lullabyesque melody of great beauty, fragmented by a recurring descent into left-hand pizzicato phrases. If the touch of music’s love shines strongly through here even more than in the Nono, it’s probably because the core of this ingenious work is Brahms Ballade No.4, op.10. A sea of indefinite associations arises in a cloud of beauty; without shape but constant form. The respective first chairs of the Munich Philharmonic did themselves proud.

Then the first of the Thomalla pieces: “Ausruff” (“Exclamationn [sic]”) starts with a literal exclamation that some poor sod in the orchestra has to perform. Muffled ‘echo trumpets’ sit stage left and right, bracketing strings, brass, amplified harp and guitar. It was all about “acoustical phenomenology”, but sadly with very little music. It’s most redeeming feature was a simple, intuitive pulse.

Schoenberg’s “Incidental Music to a Film Scene” op.34 (1930) consists of individual phrases over mechanistic orchestral grumbling with the vague feeling of what a 30s soundtrack to an abstract film might have been like. Dodecaphonic Chaplin, graphic and dramatic.

For the Thomalla world premiere of “1, 2, three, 4”, the decibel police had been hard at work: the percussion battery was cordoned off behind a screen of plastic like riot police at a free trade summit. Necessary, according to European legislative work place regulations, because 1, 2, three, 4 actually goes up “to 11”. Thomalla was allowed to spout platitudes about culture of sound before the work got under way, how the orchestra has its own distinctive sound and something about the particular character individual musicians therein. Not that the Thielemann Philharmonic hasn’t got its own unique sound. In fact, they’re one of the few orchestras that really do. But their particular sound wasn’t at all specifically or distinctively played with or catered to in this composition. Lots of brass and plenty loud would have suited the (Solti) Chicago Symphony Orchestra just as well and better. The calling card of the MPhil (surely the least modernist of all the Munich orchestras) is the dusky-homogenous, deeply varnished Bruckner-Schumann thumbprint. Cymbals and bells that sounded like Hare Krishna on steroids didn’t really cater to that.

In all that, it paid to have a conductor—Johannes Kalitzke—whose constitution is part donkey- driver. His stubborn, unyielding persistency got the Munich Philharmonic to do its job with apt precision, dragged them to reasonably exacting standards, if not ebulliant enthusiasm.

May 1st, Labor Day in Europe, meant hearing the second of four orchestral biennale concerts, this time with the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin (DSO), featuring Bernhard Gander and conducted by Susanna Mälkki. The Austrian Gander was born in 1969 and, unlike Thomalla, it is an absolute pleasure hearing him talk about is music and his influences. His words relate, the concepts he offers are simple and easy to grasp, his language to the point. No empty phrases, no jargon, no high-flying nonsense. The music can a different story. Perhaps if I had known the heavy-metal connection of the quintet “ö” (2005, the title a reference to Motörhead) beforehand, the incoherent instrumental stutter and the shards of sound from bass flute, bass clarinet, viola, cello, and accordion might have made more sense to me. As it was, I found the only solution for “ö” to attain accessibility would be to undergo a change in title to “Summer Night at the Zoo”. That would have given a readily accessible, funny image to the instrumental monkey business.

The world premiere of his composition “dirty angel”, commissioned by the city of Munich, suggested more than I was able to take away from “ö”. It starts like a cotton mill in overdrive, heavily percussive with sounds of beaten wood. The soloists—accordion and flugelhorn—are the two angels struggling to achieve takeoff. The horn does so more melodically than the chord-chugging accordion, but with both instruments it is the struggle that counts. Impurities in the playing remind of the title. Repetitive string figures, like a chorus—heavenly or not—sound like commentary from above about the angels’ toils. Altogether an entertaining piece, not just modern but also coy and with wit.

Stravinksy’s Petroushka is a great work—raw, sweet, tender, slinky in turns, and always returning to its irregular rhythmical pulse. Mälkki’s interpretation lacked the impetuous inevitability amid all the stop-and-go, resulting in something reasonably pleasant but more mechanical than fiery.

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