By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN –The annual festival Ultraschall Berlin, co-presented by the local radio stations Deutschlandradio Kultur and Kulturradio RBB, sets out to offer a glimpse into the many developments that shape contemporary music. While this year’s iteration packed fifteen world premieres into five days, showcasing a range of young Berlin-based composers alongside more established names, the event is above all committed to modern and contemporary repertoire that has already proven its staying power.
The final concert at the Haus des Rundfunks on Jan.24, featuring the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester under Franck Ollu, brought together three composers who, despite their aesthetic differences, seemed to be on a similar spiritual search. The German composer Peter Ruzicka, perhaps best known as an intendant of the Salzburg Festival, described his new orchestral work FLUCHT. Sechs Passagen as a kind of preview to his forthcoming opera based on the life and work of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who was forced to flee Nazi Germany and eventually took his own life. “I have a particular affinity for the wounds of the 20th century,” Ruzicka told festival director Andreas Göbel in conversation.
One of his three previous operas, Celan, which had its premiere in 2001, takes on another important German-speaking Jewish figure, the poet Paul Celan. Ruzicka not only explores the life and work of his subjects, but also allows the music to reflect upon itself aesthetically. Throughout his canon, the language of Mahler plays a self-consciously prominent role, and FLUCHT is no different. A chorale of trombones over deep strings evokes a clear sense of nostalgia. The work’s divided strings create a sound at once robust and brimming with existential angst. From the deadly snare that interrupts a brass solo to the whispering strings that end the work, it was impossible to miss Ruzicka’s historical references.
And yet, Ruzicka’s self-proclaimed goal of portraying Benjamin’s “restless travels” hardly shakes the listener to the core. Mahlerisms are integrated into the work’s macro-structure too cleanly to approach the horror and emptiness one experiences listening to the Ninth or Tenth symphonies. Ruzicka assumes a rather philosophical stance in which his own intellectual confrontation with the past surfaces more strongly than the suffering of Benjamin, in effect brushing the “wounds of the twentieth century” proverbially under the carpet.
Pairing that work with the Australian composer Liza Lim’s Pearl, Ochre, Hair String only underscored this aesthetic distance. A 2009 work, Pearl is one of several in which Lim sets out to explore the rituals and performance sensibility of Aboriginal peoples. Lim goes as far as to wrap the hair of a cello bow around its wooden stick to create gruff, primitive sounds. The solo cello that opens the piece produces its share of whining overtones, and the following entrance of percussion and brass resembles a kind of distorted procession.
Perhaps evoking the precarious situation for Aboriginal tribes, the work’s colliding textures create an unstable sound world that threatens to unravel at any time. After the woodwinds finally enter as a grounding force, the strings race forward and nearly skid off the sonic surface. The glassy textures that close the work offer no emotional consolation. At the end, Lim greeted applause with a satisfied smile, clearly acknowledging the fine collaboration guided by Ollu’s clear, economic gestures.
Rounding out the program was the German composer Robert HP Platz’s Blau, See, which, like the Ruzicka, includes Mahleresque gestures such as a deadly bass drum that hunts down the solo oboist (François Leleux). The central dialogue, however, takes place between oboe and English horn, a chamber interaction that Platz has employed in a sister orchestral work bearing the title Blau, See I. As the English horn sang down from a balcony above the stage, the instrument resembled a woman being courted with dispassionate words. Eventually a clarinet enters with a hushed, seductive tone, setting off a web of swarming counterpoint.
Later in the work, when the oboe has escaped the bass drum to sing a plaintive melody, the orchestra evokes a vast landscape, surging and retreating like an ocean alongside a deserted beach. For all its abstract grandeur, Platz’s work has its share of pictorial moments, and it was hard to resist Leleux’s performance. The oboist has the rare ability to draw warmth and subtle dynamics from an instrument better known for its nasal timbre. A solo encore written by Platz specifically for this work showed off Leleux’s virtuosic lyricism and seemingly endless breath support as the melody evolved from neo-Bachisms to gregarious chatter.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.