By Rebecca Schmid
LUCERNE — What will it take for women to prove themselves on the podium? Until recently, the conducting profession was a male bastion, and the classical music world — particularly in Western Europe — is still scrambling to catch up. The 2016 Lucerne Festival featured a Special Event Day on Aug. 21 during which five women led personally curated programs. What on paper seemed like a forced attempt to bolster female artists turned out to be an opportunity for reflecting on how to shape a field weighed down by its own conservatism.
Konstantia Gourzi — a composer and conductor in the model of Pierre Boulez, Matthias Pintscher, and other leading male figures — led the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in a program pairing a commissioned work with music by composers who have influenced her art. Barely able to contain her excitement as she moderated from the stage, Gourzi explained to the audience both the technical aspects of the repertoire and her personal connection to it. Her own Ny-él, Two Angels in the White Garden, based on a sculpture by the Berlin-based Alexander Polzin, strikes a compelling balance between the abstract and the pictorial.
This is particularly true in the second movement, “Exodus,” with windy textures evoking an open terrain onto which the angels are expelled before trombone glissandi usher in a folkloric melody. Gourzi seemed to paint with her right hand as she brought the final note to a fade. If the pounding percussion of the following “Longing” creates a ritualistic quality that does little to suggest the movement’s title, the concluding “White Garden” opens into heavenly panoramas where the angels’ yearning for peace is fulfilled.
Dance-like melodies segued nicely into Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, with its arrangement of Romanian folk tunes. In the second movement, an Allegro vivace that calls to mind a town fair, Gourzi drew forth lively rhythms without abandoning the clean, untheatrical gestures that were her baseline throughout the concert. As at every iteration of the Lucerne Festival, the young players of the Academy impressed with their technical prowess and sensitive musicianship.
The microtonal textures of Per Nørgård’s Voyage into the Golden Screen emerged with calm precision, like star dust gathering far out in the cosmos. Before launching into the work, Gourzi explained that both here and in Xenakis’ Le Sacrifice, which opened the program, the composers were searching for the golden mean (an algebraic ratio), albeit in completely different ways. In another parallel, the glissandi and archaic percussion of Xenakis’ score recalled Gourzi’s own Ny-él, supporting the Greek native’s observation that she intuitively understands his music.
As Gourzi, 54, spoke of the challenges she faced as a conservatory graduate during a panel conversation later that afternoon, one could only concur that her knack for programming and conducting skills had been underappreciated for too many years. By contrast, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, 30, who has just begun her tenure as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, was hard pressed to recall any discrimination. In a program with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe pairing Raminta Šerkšnytė’s De profundis with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Lithuanian conductor combined poise with an air of no nonsense.
Her lithe movements elicited precise rhythms in De profundis, which combines minimalist textures, thick Romantic lines, and shivering figures that spread in almost fugal fashion until it is clear they can only follow their own will. The persistent, combustible qualities of the approximately 13-minute work made for a nice combination with Beethoven. The symphony’s final pastoral song was elegant and playful but never overly sentimental.
The Estonian conductor Anu Tali, also appearing with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, similarly struck a straightforward tone while maintaining driving energy. In Eduard Tubin’s Estonian Dance Suite, the inner slow movement brought forth gently swelling but playful phrases. She and the pianist Yulianna Avdeeva communicated with understated gestures in Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, yielding a technically polished, emotionally even performance in which every rubato seemed as natural as the inflection of a spoken phrase.
The young Australian-Swiss conductor Elena Schwarz presented a concert of works by Olga Neuwirth, the 48-year-old Austrian who is this summer’s composer-in-residence. The atmospheric, jazz-infused songs of American composer and bandleader Maria Schneider concluded what was a pleasantly exhausting day, the young soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon displaying a crystalline tone while Schneider led the Academy Orchestra with generous but never ostentatious gestures. Not unlike Gourzi, Schneider created a spirit of intimacy as she moderated from the microphone.
It was one of the program’s strong points that artists of so many different leanings, generations, and cultures were presented side by side in an attempt to afford them the status they deserve.
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.