By Rodney Punt
DRESDEN — Bobbing cheekily in the air above Dresden’s Neumarkt Square this week are portrait balloons of the G7 heads of state. Their finance ministers are convening here to tweak the world’s economic order. While the opaque G7s resolve to seek the best major accords in finance, however, more fun can be found a few doors away at the Dresden Music Festival, where G7 chords resolve to C majors in the Saxon capital’s splendid Baroque chambers. The two unrelated events are at this moment raising Dresden’s political and cultural profiles to more visible prominence in Germany and Europe.
Music Festival intendant Jan Vogler has conferred the title “Fire Ice” as this year’s theme, referring to a mash-up of influences at the outer edges (and beyond) of the European continent. The idea is that music inspired by the Mediterranean’s sunny climate contrasts with that created in snowy terrains near the Arctic Circle. Dresden’s Mittel Europa position is then positioned to play bridge and broker between the received ideas of northern intellectualism and southern lyricism.
Iconic works by Grieg and Sibelius pave the way for those of contemporary Scandinavian composers Tobias Broström, Kaija Saariaho, and Olli Mustonen, who confirm the ice region’s current innovations in art music. By contrast, a heavy dose of 18th- and 19th-century Mediterranean composers remind us of earlier musical innovations that, in their day, traveled from the fiery south to the cold north. The contingent of contemporary southern composers this year favors popular music forms associated with newly arrived or outsider Europeans.
While bureaucrats in European governmental offices nervously deal with boat refugees from Africa, Dresden Music Festival features charismatic singer Mariza, the African-born, Portuguese-raised queen of fado, who headlines its final concert on June 7 at the Albertinum. A banner prominently displayed at the nearby Saxon Fine Arts Academy captures the spirit: Das Land, das die Fremden nicht beschützt, geht bald unter. (Goethe’s quip: “The country that does not protect its strangers soon fails.”)
This multicultural slant, mixing popular with classical styles, is largely Vogler’s innovation. Launched by the German Democratic Republic in 1978, the festival’s traditional focus was classical. Since 2009, when the cellist cum cultural entrepreneur took over, it has broadened its repertoire, audience base, and time zones. This year’s line-up includes no less than twelve orchestras from locales that stretch from Helsinki to Venice and Philadelphia to Rome. Additional entries encompass vocal groups from Dresden and Berlin, several dance companies, solo singers, pianists and other instrumentalists, a children’s opera, and a wide selection of eclectic ensembles, whose specialties vary from traditional classical quartets and trios to historic baroque and medieval revivals, and on to ethnic music like klezmer, tango, and fado. Of a dense mix of forty-seven concerts in a three-week run starting May 13, I was able to take in five representative of the festival’s wide range from May 25 to 29.
A group of instrumentalists billed as “Avi Avital und Freunde” gathered Monday morning at the historic Semperoper, one of the earliest buildings restored by an exhausted but determined Dresden after the devastating fire-bombing in the Second World War’s last days. The Israeli-born Avital’s specialty is the mandolin. His friends included accordionist Richard Galliano, clarinetist Giora Feidman, bass player Guido Jäger, percussionist Murat Coskun, and a string quintet of female players from the Kammerakademie Potsdam. They charmed with Romanian folk music by Bartók, miniatures of Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze, and selections of Falla, Vittorio Monti, and Villa-Lobos’s “Cantilena” from his Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, the eerie version of which served to introduce Galliano’s subtle accordion, heard later in klezmer selections. Coskun’s ability to suggest entire worlds with his minimal percussion instruments was put to good effect with a large tambourine called, in the Turk’s native language, an erbane. The full ensemble later traded off solos in Piazzolla’s Fuga Y Misterio.
All gave way, if not artistically then by force of personality, to the arrival of veteran performer Feidman, whose clarinet entered with a whisper from the hall’s sidelines in a soft, pleading “Hava Nagila.” The ubiquitous Jewish tune could have trivialized the afternoon were it not for Feidman’s charisma; he went on to perform “What a Wonderful World” and engage the German audience in sing-alongs with tunes like “Donna, Donna.” Milking emotions? Yes, but at the same time beguiling without blaming.
Along similar lines a few nights later, the Trio Cayao, a Berlin-based tango group, proved that musical proclivity is, in an age of fast travel and faster electronics, more in one’s ear than place of origin. Founded by Finnish pianist Jarkko Riihimäki in 2011, the trio includes Indonesian violinist Iskandar Widjaja and Berlin bassist Ander Perrino. The three classical performers share a love for old and new tangos. Riihimäki composes them in today’s complex free-form style, several of which were heard to good effect in the program, along with those by usual suspects –Piazzola, Gerardo H. M. Rodríguez, Horacio Salgán, and the man whose name graces the most popular tango hall in Argentina, Carlos Gardel.
The Trio Cayao held forth in the period atmospherics of the Ball- und Brauhaus Watzke, a dance hall on the north side of town near the River Elbe. Its dowager brick exterior is well past the century mark, its pocked oak floors creaky, and its elevated stage dome of faux-rococo nymphs and cherubs blistering. Yet the hall stands in proud denial of the ravages of time. Tangos, need it be said, are all about obsessive desires, agonized losses, and regretful memories. The stylish performances on this occasion made a wistful catharsis for the romantics of all ages in attendance.
Celebrating his 70th birthday, Dresden native and favorite son Peter Rösel on Wednesday evening pondered the last piano sonatas of three Viennese masters: Haydn’s episodic Sonata No. 59 in E-flat, Beethoven’s questing Sonata No. 32 in C minor, and Schubert’s otherworldly Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960. Mortality may have been on Rösel’s mind, but it was nowhere near his fingers, though he had to rub them for warmth in the drafty upstairs grand hall of the Palais im grossen Garten, a semi-ruin of unadorned raw bricks and mortar in the middle of a vast 18th-century garden. Much warmer were the hall’s rich, full, and embracing acoustics.
Written early in an important last decade of work, the Haydn sonata is his longest and, harmonically and structurally, his most complex. It moves by playful fits and starts into many a strange byway, and owes something to the craggy moods of C. P. E. Bach. Beethoven’s work is a supplicant reaching for the stars, working its way into the highest registers of the piano and planting itself there in awestruck wonder of the vast vault of heaven. By contrast, Schubert’s last sonata finds its sublimity close to the earth, in tender resignation to impending death. (That bass trill in the first movement is like a call from the coffin.) The irony of these works played in succession is its reminder that Haydn in his sixties was unaffected by the ravages of time; Beethoven in his fifties was ill but defied mortality at this point; and Schubert at just 31 knew his time was coming and died a month after penning this last sonata.
Rösel emphasized fluid movement over fussiness in these works, which served him well, with the possible exception of Schubert’s long first movement, where the pianist seemed a tad perfunctory. For encores, he played the last movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 18, K. 576 (the last sonata by that other Viennese master), and bid farewell with a seraphic rendition of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
My time with the festival provided opportunity to take in two world-class orchestras, the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, led by the Canadian-born Yannick Nézet-Séguin since 2012, and Rome’s Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, with its conductor, Antonio Pappano.
Two Philadelphia performances at the Konzerthaus Berlin were this year’s out-of-town festival concerts, an annual tradition. Designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (who also modeled Dresden’s Semperoper), it was initially intended as a theater for drama. The hall was launched in 1821 with the world premiere of Weber’s Der Freischütz. Destroyed in the Second World War, its exterior was exactingly restored by the GDR, with its interior redeployed as then East Berlin’s orchestral concert hall.
The program opened with Nico Muhly’s energetic, minimalist-inspired Mixed Messages, which had the feel of pulsing and clashing urban intensities with non-tonal textures. The orchestra’s choirs seemed to be in a ten-minute competition for dominance. Interesting evocations: alarms, wind sounds in the brass, percussion barrages, trumpet stabs, brass rumbles, and eerie spider-web strings.
Two works by Russian composers — Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor and Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony — put the Philadelphia Orchestra’s entry for the Dresden Festival in the “ice” theme geographically, but hardly emotionally. The Shostakovich, written in the years immediately after the Second World War, has unmistakable autobiographical references, including the probable first of many uses of a theme based on the composer’s initials, D-S-C-H (D-Eb-C-B). A tour de force of sustained intensity for soloists, it is also an endurance contest, with the violin playing almost continuously throughout. Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, who has made it a specialty, pairs frequently with Nézet-Séguin and various orchestras, and the rapport the two shared was apparent in the Nocturne’s lyricism, the Scherzo’s manic pacing, the Passacaglia’s profound spiritual journey, and the Burlesque’s effortless but tricky rhythms. (As an encore, Batiashvili performed Tchaikovsky’s Romance Op. 6, No. 6.)
In the decades after Gustav Mahler’s angst-laden symphonies gained favor in the 1960s, the seeming Technicolor optimism of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, premiered in 1936 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, seemed out of place and too luxuriant. But many things old can become new again, and no orchestra has better claim to reintroduce the neglected masterpiece than the orchestra that first played and recorded it.. Rachmaninoff tempered his rich textures here by holding the rhetoric in check, keeping harmonies astringent and emotions further up the sleeve than in his earlier works. Call it lush without gush: looking more forward to the Symphonic Dances than back to the Second Piano Concerto.
Nézet-Séguin maintained momentum and large lines, while highlighting details and colorings in the Philly’s vaunted strings (seated to maximize blend over contrast), but at the same time giving equal place to his winds and brass. The conductor’s way in these works recalibrates the orchestra’s traditional stress on velvet-toned strings in favor of choirs more balanced in their virtuosity and with a sharper rhythmic punch than may have been the case in the past.
Pappano and his Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia chose a program atypical of its traditional fare, featuring northern European works: Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, Sibelius’s Second Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, with cellist Vogler, the festival’s director, as soloist.
Isle of the Dead is a symphonic poem inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s eponymous painting, a version of which, in rich smoldering textures and colors, I saw just days before at the nearby Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts. The composer finished the work in Dresden in 1908, giving its performance here context. The music depicts the rowing of father-time Charon over the River Styx. It includes a chanting Dies Irae (the composer’s idée-fixe in many works) and grapples with the intense but subdued drama of life’s transition to death. Pappano carefully paced the moody work and its irregular, disorienting 5/8 time signatures so as to maintain steady but understated control as the piece built to its inexorable crescendo of ember-burning intensity, evoking well the richness of painter Böcklin’s layered textures.
Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, the closest thing he ever came to writing a concerto for the cello, is slight musically but a virtuoso monster. The lapidary Rococo bonbon is as hazardous for a cellist as a high-wire act without a safety net is for an acrobat. Musical phrases jump all over and a micro-millimeter of miscalculation on where they land has the cellist off pitch. Vogler caught the spirit and style of this piece well enough, but not all his lines and landings were on target. It may have had something to do with his bow, for at the very last cadence its entire strand of horsehair cascaded to the floor. The good-natured Vogler didn’t let this throw him, and the audience gave him a solid round of applause amid the smiles.
The Sibelius Second was fodder for further internalization — one might almost say sublimation — within the ranks of the Accademia. It’s both an episodic and integrated work that grows and glows from a single simple three-note cell. The composer’s thirty-three tempo indications for its four titled movements suggest the challenges Pappano faced in order to integrate the sprawl into a coherent statement. Even the much-vaunted breakout finale proceeds by glinting fragments rather than in a single expansive statement. Pappano’s urgently engaged conducting stitched all of it into a whole and his charges made of it a cohesive statement. Two encores provided relaxation from the previous intensity: Sibelius’ Valse Triste and the gallop from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, the latter’s snap and crackle releasing some traditional Mediterranean exuberance. The audience loved it.
On my last evening in Dresden, I peered down from my hotel room to the Neumarkt plaza’s archaeological dig that has steadily revealed more of the city’s medieval Jewish residential quarter. The site that once put Dresden at the bustling commercial center of trade routes extending north, south, east, and west seemed renewed in historic purpose with the far-reaching programming of Dresden’s “Fire Ice” music festival.
For more information about the Dresden Music Festival, which continues through June 7, go here.
Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.