Last year’s Wien Modern had its Sternstunden – Cerha’s complete Spiegel, rehearsed exhaustively on a 9am-9pm schedule by Cornelius Meister and the RSO Wien – but lost focus around a week in and ultimately suffered the ignominy of being a far less interesting festival than an event with this length, funding and prestige should be. Possible reasons were discussed at the time in one of the traditional Café Heumarkt panel discussions titled ‘Wie modern ist Wien Modern?’, which concluded that the festival is modern in the sense of modernist but not particularly contemporary. This is A Good Thing according to Lothar Knessl – the only Wien Modern co-founder to still involve himself, and who at 86 shows no signs of quitting – because the problem for composers looking to establish a profile is getting repeat performances of their works, not premieres. The logic of thoughtful consideration given to a body of work rather than continually chasing after the thrill of the new is understandable enough, as is the argument that the pressure to be compositionally prolific – akin to the ‘publish or perish’ maxim drilled into untenured US academics – shuts out slow burners and late bloomers, but in practice this is a weak excuse for programming lots of music by composers who have been ubiquitous for years and are, more importantly, Knessl’s favourites (only around a third of whom, incidentally, are still alive). Now if you are under 35 the only prospect of getting your work performed at Wien Modern is at a fringe event like the three Alte Schmiede dates, but that I haven’t been able to get a seat at these concerts up to an hour before the scheduled start is as clear an indication as any that the festival’s public wants to hear more from younger composers yet to make a name for themselves.
A reduction in scale is another thing to puzzle over, what with a 5% subsidy increase and no Vienna Philharmonic on the programme this year (saving a handy quarter of a million), and the festival has, it seems, given up on ambitious operatic projects, which in an Olga Neuwirth year is a enormous missed opportunity. The Neuwirth composer focus is at least more focused than the Cerha Schwerpunkt last year, and the two female conductors involved is a nice touch. Finally, one bit of sad news is that the opening concert will be overshadowed by the premiere of a Penderecki double concerto over at the Musikverein; I and doubtless many others would gladly go to both concerts and the decision to ditch Wien Modern for a house which traditionally programmes as little new music as it can get away with was not made at all lightly. At best this is thoughtless, though chances are good it is petty; the BRSO after all is playing a different programme the previous night that wouldn’t clash so obviously. The Wien Modern concert is at least almost fully sold out, even if Penderecki followed by a tactical Eroica – Angyan has pill-sweetening down to a fine art – guarantees that not much will be written about it.
So now for what’s on: