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The Most Regrettable Death of the Conductor

Intelligent programming trumps musical horse-power: A self-serving Celibidache-memorial performance of Zubin Mehta in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in across town may have promised polished glory by an orchestra that knows its Bruckner, but the rag-tag band of Munich’s JCC, the Jakobsplatz Orchestra and its director outmaneuvered them, appealing to my penchant for the eclectic with an adventurous program of Wagner, Scriabin, Wyschnegradsky, Kagel and—perfectly in time for the Fourth of July—Cage and Glass. Cleverly presented as part of the Munich Opera Festival, the Jakobsplatz Orchestra attracted a full house in the unorthodox but surprisingly functional location in the west wing of the history-laden Haus der Kunst.

Shaky at first, the Siegfried Idyll soon flowed with gorgeousness, aided by steady horns and crisp, unsentimental tempi. Played at the far end of the sparsely lit hall, away from the young audience, the lanky silhouette of the Jakobsplatz Orchestra conductor and artistic director Daniel Grossmann reminded vaguely of an excerpt from Fantasia. Instinctive silence led, via short spoken excerpts on Scriabin and his Mysterium, to the open, light mysticism of Scriabin’s 7th sonata, “Messe Noire” well played by Sophie Raynand, if lacking the necessary commanding presence and conviction.

For Philip GlassThird Symphony for strings, the orchestra migrated to the center of the shoebox-like wing. It’s a simple, popular, charming work, none to challenging but effective with several rows of audience-heads, from 17 to 70, bopping along to the fourth movement. (If you’ve seen The Fog of War, you’ve heard the Symphony.)

John Cage’s 4’33” is something you can never hear enough of. Performed after intermission, the piece—more clever than it is usually being given credit for—has an image problem: It’s just a crafty joke to some; the epitome of Cagean absurdity for others, and it does in fact distract from so the non-absurd, surprisingly orthodox music Cage has written, be it for prepared piano or string quartet.

With all hands on deck, 4’33” for large orchestra turned out to be a success, without giggles and only occasional whispers on how long it would last. The planners got unforeseen help from a thunderstorm that had broken loose: the rain that poured on the large glass roof with blinders made the point of 4’33” more obvious, which is not about silence—much less about ‘meditation amidst stressful modern life’—but about the impossibility of silence. Not heeding the call for quiet afterwards, the actress-speaker prattled on quoting Thoreau and more Scriabin before the Ivan A. Wyschnegradsky Étude—quarter-tones and glissandi for small orchestra and two (differently tuned) pianos over faint hints of Varèse—took over and ended… this time to confused, not instinctive silence from the audience.

Mauricio Kagel’s Finale mit Kammerensemble is morbidly humorous performance art, but the acted-out death of the conductor, mid-performance, can easily distract from how much delicate and lovely music there is, enchanting and lyrical, then increasingly dark, and intermittently segueing into a robustly pounding circus romp. The unfortunate death of the young conductor at the hands of the composer’s instructions (which ask for realism) was meant, here, to be stylized, so as to avoid a cringe-worthy moment of awkwardness… but unfortunately it only ended up looking cringe-worthily awkward as Daniel Grossman gently, carefully placed himself on the floor, ad libitum, as if he had acute Avian Bone Syndrome