Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Wien Modern chez Essl

27/11/2012, Schömer Haus (Klosterneuburg)
Marcel Toledo: Luminous Emptiness (world premiere)
Conductor: Jean-Bernard Matter
Klangforum Wien: Thomas Frey (flute), Bernhard Zachhuber (clarinet), Nenad Markovic (trumpet), Andreas Eberle (trombone), Annette Bik (violin), Benedikt Leitner (cello), Adam Weisman (percussion)

This Friday, Austria’s Nationalfeiertag, marked twenty-five years to the day that Claudio Abbado conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker in Wien Modern’s inaugural concert, and while his programming for that event – Berg, Nono, Ligeti, Boulez and Rihm – displayed a curator’s reverence for the modernist canon which persists to this day (the 2012 edition will close with Quadrivium and Rituel, works whose performance should ideally never have to rely on the pretext of Wien Modern), he also understood that any self-respecting contemporary music festival must to some extent, and for better or worse, reflect the current state of artistic achievement. Wien Modern has never been a huge commissioning festival, with the Schwerpunkt concept traditionally a glorified retrospective for either worthy doyens or younger figures recognized for more expedient reasons, and Abbado’s initial counterbalance now finds itself proving a Viennese rule: do it right (TadW), or let a stopgap solution stand for a generation.

At the time, it didn’t take too much smooth talk to outsource the job to the wealthy Essl family, guaranteeing the commissioning of at least one concert-length work in every festival. That’s Essl as in the composer Karlheinz Essl Jr., whose activities are more likely to be familiar to non-Austrian readers than those of Essl Sr., who is in turn the Austrian household name for introducing the nation’s consumers to DIY and ploughing his bauMax profits into art collecting and, more recently, the Sammlung Essl in Klosterneuburg, one of the few privately maintained museums of its size in the country (situated next to the Schömer Haus, which serves as the Wien Modern venue and bauMax’s corporate HQ). The enduring Wien Modern deal is that Essl Jr., or kHz as he likes to be referred to, guides the commissioning process more or less autonomously.

Without wishing to besmirch the Essls’ philanthropy – any blame is Wien Modern’s for allowing this venture to remain the festival’s major commissioning arm – there have emerged a few of the typical problems one encounters when resource-providing donors exercise influence over artistic processes: the requirement to explore the Schömer Haus’s none too singular acoustic properties – somewhat poetically compared to San Marco – has led to some clunky shoehorning of spatial effects in the past and did so again in this concert; and then there are the patterns in instrumention and spacing which crop up repeatedly, like this –

(If were you there on Saturday night this photo might look familar; it is in fact from the 2004 premiere of Mark Applebaum’s Asylum).

Anyway. On the basis that any Klangforum performance is worth attending for exceptional playing and total commitment to the work at hand, however debatable its virtues, this concert was no disappointment. Marcel Toledo’s Luminous Emptiness, on the other hand, lived up to the less flattering half of its title. Bookended by some reduntant spatial experimentation – heightened breathing and the Schömer Haus’s caged staircase given a good polyphonic battering with tablespoons – the piece itself played out seated in the round below, in ten minute sections which adhered feebly. It was here, more so than in any other Essl commission, that I felt the stipulation of a concert-length work – albeit something not so lengthy as to cause us out-of-towners the inconvenience of missing the 21:10 Vienna-bound S-Bahn – irritatingly counter-productive. The seventy minutes may have passed quickly enough, but then something of musical satsifaction beyond mere bearability – preordained to some measure by purely localized development in and of each segment – seemed withheld by the compulsion to mould self-contained movements into a sprawling totality.

Toledo’s aggresively non-thematic materials waned in inspiration as the evening wore on, save for the derivative Webernian collage of agigated voices coming to rest on half-diminished chords and tritones which formed the work’s first seated section. The looser, more flowing stretch of free composition which followed sounded as such in the most intriguing sense of liberation from stylistic precursors, though missing here was the canonic interplay readable in the full score from my bird’s eye vantage point but lost through conducting oblivious to Haupt- and Nebenstimmen. Only in a handful of exposed brass echoes could one belatedly detect that contrapuntal organization had come to pass. Elsewhere, we were usefully reminded of the importance of calibrating dynamics relative to different instruments, one of the conductor’s most critical duties; here, much shaping and phrasing evident on an individual level was prevented, through poor balance, from assuming the discursive character that even rudimentary organized movement of voices can impart.

Further sections seem almost too tedious to recount: some thankfully brief minimalistic sawing away which the Klangforum members treated with the mindless disinterest it deserved; again – as a reward? – greater independence for individual voices, sometimes overlapping and aligning satisfyingly, notwithstanding the reliance here on cliché, flabbiness, and drift; the obligatory bauMax interlude for abused gong and other everyday objects which took some metal-on-metal pounding; and, most weirdly, the carbonated electronic babble of the Gesang der Jünglinge rendered for solo strings. As the Klangforum ascended the staircase once again, spoons in hand, I was in two minds as to whether this long-winded entity would benefit all that much from being chopped up and having its more laboured parts dispassionately cut out.

More photos from the event after the jump.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Outside the box: Il trittico at the TadW

Paolo Fantin’s set consists of shipping containers which form a suitably humdrum industrial setting for Il tabarro, and in an arresting segue the walls are slowly lifted – while the distraught Giorgetta has her hair cropped in degrading fashion – to reveal a clinical look of tiled walls and sterile fixtures for Suor Angelica. In Gianni Schicchi the containers are fully opened, exposing interiors covered in garish wallpaper, and at the very end the mercenary relatives are herded into a corner of the set to howl with indignation as the metal walls rise around them.

For more, see here. According to the pre-production hype, these cargo containers were to be the backdrop for a pessimistic calling into question of moral values, tinged with graphic brutality and charcoal-black humour. Unsurprisingly, Damiano Michieletto’s production was less Bieito than a one-upping of the recent Richard Jones staging for Covent Garden, complete with a gauntlet laid down in the wallpaper stakes. Still, Michieletto had more to say here than in his recent Salzburg Bohème. Happenstance keeps him in Austria for another new production (L’elisir, opening in Graz next month), and on the strength of this Trittico it seems likely Herr Geyer will have him back at the TadW in the not too distant future. Then there is the advertising and sponsorship revenue waiting to be tapped should Pereira offer a further Salzburg opportunity, what with wholesomeness marked out in the Michieletto aesthetic by puffa vests, Nantucket Reds, Tod’s, and other sundry items from the Peek und Cloppenburg catalogue. Never before has Frugola’s bag lady attire looked so stylish. And poor Rinuccio, like a grade A douchebag in his Dartmouth green chinos; look on his only flaw kindly, he knows not how insufferably preppy he looks.

More photos after the jump.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Salzburg Endgame: nothing on the horizon?

Confirming Alexander Pereira’s fear, expressed in an interview last July, that Salzburg’s operatic commissions might not be ready in time, comes the news (via Intermezzo) that at next year’s festival Birtwistle’s Gawain will take the place of a Kurtág work based on Beckett’s Endgame.

Assuming a Covent Garden import unlikely, a new production of Birtwistle’s 1991 opera is no cause for complaint, quite the contrary. But maybe we can dare to hope that the Endgame commission has been merely delayed, given Kurtág’s decades-long interest in Beckett and stylistic and structural parallels which have received much scholarly attention (no Youtube of op. 30b or 36, alas). Of Pereira’s commissions, this one was by far the most significant.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Wien Modern begins

Tonight’s Eröffnungskonzert at the Theater an der Wien was devoted to Olga Neuwirth, the subject of this year’s composer focus. There will be much more about Neuwirth and Wien Modern on this blog over the next three and a half weeks, and for those in town for the duration the only thing left to recommend is the Generalpass (great value after only five or six events compared against the already affordable ticket prices). For an overview of this year’s highlights, see this post.

Falter’s annual WM special edit
ion is also out: in theory this should be on display at all major venues, but only ever seems available in the hallways either side of the Mozart Saal and is in any case hardly essential reading this year; how a Jelinek interview can be squandered on parlour game inanities defies explanation, while questions put to Neuwirth inexplicably retread matters of public record with the evident belief that she has something to answer for. I translate:

Why was the opera you planned with Elfriede Jelinek rejected [by Salzburg]?
You would have to ask the gentlemen who rejected it. A similar concept realized by two men made it to the operatic stage last year*; in 2002 we were apparently too early. Or two women may not deal with these themes. What should I say in addition? And why I am asked about this again and again? Why should I have to explain myself constantly, and not those who rejected the project? Jelinek and I certainly did not reject it.

Why were your last two operas premiered in Mannheim and Berlin?
Again you must ask the promoters and Intendanten concerned. I don’t decide matters like this. Perhaps Austrian institutions aren’t interested in Austrian composers, or don’t believe in their abilities, I don’t know. [...] Perhaps they [die Herren Kollegen] might take responsibility sometime and speak about problems in the music business, instead of leaving the explanations to me.

Over at Der Standard, facts are rewritten outright: asked whether she feels her work has now been acknowledged, Neuwirth answers ‘recognition also means getting a lectureship or professorship. But I was never good enough apparently’, to which Daniel Ender (himself a Lehrbeauftragter) responds ‘you were considered controversial’. He knows very well the real reason why her two MDW applications were ignored, not to mention by whom (we could call this Der Fall W., after the thwarted Salzburg project).

There are many things worth discussing about Neuwirth’s gender and complicated relationship with Austria; in these respects she overlaps interestingly with Jelinek. So far we are seeing instead the dredging up of old stories which disingenuously emphasize what a difficult character she is, a view increasingly confined to this country in the light of her international recognition and as lazy a dismissal as ‘Jelischreck’ invective. This, too, in what are supposed to be promotional interviews. With friends like Wien Modern, who needs Sinkovicz.

*She means Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. Neuwirth’s proposed opera about sexual abuses committed by Austrian paediatrician Franz Wurst was a Salzburg, Vienna and Paris commission which foundered after Mortier (as Paris director délégué) objected to Jelinek’s libretto, leaving Peter Ruzicka to contrive a dubious cancellation excuse involving handy scapegoat Alberto Vilar, whom, as Neuwirth noted, was never known for his support of contemporary opera. The one character to show Jelinek and Neuwirth any respect throughout this process was Ioan Holender, if mainly for reasons of point scoring.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Wiener Symphoniker presents... ‘Wiener Symphoniker’

This time last year Fabio Luisi was bidding farewell to the Wiener Symphoniker at an Abschiedssoirée where he acknowledged the orchestra’s need for new leadership. Now he’s back, launching an in-house label with a studio recording of Mahler 1 (just released on CD and LP) and a live Mitschnitt of 6 presumably taken from these concerts (out next February). Also appearing will be archive recordings, beginning with a Celibidache Brahms 1 which should make for an interesting Munich comparison. My one tip, which is not to say it will happen, would be the Symphoniker’s Mozart back catalogue from the 1950s and early 60s, given a refinement under Krips, Böhm and Karajan distinct from – some would say superior to – the Staatsoper’s more famous so-called Wiener Mozart-Stil from the same period.

The orchestra plans to issue two to four releases a year, though there is no word yet as to what direction the label will take once Chefdirigent-designate Philippe Jordan is in charge; perhaps shrewdly, he will announce his own plans only when Luisi is out of the picture. The one open secret about the planning, and apparent enough from the Fabio-centric strategy and corner-cutting elsewhere – no frills branding, cover design lifted from the orchestra’s website etc. – was the banking on the cachet of a further Met promotion to shift these Mahler discs (according to that proven speculative marketing model, i migliori piani posati di topi e maestri). This situation is not without irony: the Symphoniker is releasing these two symphonies on the back of a Mahler cycle last season which Luisi was far more enthusiastic about than both Thomas Angyan and much of the orchestra, and his short-notice cancellation of three of the most challenging works (2, 3 and 7, with 3 and 7 turning out disastrously) to step in at the Met created much tension at the time.  

Image credit: Martina Draper

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Kammeroper/Rossini livestream on Sunday

The Kammeroper reopens this weekend under its new Theater an der Wien management with a new production of farcical Einakter La cambiale di matromonio, and in a Viennese first the performance will be streamed for free on the interwebs at 19:30 CET (link here). I was at the Generalprobe this evening and can report that things zipped along spiritedly with Rossini singing and playing uncommonly idiomatic for Vienna. Notwithstanding what happened, it’s good to see the Kammeroper up and running again with an identity – lively productions, young talent – true to the Gabors’ vision for the house.

Image credit: Armin Bardel

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Guten Morgen! Bitte? Daaanke!

The father of the nation seriousness with which Austrian president Heinz Fischer takes his ceremonial duties has long been fodder for comic duo Stermann and Grissemann, but there can’t be many heads of state as supportive of contemporary music as he is. The president, who is a Klangforum regular, went to Schwaz last month to open the Klangspuren festival, and tonight hosts a Hofburg concert and reception to mark 25 years of Wien Modern. Now imagine Prince Philip doing the same. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

RSO Wien contract extension for Meister ‘more than likely’

This is according to the Kurier in an otherwise uninteresting interview with the RSO Wien’s chief conductor. Meister is easily the best thing to happen to the Viennese music scene in the last two years and it’s about time this announcement was made officially, though one can’t blame the RSO for waiting to see if he would succeed Simone Young (Hamburg went of course instead to Kent Nagano). His current contract comes to an end in 2014.

Elsewhere in the interview he seems confident that the future of the orchestra is secure now after a rocky couple of years when the ORF threatened to cut it loose. Poor Bertrand de Billy gets scant recognition for helping to save the orchestra though. Asked about his future plans for the RSO, Meister replies ‘my goal would be some day to hand the orchestra over to my successor in a better state than I found it’. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

100 years of Pierrot Lunaire

To mark the centenary of the work’s Berlin premiere, Berlin comes to Vienna tomorrow night for a HIP Pierrot with members of the Philharmoniker and German actress Barbara Sukowa in the Albertine Zehme role. The Klangforum subscriber base could normally be relied on to sell out the Mozart Saal for something like this, but the prospect of more heightened speech than muted song appears to have kept folks away and the number of unsold seats is an embarrassment. I am not familiar with the 1988 Sukowa recording and have no idea what to expect, but the event at least promises some pocket-friendly Schoenberg fun after work: tickets are available in all price categories – Cat. 6 is best avoided, Cat. 5 Balkon centre is a bargain for the sight and sound – and include free entry to the new Pierrot exhibition at the Schoenberg Center

Monday, 15 October 2012

Apocalypse NOW

As in Neue Oper Wien. Here is what their production of Le grand macabre promised:
Much is made in the programme booklet of the cataclysmic events forecast, according to the Mayan calendar, for 21 December of this year, in an essay which cites the Dresden Codex, the 2009 disaster film 2012, and an academic debunking of the date as a cyclical change of calendar.
And delivered:
Nothing however is written about the handcar on which Nekrotzar appears, or the centre-stage train tracks which unmistakably reference one of the most iconic images of the Holocaust, with the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate of death recast as a rainbow.
For more on how this (kind of) worked, click through to Bachtrack. More images after the jump.

Saturday, 13 October 2012


A few months ago Dominique Meyer confirmed that Otto Schenk, 82 years young, is to get a Wiener Staatsoper swansong. According to Österreich the new production will be The Cunning Little Vixen, to premiere in 2014-15. December 2014 would be my guess, if FWM’s previous comments about Janáček as an antidote to the ‘oberflächliche Vorweihnachtszeit’ are anything to go by.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Bist Du nur leiwand oder schon Mailath, Pokorny?

This is mainly for the Wienerinnen and Wiener among my readers. Kulturstadtrat Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, who after eleven years in the job is still pursuing his duties, bless him, with Josephine zeal and weltfremd naïveté, is no stranger to indignity: if it’s not being asked ‘Andreas who?’ by Vienna’s expat community, then it’s some pretty merciless ‘tub of lard’ gags zinged at his empty chair after he’d promised to be (a)dabei at the sirene Operntheater’s recent fringe celebration. And now this, from Stephan ‘Graf Hadik’ Wildner and Thomas Rabitsch:

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Fresh blood at the Kammeroper

On Monday the Kammeroper reopened under its new Theater an der Wien management, with an aria concert to introduce the Junges Ensemble that will provide casting for the house over the next three seasons. I wasn’t able to go, but intrepid reader Snapdragon was there to report on the event in a guest post which follows the jump.

Update: nach dem Jump Break gibt es diese Rezension auch auf Deutsch.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


A line-up of Rico Gulda, Markus Hinterhäuser, Barbara Rett, Thomas Quasthoff, and Quasthoff’s agent Helga Machreich-Unterzaucher seemed a reasonable enough punt for a panel discussion on classical music promotion held as part of the Konzerthaus’s Tag der offenen Tür on Sunday, if mainly for the guarantee of Hinterhäuser keeping the discussion substantive and the possibility he would let slip some Wiener Festwochen 2014 news. As it turned out he didn’t show for reasons not given and there was instead much running out the clock with nichtssagend hokum and audience condescension.

Recounting some anecdote I don’t remember, Quasthoff remarked how lightly one can attract a reputation as a böser Lehrer, though we were left in little doubt he is a fine teacher who sees his chief duty as nurturing artistry. He might have removed doubt altogether by saying more about pedagogical matters, but he was rather more concerned with telling us how righteously blunt he is to those who have no hope of a career or are pursuing one for the wrong reasons, with limelight-hogging rhetoric unfortunately ironic under the circumstances. Were there to be a classical version of Deutschland sucht den Superstar he’d be a shoo-in for the Dieter Bohlen role, and yet as a public speaker it is clear he has more to offer than playing to the gallery with an opinionated act that in German can sound needlessly mean and catty.

I guess Bobby McFerrin gets some kind of pass, because other commercial classical offers he’s received over the years met with proudly elitist dismissal: he looks down on stadium concerts and responded to an agency which proposed an appearance with Andrea Bocelli that ‘one Behinderte on stage at a time is enough’, and to the notion of singing with Montserrat Caballé, ‘I’d be dwarfed’. This prompted Barbara Rett, the ORF’s Kulturtussi, to chip in with some incoherent defence of commercial entertainment, along with the bizarre admission that she enjoys sitting in front of her computer at night and crying at Paul Potts, which, with so much egregiously mispronounced Denglisch being bandied around, I initially caught as Pol Pot. Good, if alarming, to know anyway that Austria’s most prominent televised face of culture is so easily manipulated by Simon Cowell.

Helga Machreich-Unterzaucher managed to get a couple of words in edgeways, enough to sense at least that she is a conscientious agent who knows how to handle young artists responsibly. If you want time carving out for your daughter’s Matura (Bernarda Fink) then she’s got things like that and birthdays covered. (Apologies for the banalities, it’s all I have to work with). Indeed, her thoughtful professionalism moved Rett to comment at length about agents she’s found lacking by contrast: mentioning no names and yet blabbing enough details to identify her target as Judith Neuhoff, who represents Netrebko and works as Barenboim’s assistant, she whinged about an email, sent three times, which kept getting the response ‘but what you mean?’ (We weren’t told about the content of the email and Neuhoff’s bewilderment is probably to be sympathized with). Rounding off the evening was a load of Wienschleimen about our shining city on a hill best left to the Staatsoper and Musikverein.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Europe through the Klangforum’s cloudy eyes

The Klangforum’s European series started at the Konzerthaus last week and the playing was simply outstanding, as it always is. But the programme notes and press materials which I had hoped would expand on the nominally anti-globalist concept weren’t forthcoming, leaving only ill-thought-out and uncomfortably imprecise statements about the big problematic beast that is nationalism. I’ve turned on this in my review since thematicization this rich in ideas ought to be discussed properly, and also because in Austria we’ve forfeited the right to talk about this subject in ambiguous, abstract language.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Born to higher things, here I droop my wings

On the news that Dominique Meyer has ruled out a candidacy for director of the Paris Opera, Der Standard’s comments section bears this lone laconic remark:

Culture wars

Noises about Klaus Bachler’s Kurier interview rumbled their way through all of last week and if I had a euro for every time I’ve heard ‘in der Ära Bachler war ich oft in der Volksoper’ I would have been eating Tafelspitz at Plachutta on Saturday night. The Staatsoper’s press office has done what it does best, namely nothing, which has been interpreted as stony silence. The city’s theatres have more of a leg to stand on and so one of those typically Viennese bun fights has played out in the press over the last few days: Herbert Föttinger of the Theater in der Josefstadt agrees with much of what Bachler claims about the ‘böse Wien’ but otherwise makes the case for his house’s progressive credentials (new plays by Daniel Kehlmann and Peter Turrini), while the Burgtheater’s Matthias ‘I never talk about colleagues in the media’ Hartmann has gone for the fightback option of trashing Bachler’s Burgtheater tenure. On hearing nothing about the Burgtheater in Germany: ‘when Bachler was in Vienna one heard nothing about him, and saw even less, as in his last three years at the Burgtheater he was mostly in Munich’. There was also this put-down, which wants so desperately hard to be withering: ‘when I was once in the hospital for my collarbone, the doctor asked me what I was doing next at the Burgtheater. I replied that I’d not yet taken over. Ah, she said, so Peymann is still there?’

Tuesday, 2 October 2012


With the pace picking up at the Musikverein and Konzerthaus, not to mention Wien Modern, October is the month when the Viennese season hits its stride. Wien Modern is where the bulk of the month’s contemporary interest lies and I won’t relist events here (check out this post), but the Klangforum’s new Europa Global series falls outside of that (Spain was last night and Austria is on the 30th) and there are busy autumn programmes to be found at the echoraum, Alte Schmiede, St. Ruprecht, and ÖGZM (Orgelherbst). At the Konzerthaus, contemporary subscription series beginning this month include Mario Formenti’s Nouvelles Aventures (with the ensemble recherche on the 10th), PHACE in residence (Varèse, Xenakis and Lindberg on the 17th), and Im Loth (Lorenz Raab on the 22nd). On the 12th PHACE’s pizza delivery concept comes to Wien with sixteen 20 minute house calls which, self-defeatingly, have been bookable so far only to those on certain email lists; opening on the 9th, ZOON Musiktheater has a new show, Der Rorschach Test, on at the Theater Nestroyhof Hamakom.