Friday, May 30, 2008

Birthday in Vienna

A birthday to remember, celebrated in Vienna! Beginning with being awoken by Christine, Yvonne's host mother, white and orange roses, a tiny little cake, and a lovely morning rendition of Happy Birthday sung by Christine herself. Then, off to solve the problem of where I sleep, as the apartment where I'm staying is in an old building and has disturbing presences at night. But it's great to work there during the day, light and roomy and quiet, full of the most amazing works of art.

The highlight of today was hearing the choir at the Russian Orthodox Church, part of the 'Lange Nacht der Kirchen.' Over 550 churches throughout Austria remain open, many until the following morning, with musical programs, discussions, some celebrate Mass, others rock into the next day with djs. Tomorrow I will travel to Graz with Christine, to visit some friends...shaping up to be a perfect spring weekend in Austria.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Alert---Turtle in the Flakturm!

An innocent excursion to purchase an adapter at the local store for all things Mac yesterday morning led to several unanticipated discoveries: flakturms, turtles, snakes, amphibians, birds, marmots; then ground-zero for chess; then a gratis massage (just what one needs after contemplating a book touting the merits of the Caro-Kann). My desire to escape the heat, after visiting the Mac store, compelled me to climb aboard the first bus I spotted going in the general direction of the city center. As it trundled down the cobblestone streets, I spotted the great dinosaur-like outlines (actually from some perspectives it looked like a flattened Mickey Mouse head), looming ahead. Jumping off the bus, I headed for:

The ‘Haus der Meers,’ a zoo for aquatic, avian, and reptilian critters housed in a former flakturm, beckoned with its soaring greenhouse façade climbing up one side of this monstrosity, and an actual climbing wall for climbers on the other. A number of former ‘bunkers’ were built from 1942-1944 throughout Austria and Germany (a total of 16 flakturms were built in Vienna, Berlin, and Hamburg). Their history is documented on 22 wall charts occupying three floors. What should be done with them has been a controversial topic and concern for decades. The Haus der Meers must be exemplary in its transformation of one of these mega-structures. The pièce de résistance was the top floor, flung open to the sky and offering a splendid panoramic view of all Vienna.

The rest of the afternoon was spent investigating the treasures of the chess shop on the next block, and indulging in a massage (gratis!) performed with heated jade roller machines from Korea.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fake Beaches, Brahms in Austria, Penderecki

Last week I saw Jacob Lenz, an opera by Wolfgang Rihm. This photo of the cast was taken at curtain call. I’m still processing the opera and the book (Lenz, by Georg Büchner), a short but intense read.

After working inside today, I forfeited my last chance to see Lohengrin, opting instead for a long early evening walk by the Danube Canal accompanied by a luscious pastel sunset. Vienna must offer more benches, chairs, lounges, stairs, and fountains---wide expanses of grass, too---to sit on or near than any other city. The river was lined on both sides with informal and inviting pubs, clubs, many nestled into fake beaches, with lounging chairs sinking into the sand, and music often provided by a dj. One pub/club/hangout, a kind of immense houseboat, sported a pool overlooking the river.

Yesterday, part of the afternoon was happily spent hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform Krzysztof Penderecki’s Adagio – Fourth Symphony for Large Orchestra, followed by Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Johannes Brahms. Penderecki’s symphony began in such a mild-mannered, gently lyrical way that I had to check the program to be sure that I was at the right concert. It evolved quickly, however, into the dissonant, clustered string sonorities indicative of his many of his other works. He requested that three additional trumpets be placed in the hall. In the Musikverein, the players stood in the balcony above and behind the orchestra, dramatically enhancing the antiphonal passages with the seated trumpets below. Lorin Maazel conducted the Paris premiere in 1989 with the National Orchestra of France, and was the conductor in this concert as well. The luminous strings in the Brahms were transcendent, even when they were only playing pizzicato. He wrote the symphony quickly, in one summer, while living in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, a town in southern Austria. Also known as the ‘Nature Symphony’ of Brahms, he invoked the beauty of the region, “the bright blue sky, trickling springs, sunshine and cool, green shade”---a comment attributed to Theodor Billroth, surgeon and friend of the composer, after playing through a piano reduction for four hands with Brahms.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Christine's Classy Celebration

Gathering friends going back to her childhood, up to the most recent addition (that would be me), my dear friend Christine Schranz (second from left, surrounded by three of her long-time pals) celebrated her birthday tonight with a dinner at the Palmenhaus. Our daughters are in Croatia on a school trip, and that meant a late and laughter-filled evening, topics ranging from hauntings to bikini waxes to the film, 'Caramel.' And that's not all...but on to a brief description of the beautiful Jugenstil greenhouse. Overlooking the Burggarten, the greenhouse was built in 1901 by architect Friedrich Ohman, replacing the earlier one that dated back to 1822. The restaurant is incorporated into the building, with 15-metre high ceilings, conservatory style, festooned with a variety of dramatic plants. At one end of the building is a tropical butterfly house with a film in one room depicting butterflies ghoulishly siphoning their 'nectar' from the bodies of dead birds...and venturing into beehives, thirsting for honey, only to be swiftly dispatched to butterfly heaven by swarms of vigilant bees. Graphic closeups of a praying mantis feasting on one of the Schmetterlingen were sufficiently disturbing to give anyone nightmares. A butterfly documentary...gruesome, macabre, yet fascinating. Only in Vienna.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Universe, Delivering

Warning bells rang, doors finally closed. Thwarted again outside the Musikverein, in my last-minute scheme to find a person with an extra ticket for sale to the evening of German lieder sung by mezzo soprano Anne Sophie von Otter in Brahms Hall. Time for an adventure! I spied a few tents across the street, set up in front of the trees leading up to St. Peter's Church. (Brahms himself---his enormous Denkmal, otherwise known as a statue---was facing away from the street festivities, and toward the Musikverein.) Obviously a festival of some sort, with a couple of guys singing and prancing on a small stage (above, right). Why not join them? Walking over, I soon landed in the arms of Su (above left), a Thai masseuse who lavished fifteen minutes of intense Thai massage on my back and shoulders with heated herbal packs. Utter bliss...after missing Erin, my incredible LA masseuse, a little more each day for these past two months. The festival was everything Thai---delicious food (fish balls on a stick, a great street food treat), cheap jewelry, incense, a few dozen smiling people, and massage! After the last fish ball disappeared, I saw that intermission was underway over at the Musikverein, and managed to take in the latter half of von Otter's concert in a pleasantly altered state. All in all, a lovely way to spend a couple of hours on a Thursday evening, just a five-minute walk away from my apartment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shakespeare; Gesprächskonzert; Klavierabend

From left to right: Wolfram Wagner, Martha Schwediauer, Paul Hertel, Thomas Hlawatsch, Ferdinand Weiss, and Nancy Van de Vate (some of the composers performed by pianist Thomas Hlawatsch; see my comments below, last paragraph)

Widely considered to be the greatest medieval romance, the story of Chaucer’s 14th century poem, Troilus and Criseyde, eventually found a new home in another medium---a play by Shakespeare. On Saturday night I took in a performance in German, at the Theater an der Wien. The stylish production, with seemingly extraneous material mixed in with Shakespeare’s script, veered from kitsch and camp to passion and tragedy. Imagine the Wooster Group collaborating with Pina Bausch. The dozens of enamel washbasins strewn across the stage were kicked, thrown, worn as hats, used as potties, held water and fake blood. The basins also formed pathways for the actors to run, slide, stomp, and generally propel their way around the stage. The ‘boos’ from the conservative contingent of the Viennese theater-going public, at the close of the production, were instantly drowned out by shouts of ‘Bravo’ from all quarters, for the stunning athletic performances of the actors and the brilliant direction. Several times during the performance, I found myself expecting song to emerge from the mouths of the actors, not speech. In fact, live music was woven throughout the play, a singer with an acoustic guitar, scatting scruffy German in a bizarre blues style that was perfect for this production. (Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was the subject of Criseyde, an opera by Alice Shields, composer, and Nancy Dean, librettist. Recently performed twice in New York, it was one of the works featured on the New York City Opera VOX series, and takes a feminist approach to Criseyde. Chaucer’s treatment of Criseyde was far more favorable than either Shakespeare’s or William Walton, composer of the only other opera based on the story.)

My attempt to score a ticket to the Sunday morning concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic was ultimately unsuccessful (I turned down two that were available, too costly; they were quickly snatched up by others) but it led to something that was, for me, just as rewarding if not moreso. As I stood on the steps of the Musikverein, heart sinking lower and lower as the throngs poured through the doors and not even a standing room ticket to be had, I got lucky. Someone rushed outside, moments before the VP concert began, to sell her steeply discounted ticket (she had double-booked) to Stefan Mickisch’s final performance of the cycle “Alles Wagner!”, at the Wiener Konzerthaus several blocks away. Evidently, she preferred Mozart and Barenboim. So off I went to experience my first Gesprächskonzert, featuring Tannhäuser.

To begin to grasp the concept of this genre, think of Victor Borges minus the slapstick, but keep the lightness and witty asides, and add ferocious piano skills coupled with a penetrating intellect, fearlessly shared with the audience. In fact, Mickisch ventured into technical territory, with descriptions for Neapolitan sixth chords and the like, without losing a single audience member from the packed house. While performing excerpts from Tannhäuser, he effortlessly evoked dozens of musical influences and outright borrowings, from Bach and Mozart, to Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and many others. Themes and leitmotifs shared with other Wagner operas, such as Parsifal, were also depicted with utter clarity and, at times, hilarity. Mickisch gives numerous concerts such as this throughout Europe, and is in residence at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth every summer. If you're curious, order one (or more) of a wide selection of his recordings (but you'll likely need to understand German for the recordings with his commentary).

Last night, a few blocks from where I live, the Austrian Society for Contemporary Music (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Zeitgenössische Musik, otherwise known as ÖGZM) presented an evening of piano music (Klavierabend---a lovely compound word), in cooperation with CCW (CreativesCentrumWien) and INÖK (Interessengemeinschaft Niederösterreichischer Komponisten, or Community of Lower Austrian Composers). Thomas Hlawatsch, the pianist and also one of the composers, played a demanding program with passion and finesse. He might be described as a ‘composer’s performer’ (as in a ‘writer’s writer). His meticulous interpretations extended beyond contemporary composers, as he ended the program with Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major. The program featured composers who lived, or have lived, in Austria, and included works by two American women---Von weit, and Mein blaues Klavier, by Martha Schwediauer, and three pieces from the inventive and resourceful Twelve Pieces for Piano on One to Twelve Notes, by Nancy Van de Vate. The setting was an intimate, art-filled space in the ‘House of Composers’ on Ungargasse, near the university. The engaging moderator, Mag. Prof. Werner Hackl (president of the ÖGZM), drew the composers into brief discussions of their works, adding his own witty commentary.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Korngold's Masterpiece / Singing Vacuum Cleaner

Hans Tschiritsch, with his Zwitscheridu (hybrid cello / dijeridu; two more of his instruments are in the background), and Robert Rønnes, bassoon, performing part of a new work by Werner Schulze

In the course of one weekend: an opera, a sneak preview of a new work based on overtones, a play, and a 'Gesprächskonzert.' I’ll write about the latter two tomorrow, but to begin with, a few words about the Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his greatest work, Die tote Stadt, produced at the Wiener Staatsoper. Korngold was a ‘wunderkind’---Mahler pronounced him a genius, and the critic Eduard Hanslick, ‘a little Mozart.’ He impressed Puccini and Richard Strauss as well. His father, the leading music critic Julius Korngold, stepped in to complete the opera’s libretto after the first librettist jumped ship. (Even Korngold suffered through librettist horrors.) Composed when he was only 23, Die tote Stadt tells the story of a Paul’s intense grief for the young Marie, his dead wife; his attraction to Marietta, a woman who resembles her; and his nightmare, where he is driven to strangle Marietta after she ceaselessly mocks the dead Marie. The origin of the story, Bruges la Morte, by Georges Rodenbach, was a popular novel around the turn of the century. In the novel, the male character eventually murders his lover. Yet in the opera, the murder occurs only during the nightmare, leading to the main character’s liberation from his obsession. (A rarity in opera, to allow the woman to stay alive---although this opera nevertheless orbits around Marie, the dead wife.) This superlative production, my favorite of anything I’ve seen thus far, was conducted by Philippe Auguin, and directed by Willy Decker. Klaus Florian Vogt sang the part of Paul, the main character, and a nimble Angela Denoke, the parts of Marietta / Marie.

The endlessly inventive orchestration balanced the composer's somewhat sentimental style. Heard with astonishing clarity from where I was perched in a box seat the players, Korngold's score would be worth studying for orchestration techniques alone. He often infuses lyrical passages with unannounced clouds of dissonance to convey a sense of foreboding. One of the most obvious places he deploys this technique is toward the end of the well-known “Marietta’s Song.” Korngold must have inspired legions of Hollywood film composers. For instance, one section in the opera, a kind of signature sound for westerns (low open fourths and fifths, punctuated by brass), was completely familiar to me even though I hadn't previously heard this opera. Indeed, Korngold himself ended up in Hollywood, at first temporarily residing there in order to score a film. He then stayed, due to the danger of returning to Austria. Of the several films he scored, two of the most well-known are A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for which he arranged Mendelssohn’s incidental music), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (earning him an Oscar, and also credited with saving his life).

Yesterday afternoon I attended a seminar at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst (University for Music and Performing Arts), thoughtfully pointed out by my friend Nancy Van de Vate, an American composer based in Vienna. The subject of the seminar, new methods of overtone composition, was demonstrated largely by a partial performance of Concerto Roberto (to be premiered in Oslo later this year) written by Werner Schulze for the incredible bassoonist / composer Roberto Rønnes and scored for invented instruments, bassoon, overtone singers, and piano. Prof. Schulze gave a dynamic presentation about the work, his influences and methods, to visiting students who were participating in the International Meeting of Music Therapy Studies. The rich overtone singing of the Austrian musician and inventor, Hans Tschiritch, was surely an inspiration to these students. Hopefully they were inspired to seek out opportunities for exploring overtone singing in greater depth, to use in their healing practices. Do have a look at the site for Tschiritch. It includes photos of his strikingly original chess sets and, more relevant to this post, links to several of his instrument inventions and their sounds. Of particular interest to me, as I'm working on a short opera starring a vacuum cleaner, is the Singenden Sauger (singing vacuum cleaner).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Austrian Premiere of Michaels Reise

Michaels Reise
, the second act of Donnerstag, itself one of seven operas forming the grand cycle Licht by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, was performed last night at the Jugendstil Theater (about an hour’s bus ride out of the central part of Vienna). With the virtuoso playing, moving, and acting presence of Marco Blaauw (trumpet), in the part of Michael, and Nicola Jürgensen (basset horn), in the part of Eva, this evening of opera needed no singers. In fact, it’s billed as ‘an opera without singers.’ musikFabrik, the adventurous collective based in Köln, was conducted efficiently and smartly by Peter Rundel.

The opera began with a brass band of trumpets, trombones, horns, and tuba playing a kind of overture. Yet the music wasn’t anything like a brass band or an overture. The harmonies and textures were were transporting, evocative of other worlds. This beginning was, musically, one of the strongest parts of the opera, and one of the most memorable.

Then the athletics and mechanical virtuosity took hold. The trumpet player, strapped, standing, into a contraption that allowed him to zoom through the space, at least 12 feet in the air, to swoop down and back up, to be turned upside down and around, all the while performing and inserting different mutes into his instrument, was simply phenomenal. The video, projected on what sometimes appeared to be a three-dimensional large round globe, and also on the scrim, served to clarify some of the ‘stations’ of Michael’s physical and metaphysical travels. It was an artistic work in its own right, with elegant patterns that dissolved and transformed into other patterns, and that explored the gray areas between representational and non-representational depictions.

Yet with all of these wondrous and quite stunning visual events, I found the opera (or, rather, this one act) lacking in a dimension that I’m finding difficult to articulate. Perhaps it was a culmination of small disappointments---the forced nature of the improvisations; the long double trill at the close of the work (signifying the union of Eva and Michael) that lumbered when it could have been a delicate and deliciously strung out gesture; or the absolute refusal of the audience to laugh at any of the lighter places with the two clarinet players mocking and carrying on. At any rate, the evening was definitely worth the investment of time. This was the first of four relatively new operas that are being produced as part of the Wiener Festspielwoche. Next on my agenda: Wolfgang Rihm’s Jacob Lenz, early next week.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Praha, Threshold to . . .

Around this time of the year, countless cultural festivals are launched throughout Europe. In Dresden, my work Way of Light was programmed on the first full day of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. The first day (and last) full day we were in Prague was the beginning of the Prague Spring, the 63rd International Music Festival. Tonight I will see Stockhausen’s Michaels Reise, the first of four contemporary operas and one of dozens of productions of theater, music, and film scheduled during the Wiener Festwochen, which was kicked off on May 9.

But now back to Prague, ah, too short a visit! Instead of being frustrated by not having sufficient time to take in the castle or cathedrals, I decided to lose myself on the tram and walking about, stopping into bookshops and perusing Czech literature, making lists of what I’d like to eventually read, and not being able to resist buying four: May, a poem by Karel Hynek Mácha; Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hraba (also his much more widely known and critically acclaimed novel, I Served the King of England); and Severin’s Journey Into the Dark, by Paul Leppin. Twisted Spoon Press has been active in printing a number of recent translations of Czech writers into English, or of German writers such as Paul Leppin, who spent time in the Czech Republic, and whose book is billed as a ‘Prague ghost story.’ As a lover of ghost stories (there’s even a tour of haunted Prague at night, another reason to return), leaving Prague with this one was a must.

Having visited Prague twice before, I wanted to avoid crowds and look at the city from different vistas, such as the Prague Metronome (broken, alas), high above the city. The first photograph is taken from the garden restaurant of Fish, near the Franz Kafka Museum, overlooking the Vltava River in the direction of Charles Bridge. Swans glided past, along with all manner of boats. Above, a balloon with a chair attached, holding a brave person swayed in the wind (to me this is the experience of nightmares). A few hours later, I met with a composer friend, Zbynek Mateju, prolific and gifted composer specializing in works for film, television, and ballet. As I write this I’m listening to his work for ballet, Ibbur, or A Prague Mystery. Its dynamic, rich textures, often shrouded in evocative, haunting harmonies, are enhanced by the use of musical saw and Tibetan bowls. Zbynek and I are discussing a collaboration---the first time I will do this as a composer, although I collaborate all the time with improvisational projects!

In his cd notes, Zbynek includes a quote from D.Z. Bor that I’d like to share with you, as it captures, as much as two sentences can, the essence of this magnificent city. “I do not know any other city like Prague which attracts the people living in it in such a remarkably magical way, spiritually weathers them and offers them so many places of its troubled past to visit. It looks as if the dead are calling us living to a place where they spent their earthly existence at some time, so that they can whisper that Prague does not bear its name “práh” (threshold) for nothing---that in reality it is the threshold between this and the next world, a threshold which is much narrower than anywhere else.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

She's 16!

Yvonne celebrated her 16th birthday today, first with a few friends (she's hugging her host sister, Julia) at Shalimar, an Indian restaurant in the 6th district of Vienna. After a five hour train journey from Prague, we arrived this evening and raced to the celebration. As I upload these photos from tonight's Shalimar dinner, she’s already at a club where it’s definitely not cool to be anywhere beyond 30 years old, having her first bona fide drink (I'm guessing Sex on the Beach) and being inducted into the nightlife of Vienna.
Happy Birthday, Yvonne!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Syrinx: Camilla's concert in Dresden

Almut Kühne, Yvonne, and Bryan Wolf; Camilla and me
Two years ago, I was in New York, in the throes of completing Way of Light for the premiere given by Daniel Rosenboom at the International Trumpet Guild Conference, the commissioning party for the work.
Camilla Hoitenga, a virtuoso flutist who has been committed to performing contemporary music for decades, was also in New York (she is based in Köln), for the recording and performance of my work Transfiguration, for soprano, flute, harp, percussion. After hearing some of the electronics and checking out the video Austin Switser created for the piece, she suggested that I consider a version for flute. Voila! She just premiered Way of Light for amplified flute, alto flute, electronics, and video this past weekend, with a spellbinding performance at the Hygiene Museum on May 10, on the second day of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. In this piece, the player embarks on a journey, accompanied by spirit guides. There are obstacles to confront, to transcend, and to triumphantly conquer. The performer moves through six main ritualistic sections: The Call; Migration; Chaos; Turning Point; Vision; Greeting. Five archetypal emotions are embedded within these sections of the score: fear, compassion, joy, anger, and sadness. The director of the Festival, Harmut Haenchen, thanked me for a ‘great piece’ after the concert---between that compliment and Camilla’s incredible playing, I’m still not quite back to earth.

In fact, nearly all of the works on this superb program became journeys to realms beyond this earthly one. Perhaps the one exception would be the opening piece on the program, Soliloquium Nr. 1, by the Hungarian composer Zoltán Jeney. A lively conversational cornucopia (reminiscent of some of Elliott Carter’s works, especially the string quartets), it remains fresh despite its dated style. Camilla’s vibrant interpretation brought the contrasting ‘characters’ into sharp relief. Our first ‘expedition’ was led by Bryan Wolf’s When the rains have gone---a metaphysical rendering of the voices of the Sirens encountered by Odysseus on his notorious voyage, with live electronics adding dimensionality to the flute, and ambient sounds from various sources providing the backdrop for the bright, lyrical, bewitching flute melodies. Spirits, by Péter Köszeghy (also Hungarian) cast Camilla in the role of a medium. He writes that “music is a phenomenon that is real not only for living human beings, but also for ghosts or spirits. Through music, and the medium of the performer, these two worlds can communicate with one another.” The shadowy sound world he created with electronics, with its recurring rhythmic and exaggerated sound of a dripping faucet, was in stark contrast to the vivid flute writing. The refreshingly simple (yet not simple to play, involving many multiphonics), Chuang Tse’s Dream, by Gergely Ittzés (you guessed it, Hungarian), functioned in this program as a palate cleanser. Following Way of Light, the program closed with a languid, sensual version of Syrinx by Claude Debussy. Evidently, Camilla studied this piece with someone who had learned it from a flute player who actually worked with Debussy.

The composer Bryan Wolf, who spent many years as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s personal assistant for sound design, was essential to this concert in his role as the sound projector. He worked intensely to achieve the best possible balance between the amplified flute and the electronics in several of the works. Thank you, Bryan! Also, a heartfelt thanks to Camilla for being such a consistent and dynamic champion of new works for flute.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dresden Music Festival

After rehearsing Way of Light with Camilla Hoitenga on Friday the 9th, in preparation for the premiere of the version for flute that I arranged for her, Yvonne and I attended the opening concert of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. Almut Kühne, a native of Dresden (now living in Berlin), and a terrific young singer and composer who specializes in improvisation, invited us to stay with her family at their exquisite home overlooking the Elbe River. She’s striding forward to greet us, in front of the Semperoper, where we then heard a dramatic rendition of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, followed by the Kodály Te Deum---clearing the air and cleansing the space after Bluebeard’s gloomy presence. The outstanding soloists: Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Lioba Braun, mezzo-soprano; Howard Haskin, tenor, and Rudolf Rosen, bass. Harmut Haenchen (left in the photo) was the dynamic conductor, and also directs the Musikfestspiele this year. Setting the disturbing and dark mood for the Bartok just prior to the performance, the actor Eörs Kisfaludy can be seen standing between the bass and alto singer, in one of their many curtain calls. The orchestra and chorus, also first-rate: Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, and the MDR Rundfunkchor. Bartok’s blending of the organ with the strings, using it to shadow the orchestra, contributes to the melancholy infusing his only opera.

This was my first visit to Dresden (from a word meaning ‘people of the riverside forest’) and I was utterly entranced by the beauty and vitality of this city. Hard to believe, with all of the restoration, that Dresden suffered mightily and unnecessarily from bombing attacks carried out by the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force, and was ensconced in the Soviet bloc state of the GDR for the next forty years. The Frauenkirche, where Bach gave a recital on the original Silbermann organ in 1736, underwent extensive rebuilding after the war. A symbol of reconciliation towering over a bustling square, it was completed only as recently as 2005. Cobblestone streets lined with all manner of restaurants radiate out from the church, and the majestic Elbe flows past it all. Who wouldn’t fall in love with Dresden?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The heavenly joy that has no end

Words from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, sung in Mahler's Third Symphony.

In four hours we depart for Dresden, where the very active American musician living in Köln, Camilla Hoitenga, will perform the flute version of my work, Way of Light, for video and electronics. I’m excited, as this will be the first time it’s performed with flute (it was written for trumpet), and Camilla is a world-class performer. The venue is the Hygiene Museum, and Camilla's concert, called "Syrinx," is one of the opening concerts of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele.

A couple of evenings back I was lucky enough to find someone selling a standing room only ticket to the Vienna Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony---his homage, or hymn, to the natural world. Imagine standing for nearly two hours, 10 people deep and 15 or 20 across, with no support. Something akin to a packed subway car stalled for who knows how long...except that Mahler’s music wafting through one of the most divine acoustic and visual concert spaces in the world makes the sardine experience quite something else. As the photo I took right after the concert shows, the large hall of the Musikverein is in fact a remarkably intimate space. The orchestra was crammed into every nook and corner for the performance, with some audience members literally inches away from musicians.

The prolific, feisty, and incredibly energetic composer Nancy Van de Vate, who resides in Austria and who I shared a delightful evening with yesterday, informed me that the the subscription tickets for these concerts are inherited...which explains their scarcity. She also told me that some 1500 people are on a multi-year waiting list for subscriptions to the Vienna Philharmonic concerts.

The first of six movements, alone, is about 35 minutes. The large forces include women’s chorus and boys’ choir, both deployed in the fifth movement, as well as a solo mezzo soprano. The mischievous clarinetist captured the grotesque fantastical qualities that Mahler is so fond of , and the contrabasses, at times, sounded as though they were performing a much more contemporary work, evoking crunchy noise-infused textures. Elĩna Garanča, was the mezzo soprano, and Semyon Bychkov conducted. The famous last long chord blanketed the audience with sheer bliss. After some moments of silence, ferociously appreciative applause poured forth, and rightly so, as the performance was superb.

By the way, Tony Duggan's thorough review of this conductor's recording of Mahler's Third, with the WDR Symphony Orchestra on the Avie label, can be found here (along with his reviews of most if not all of the Mahler symphonies). Scroll down to the very bottom of the page to find it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Bread and Music

The Museum of Modern Art, located in the Museum Quarter, held beautiful surprises for Yvonne and I yesterday. She was especially attracted to Daniel Spoerri’s “Hahns Abendmahl" ("Hahn’s Supper"), a ‘trap picture.' A dinner party for 16 people was frozen in time, with remains of cigarettes, coffee residue, stained wine glasses and plates all attached to a black board with artificial resin glue, and hung on the wall...documentation of an event that occurred on May 23, 1964. The photograph in this post, another of the artist’s ‘trap pictures’, was dated three years earlier...a series of petrified hunks of ‘Brot.’ The highlight for me in our tour of the museum was an extensive collection of Fluxus pieces and ephemera. The infamous Symphony No. 461 – A Pastoral Symphony, by Dick Higgins, created by shooting blank score manuscript pages with an air gun - was one of his three symphonies in the exhibit.

The museum was so entrancing, with its current exhibition comparing art and mathematics, that we stayed until closing. I raced to the Konzerthaus, with the intention of attending the concert in the Mozart Hall performed by Klangforum Wien. But my purchase a ticket from one of several people trying to sell their unused tickets near the front entrance...led to an accidental purchase of the concert ticket for the Great Hall, realized as I was heading back into the building. No matter...I heard an utterly intoxicating performance of the Shostakovitch Violin Concerto No.1, played by Julia Fischer, with precision, passion, and great mastery. The conductor was Yakov Kreizberg.

Low strings open the first movement, Notturno, in contrast to the high register dominating the mid-point of the movement, with stratospheric violin enhanced by harp harmonics and celesta, and an eventual descent back to lower strings and timpani. The manic, pesante-like Scherzo even has the celesta player beating a tambourine. The third movement, a Passacalgia, outlines a theme related to Beethoven’s Fifth and to the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovitch. Lumbering through the low brass and pizzicato contrabass, it takes on a strident quality when it cycles around to the solo violin. Seamlessly emerging from the passacaglia, the arpeggios outlined by the violin lead to an electrifying, complex, difficult and long cadenza. To lighten the atmosphere, the Burleske comes right after, with its grotesque character, true to the Shostakovitch style.

At the intermission I was able to hear the last work on the Klangforum Wien program, La harpe de mélodie, by Brice aggressive, yet spacious work played with great commitment and featuring two percussionists.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

ensemble on_line in the echoraum

ensemble on_line: Ivana Pristasova, violin; Petra Ackerman, viola; Krassimir Sterev, accordion; Thomas Wally, Violin, Roland Schueler, cello, on Sunday, May 4, in the concert venue echoraum.

Whether a concert takes place in a tight space no larger than a California McMansion walk-in closet, or the spacious Great Hall of the Vienna Konzerthaus, and whether the style is dominated by electronics and noise or by the most exquisite string sonorities, there’s one aspect that never changes. Viennese audiences are consistently intent, concentrated, and focused. One rarely hears shuffling, coughing, or commentary, and no one arrives late. This observation was further solidified by four concerts I’ve heard thus far this week, in the space of three evenings, all in vastly contrasting venues.

Wolfgang Rihm wrote a series of works, several of which are for strings and accordion, that he calls Fetzen (translated as ‘fragment’). On Sunday evening, the ensemble on_line undertook a scintillating rendition of six of the Fetzen (No. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)---five for string quartet and accordion, and one for viola and accordion. No. 6 was especially striking, with the two violins filtered through metal practice mutes, with a tinny perpetual motion gestures....and viola and cello waiting patiently until the end, when they enter with completely foreign material---a chorale fragment functioning as a coda.

Two works for solo piano were programmed as well, with splendid performances by Mathilde Hoursiangou. Spiel(t)räume, by Simeon Pironkoff (also a well-respected conductor), in two contrasting parts, manipulates the way that memory works by investigating the relationships between materials that have become familiar to the listener through repetition, and material that is new. The composer writes that the gaps that develop in the play of fluctuations between repetition and memory might well be more significant than the actual aspects of repetition and memory. Polyrhythms of layers, frequently defined by dynamics and register characterized the second section of this work.

Alexander Stankovski’s tour de force, Frescobaldi da lontano, a series of twenty variations based upon Girolamo Frescobaldis Capriccio cromatico con ligature al contrario (1626), employs an array of techniques (overlay, filtering, transposition, and anagram) that also capitalize on the Fibonacci sequence (intrinsic to the Frescobaldi work). A few of the variations are mere phrases – like a truncated gesture, often in a jazz idiom that distinctly contrasts with the other material. In fact, four of the twenty variations are completely unrelated to the Frescobaldi. The only variation performed inside the piano (well, mostly inside), elicits a bouquet of consonances by means of stopped string harmonics, plucked strings, and normal key attacks...but takes a brief detour into more dissonant harmonic combinations, leading to the phenomenon of beats, before coming to a sudden end.

Biographies of the composers and further program notes can be found here.

Last night I attended a performance of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1, followed by the last half of a program given by Klangforum Wien. Tonight, Mahler’s Third Symphony. Accounts of both will follow in the next couple of posts.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Pink Panther Visits Mauer

The Pink Panther theme (observe the giant pink paw prints) was the unifying thread running through the 11th grade Singabend, produced on May 2 and 3 at the Rudolf Steiner-Schule Wien-Mauer, where Yvonne attends school this spring. Their ambitious program included several scene changes, ranging from the Pink Panther bar – in full saloon regalia – to a romantic moonlight park, to a tropical island replete with palm trees and grass skirts. Almost all the students sang solos of their own choosing, mostly pop songs in English but also more classically oriented in German, Russian, Swedish, and Hungarian. In fact, there were at least a dozen Hungarian students visiting who performed one of the most interesting works, for me...A ket myarfa, with recorders, flutes, and strings, and in 5/8 at a fast clip. Ein unterhaltener Abend!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Maypole Dance

Thanks to everyone for writing to me with such encouraging remarks about the descriptions of my life posted every day here, come hell or high water, and that’s really on. Sigh, here I am in the Sofitel Hotel lobby bar, sipping a Bier vom Fass, and charging the laptop for the second time today. The ancient fuses in my apartment went berserk and are now on strike. After the Schönberg House concert yesterday, then a leisurely coffee afterwards with my friend Christine, I returned to find a dark apartment, water covering the kitchen floor (slippery, from the freezer ice melting), and for two days and nights now have gone without power. Try finding an electrician in Vienna on a Friday afternoon. After searching for a couple of hours I did finally locate a live repairman, whose shop was still open, but he couldn’t be bothered to show up and repair whatever has gone wrong until Monday. Let's have a happier ending to the day...I’ll try to find a photo that looks....hopeful, not sad! In fact, here's a glimpse of the May Pole dance that Christine and I lucked into witnessing yesterday in Mödling, a village close enough to Vienna to be a suburb. This was a ribbon dance, where the white and red ribbons (Frauen took the white, Herren the red) were intertwined and plaited into a web. The dancers then retraced their steps exactly to unravel the ribbons---a spatial retrograde event, just down the street from Schönberg's house!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Schönberg's Home in Mödling

This afternoon I joined a couple of dozen others on a bus chartered to drive us from the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna to his former home in Mödling, to partake of a concert and open house. Speeches by Ferdinand Rubel, Vice-Mayor of Mödling; Christian Meyer, Director of the Arnold Schönberg Center; and Nuria Schönberg Nono, President of the Arnold Schönberg Center, were given in the garden, with birds, roosters, childen, and lilacs at their peak contributing to the festive atmosphere. Marion Diederichs-Lafite gave a moving speech explaining the opening of the the “Lafite-Saal” in the Schönberg House, in memory of Prof. Elisabeth Lafite, who rescued the house from immanent destruction. We then were treated to a concert of music by the Chorus Chemie Linz, conducted by Fritz Hinterdorfer...with Hans Eisler’s Lob des Lernens (words by Brecht) and Schönberg’s Herzlieblich Lieb, durch Scheiden as two of the highlights. As I have no electricity tonight, I’m racing to post this before the computer dies, and hope that it conveys how incredibly special it was for me to visit the home of Schönberg, and to meet some of his descendants were were also present for the occasion.