Contemporary Music from Germany – Current Trends

Pricks against Standardisation – the Eclat Festival

Eclat Festival / Martin SigmundThe Stuttgart festival Eclat is about to change. In February 2013 Hans-Peter Jahn will head this distinguished meeting place for New Music, which over the years he has put on the international map, for the last time. A summary and an outlook.

The Eclat Festival presented in 2013 concerts and dance performances like Markus Hechtle's “Minotaurus”, directed by Thierry Bruel, photo by Eclat Festival / Martin SigmundMarkus Hechtle's “Minotaurus”, photo: Eclat / Martin Sigmund

Hans-Peter Jahn has done quite a job. Under his leadership the Eclat festival has advanced from being a regional event to becoming an internationally recognised fixture in the world of New Music. Founded in 1979 as the Stuttgart Festival for New Music, the four-day festival, which was renamed “Eclat” in 1997, has been headed by Jahn since 1983; now, on his sixty-fifth birthday, he is going into retirement. As imaginative as he is headstrong, Jahn, who after 1989 was also senior editor for New Music at the former SDR and the current SWR in Stuttgart, commissioned the compositions that first made the festival the lively, nationally and internationally esteemed forum for contemporary music which it has become. At the same time, he always liked to tease the addiction to premiere festivals and rampant academicism by administering homeopathic doses of opulent neo-romanticism or presenting new vocal works in dialogue with the lieder and choruses of Schubert and Schumann.

For example, breaches of style

Simon Steen-Andersen’s sound theatre “Inszenierte Nacht” (photo: Andrew Digby, ensemble ascolta) worked with an unusual interpretations of some classics of literature, photo by Eclat-Festival / Martin SigmundThis time Simon Steen-Andersen (born in 1976) provided for invigorating breaches of style with Readings according to the Letter of the Classics. In a sort of Late Night Show at the Stuttgart Theaterhaus, he transformed, along with works of Bach, Schumann and Ravel, Mozart’s fulminating revenge aria for the Queen of the Night into a gaudy Trash version. Instead of having the usual soprano perform the piece, the Danish composer had it sung by the trumpeter of the Ensemble Ascolta and used electronic means to distort his voice into something monstrously shrill. Yet, in spite of the grotesque alienation effect, the expressive substance of the music was not merely countered but also, surprisingly enough, raised to a higher power: a successful rescue by means of surrealist sensationalism of a classic that has been played to death.

The four-day festival has also foiled habitual event formats by having various ensembles play in the same concert so as constantly to tweak strained attention. This time the Ensemble Modern, the accordion soloist Teodoro Anzellotti and the New Stuttgart Vocal Soloists all performed in turns. There were further appearances by the excellent SWR Vocal Ensemble, the Arditti Quartett, the Aleph Guitar Quartet, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra of the SWR and diverse soloists. With Bernhard Lang’s Hermetica, the New Vocal Soloists set the audience a real balancing act: the song composition, based on fantasy languages, continually swings between unintelligible text, pure sound articulation and expressive, unambiguous vocal gestures. Thomas Witzmann’s Stühle Rücken (i.e., Musical Chairs) then provided for a cheerful intermezzo, which composed the otherwise tedious and time-consuming set changes into an exciting virtuoso performance with music stands and chairs.

Music theatre as a passion

Moving pictures on stage: Nicola Gründel, the protagonist of the dance theatre “Minotaurus” after a ballad of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, photo by Eclat-Festival / Martin SigmundJahn’s greatest passion was music theatre. At least one, often several, productions each year was a special focus. This time it was Markus Hechtle’s Minotaurus after an eponymous ballad by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The story of the hybrid being, half bull and half man, was not told from the point of view of the victorious hero, as it is in ancient Greek mythology. Instead the actress Nicola Gründel described the inner perspective of the monster’s life, enclosed in its transparent labyrinth and, lacking a real counterpart, hardly conscious of itself and its own situation. As in a monodrama, Gründel alone spoke, constantly in parallel to a consistently concordant accompanying piano, the metaphoric mirror image of the creature. The highly concentrated accompanying breathing of the Ensemble Modern, conducted by Clemens Heil, created further prismatic refractions. When at last Theseus appeared in a bull mask, the Minotaur recognised in him a “You” for the first time. Yet just as the monster, dancing for joy at the dreamed-of friendship, is becoming something like human, his opponent pushes the fatal dagger into its breast.

Future plans of the Eclat Festival

Jahn’s successor is the Berlin music journalist Björn Gottstein. Together with Christine Fischer, who as intendant of the event organiser Music of the Century has long been in charge of mounting Eclat, Gottstein wants gradually to complement the festival with sound installations, electronic music, experimental music and projects in the borderland of composition and improvisation, dance, visual and media art. At SWR2, however, Gottstein will have only a half-post because the broadcaster is reducing staff costs. Although it will continue to take part in Eclat with its new music seriesAttacca, the fusion of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra of SWR with the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg in 2016 will inevitably lead to halving the composition commissions previously awarded for both orchestras. It is equally easy to see how the participation of the new unified orchestra in Stuttgart and at the Donauesching Festival will set off one festival against the other. Thus what has hitherto been two marvellous additions to the international festival calendar in October and February, each with its own programmatic profile, is now facing the threat of being slashed.

A farewell with outlook

Hans-Peter Jahn (photo), pioneer and artistic director of the Eclat festival, will be succeeded in 2014 by the music scientist and journalist Björn Gottstein, photo by Eclat-Festival / Jürgen PalmerFor his farewell festival, Jahn has gathered together works by composers whom he regularly invited in past years: Jörg Widmann, Matthias Pintscher, Martin Smolka, Manuel Hidalgo, Hanspeter Kyburz, Hans Zender, Helmut Lachenmann and of course Wolfgang Rihm. The veiled chordal arcs of the latter’s string quintet, tellingly entitled Epilogue, invoke unmistakably Schubert’s entrancing String Quintet in C Major. But as the two cellos positively grill the choral-like setting of the high strings with aggressive pizzicato, the Past steps back while yet remaining preserved in indelible traces – until the dying fall: a worthy farewell to Hans-Peter Jahn. And a challenge for his successor, who receives a festival that has been developed to a high level of quality.

Rainer Nonnemann,
professor of music science, works as a freelance music journalist and teaches at the universities of Cologne and Dusseldorf.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
February 2013

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