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.

Essl Sr.

Essl Jr.

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