Ruptures, Restarts At German Festival Where New Reigns

Georg Friedrich Haas in der Christuskirche mit der Trombone Unit Hannover
Georg Friedrich Haas’ Trombone Octet served as a prelude to the festival and a memorial to Armin Köhler.
By Rebecca Schmid

DONAUESCHINGEN, Germany — The Donaueschinger Musiktage were obliged to bid farewell on more than one front this year. The festival’s longtime artistic director, Armin Köhler, died last fall, leaving behind unfinished programming. And the resident orchestra, the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, which specializes in contemporary music, appeared for the last time in its current form: as of next fall, it will be merged with the Radio Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart.

Jörg Widmann composer clarinettist Photo: Marco Borggreve
Composer-clarinetist Jörg Widmann. (Marco Borggreve)

The festival, which began in 1921, was the first in history to devote itself exclusively to contemporary music. It has existed in its current guise since 1950, when it joined forces with the radio station Südwestrundfunk Baden-Baden, securing the services of the SWF-Sinfonieorchester and commissioning important large-scale works. Despite a reputation in the English-speaking world as something of an academic enclave, the festival has always reflected a palette of styles. In addition to such composers as Boulez, Stockhausen, Henze, Kagel, and Berio, Georg Friedrich Haas and Jörg Widmann more recently have been important presences.

Alongside orchestral works that would have a scarce chance of finding commissions elsewhere — not least because the resident ensemble is willing and able to execute a range of extended techniques — the event has in recent times established itself as a hub for sound installations and multi-media performance.

This year’s iteration, from Oct. 16 to 18, featured 18 world premieres and four installations. Even within the main concert series, the boundaries between performance and installation, and musical and non-musical, remained fluid.

The Belgian Nadar Ensemble premiered ‘Bluff’ by Michael Beil.

Nadar Ensemble, from Belgium, premiered two works that explored the ubiquitous presence of technology in our daily lives. In Stefan Prins’ Mirror Box Extensions, hologram-like images of individual musicians blurred the lines between corporeality and virtual reality, while iPads added instrument close-ups inside the audience. If that score was something of a creaking, motoric, burbling undercurrent of sound, Michael Beil contributed a more variegated instrumental world in the “staged composition” Bluff. Live video merged with real-time performance, calling attention to the depersonalizing effect of recording technology. The musicians at times stared blankly at the audience before walking offstage in pure alienation; it was a relief when they sat to down to play.

The notion of composition as putting together (based on its etymological origins in the Latin componere) might also apply to Patrick Frank’s “theoretical opera” Freiheit — die eutopische Gesellschaft, which explores the notion of freedom in the Western world. Audience members sat at picnic tables with beer and pretzels in the auditorium of the Erich Kästner-Halle — the festival is mostly scattered across schools and sports halls — during a mix of video, musical quotations, protests, philosophical theory, and happenings. I was only able to stop by for the beginning of Act Two after visiting a kinetic sculpture/sound installation in the Fischhaus of Donaueschingen’s Schlosspark, watching everything from a clip of David Hasselhoff singing on a remnant of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on New Year’s Eve 1989 to a trombonist who held up the sign “Cage” while twenty people were invited to watch him perform in the shower.

Music and technology: Ensemble Mosaik incorporated video.

Once the main room broke out into a cacophony of screaming, I headed to a concert curated and conducted by the German composer Enno Poppe with the Ensemble Mosaik in the Donauhalle. The interface with new media proved a unifying theme with interludes by Carlos Sandoval, who himself appeared at the synthesizer and on video. Of the four full-scale works, I was most taken with Luìs Antunes Pena’s nomás. Its kinetic score weaving acoustic and electronic sounds at times became stuck like a scratched CD, only to end suddenly in darkness when Poppe pulled an enormous plug.

The relationship of music not just to electronics but also to space has been an important theme for Donaueschingen since the 1950s. Olga Neuwirth’s Le Encantadas, for six ensembles stationed in a pentagon shape around the audience, combined a response to Luigi Nono’s Prometeo and the writings of Herman Melville. A mix of intricate instrumental writing and samples ranging from lapping water to church bells create an immersive narrative during which, at one point, I had the impression of being cast at sea, the absence of video only activating my imagination.

Alongside this matinee performance, the most intriguing programs were those with full-scale orchestral works. The opening concert showed how young composers are pushing the genre in both ironic and formal ways. In Johannes Kreidler’s TT1, the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg under Peter Eötvös could only sputter and stutter in response to a sample of a repeated piano note. Richard Ayres’ No. 48 posited the composer as jester, the orchestra responding with everything from cartoonish gesticulations to faux-Romantic climaxes in reaction to instructions such as “Adagio” and “Symphony” that poured through the loudspeakers.

Yoav Pasovsky divided the orchestra into two bodies playing at slightly different speeds — shifting, pulsing textures remaining true to the title Pulsus alternans — while Johannes Boris Borowski set out to thematize perilous ice towers in Sérac. If the web of textures threatened to overwhelm the listener, Borowski exploited the orchestra’s full range of colors to create a dialectic between existential struggle and vitality.

The closing concert encouraged close reflection about the future of orchestral writing with the SWR Sinfonieorchester. In Yves Chauris’ Why so Quiet, the orchestra’s fine, oscillating textures seemed to spill from the center of the music before flowing back inward. Francesco Filidei included deflating balloons, a drill, party blowers, stamping feet, and a police whistle in Killing Bach, which emerged as a protest not just against snatches of the composer in question, but also the orchestral tradition in general.

Alvin Curran included a youth orchestra blowing into plastic tubes.

In veteran American composer Alvin Curran’s Book of Beginnings, the symbolism could not have been clearer: A youth orchestra that had blasted from the back of the hall filed onstage to join the SWR while blowing into plastic tubes. Self-playing pianos with material generated from a touch-screen selection process added a ghostly touch, along with orchestral writing that included a neo-Romantic, mourning passage. The whispering, ephemeral textures of Marc Andre’s Über, in which solo clarinetist Jörg Widmann blew and sucked as if it were his last breath, similarly conjured an uncertain future. Live electronics were sent through the orchestra with transducers mounted on individual instruments, creating gusts of elemental sound.

It was to Andre that the musicians of the SWR voted to bestow a prize that guarantees a subsequent performance of the work. Solo cellist and orchestra committee member Frank-Michael Guthmann praised Über for probing the possibilities of orchestral writing.

But it was also an evening of anger and mourning. At intermission, a member of the orchestra’s Society of Friends mounted the podium to remind SWR administrators that they would never forget who destroyed their orchestra. And conductor François-Xavier Roth, who has not renewed his contract beyond next fall, announced that, given the merger, he could not return to Donaueschingen.

Still, as Guthmann acknowledged, the festival has a talented new artistic director in Björn Gottstein, and the orchestra must look forward. Next year in Donaueschingen, the newly formed SWR Symphonieorchester, based in Stuttgart, will perform six world premieres (two less than this year). And Haas, whose Trombone Octet served both as a prelude to the festival and a memorial to Köhler, will return to the instrument—which was played by the late artistic director—for a new concerto. Tradition may carry on.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, GramophoneMusical America Worldwide, and other publications.