Ultraschall Fest Gives Posthumous Hirsch Premiere

The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin at the Ultraschall Festival. (Photos: Ultraschall Berlin / Simon Detel)

BERLIN – From the dream of a giant cello, to the recreation of Sufi ritual, to a tightly coiled abstract narrative: The Ultraschall Festival closed at the Broadcasting Hall of Kulturradio rbb here on Jan. 20 with composers who could not have more different approaches to writing for orchestra.

The orchestra performed with ‘focus and dramatic conviction’ under Simone Young.

The contemporary music festival, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary, focuses less on world premieres than granting recently commissioned works another airing (concerts are also broadcast on Deutschlandfunk Kultur and rbb). The well-kept secret on this program with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Simone Young turned out to be Michael Hirsch’sirgendwie ein Art Erzählung…(“almost a kind of story”), which received its posthumous first performance.

As both composer and performer, the Berlin-based Hirsch, who died at 58 in 2017, was interested in the inherently dramatic potential of instrumental music. He wrote this 15-minute orchestral piece without a commission in 2011 but later ranked it among his favorite works. …irgendwie ein Art Erzählung… breaks down into 24 episodes but was also conceived as a kind of stream of consciousness, overlapping chattering instruments into, at times, a collage-like structure. Hirsch’s shifts between chamber vignettes and full orchestra call Mahler to mind, but the music also has shades of surrealism.

Michael Hirsch (Edition Juliane Klein / hirschmichael.de)

The episodes range from a quartet for tuned percussion to a lengthy stand-off in which bass clarinet, piano, celeste, strings, and more seem to fight to make their statements audible. The effect may appear chaotic, but as musicologist Ariane Jessulat explained in an interview on the podium, Hirsch always planned his ideas carefully, creating “a kind of counterpoint.” Most striking among the score’s sonorities is the use of an accordion that opens the piece with a faint, ethereal cluster chord.

Israeli composer and Harvard professor Chaya Czernowin is known for her radical but empirical explorations of sound. In Guardian, first heard at the Donaueschingen Festival and “Rainy Days” at the Philharmone Luxembourg in 2017, she re-imagines concerto form as a situation in which “the cello is dreaming the orchestra and vice versa.” On another level, the highly complex, nuanced score conceived for cellist Séverine Ballon emerges as an exploration of the relationship of sound to silence.

Her sound now creaking, now submerged in the orchestra, the soloist hesitantly asserts herself while also breaking out into two wild solos. Amplification allows the instrument to carry over with the subtlest of sonorities. The opening measures, in which the soloist is instructed to play with “a lot of air but some pitch,” evokes rustling paper. When the cello first emerges full-throated, the strings can only wilt in response.

Composer Chaya Czernowin, from left, cellist Séverine Ballou and Young.

Ballon’s instrument seemed to know no bounds as it shivered, rippled, and trickled. The orchestra at times existed merely to make the air vibrate, but also became a laboratory of sound, from swarms of bow tapping to metallic glissandi. The effect can be nightmarish, the instruments’ raw timbres creating a landscape in which the cello – or the listener – is exposed to the elements, bare and undefended. The concerto leans more toward the conceptual than the sensory, however, distorting form to the extent that the listener may lose touch with any sense of narrative direction.

Samir Odeh-Tamimi’s Rituale, by contrast, evokes the first-hand experience of Sufi rites in Israel’s Palestinian community. First heard at the Munich Musica Viva Festival in 2009, the work slowly pushes the orchestra toward a wild celebration, transforming western instruments into a mouthpiece for primitive sounds.

Young with composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi after his ‘Rituale’ was played.

Sustained, blaring brass at the outset create a trance-inducing lull, while snapping low strings and shrieking high winds imply a sense of existential threat. It is the percussion that calls the shots, however, sending the high strings skittering away until growling low brass begin to repeat its rhythm. Festive melismas enter in the middle voices, building to a rousing climax.

The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin performed with focus and dramatic conviction under Young, and the audience of Ultraschall lavished undivided attention, then enthusiastic applause on each work. The selection of orchestral music may never break into the mainstream, but it gives voice to highly individual composers.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.