The 2016 Donaueschingen Festival Think Avant-Garde!

Joanna Bailie's "Music from Public Places"  with the SWR Vokalensemble and the Améi Quartett
Joanna Bailie's "Music from Public Places" at the Christuskirche | Photo ⓒ SWR / Ralf Brunner

The footsteps are big. Björn Gottstein is the successor of the late Armin Köhler, who headed the Donaueschingen Festival since 1992. It is a position with an inheritance, but also with fresh prospects.

Hammond organ, electric bass and drum set are not instruments of New Music, but rather at home in Soul, Funk and Rock. In Bernhard Gander’s Cold Cadaver with Thirteen Scary Scars they were combined with the classical instruments of the Klangforum Wien. Steamboat Switzerland is the name of the Swiss trio that really put some oomph into it in the Mozart Room at the Donauhallen. The chains of semiquavers were hardened by off beats and chased over the stage – from Hammond organ through the strings and back again. Even the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was caught up in the maelstrom and artfully torn to pieces by the composer. This was physical, sensuous music that spoke more to the gut than the head; that crossed the boundaries between genres and brought together what previously didn’t belong together.

New director, initial directions

The composition was commissioned by Festival Director Björn Gottstein. Because of the death in 2014 of his predecessor, Armin Köhler, the New Music editor at SWR2 had to fill the position earlier than planned. In the current Festival year, sixty per cent of the programme consisted of compositions commissioned by Köhler; only beginning next year will the entire festival plan be of Gottstein’s choosing. “My balance is quite positive. I liked two things in particular: the stylistic diversity and high level of performance. Both are decisive for Donaueschingen”, Gottstein said at the season’s closing press conference. Köhler, who headed the internationally renowned festival for contemporary music for twenty-two years, had already expanded it stylistically and made it accessible to a wider audience.

Gottstein wants to continue and reinforce this opening up. “I don’t want to turn the festival upside down. Ultimately, it will change, together with the music. New Music is in a process of transformation; we now have different types of artists, different scores, different concert forms and different technical requirements than ten or twenty years ago.”

He doesn’t see himself as an opinion-maker; he has scrapped the Festival Director’s traditional preface to the programme booklet. There will be no bans on thought at Donaueschingen. That Gottstein has invited the conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton, who has called the avant-garde a dead-end, to give a lecture (On Zukunftsmusik) has met with criticism, not only at the press conference.

The avant-garde in debate

Even a work such as Joanna Bailie’s Music from Public Places would have been unthinkable at Donaueschingen a few years ago. The tonally anchored piece, called to life by the SWR vocal ensemble and the Améi Quartet conducted by Marcus Creed and performed in the Christuskirche, combines the circling sounds of chorus and strings with bird-chirping and bells from a playback tape. Most of the more difficult works were chosen by Köhler – for example, Rebecca Saunder’s highly nuanced, fragile composition Skin for soprano (Juliet Fraser) and thirteen instruments. The string quartet concert, with the brilliant Calder Quartet and the electronic diversity of IRCAM Paris, a research institute for music and sound, which performed new works by Nathan Davis, Daniel Wohl and Peter Eötvös, was given more to experimental sounds, which, in Nathan Davis’s Echeia, for instance, began with toneless strokes on the wood of the instruments.

Amongst the seventeen premiered pieces were quite humorous ones, as when, for example, the Freiburg ensemble recherche rediscovered lost songs (described as “special waste” in the programme text) in Peter Ablinger’s The Best Hits of the 60s and 70s and sent them through the New Music chopper. The festival took place throughout the city at ten different performance venues. Even the refugee accommodation in the former German-French barracks was a location – for the radio project Good Morning, Deutschland.

The new SWR Symphony Orchestra

The much-awaited debut of the merged SWR symphony orchestras proved patchy. Particularly the opening concert, held in the Baar Sports Hall, lacked precision and homogeneity. The strongest impression was made by James Dillon’s sensual The Gates for string quartet and orchestra. From the interaction of the Arditti String Quartet and the SWR Symphony Orchestra the British composer created an inspired dialogue. The orchestra, which currently has more than 175 members, played both concerts with very different musicians. The Orchestra Prize, which the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg has been awarding since 2005 for the best composition of the year, is no more. “Since our orchestra no longer exists, the prize too no longer exists”, said the chairman of the Freiburg orchestra board Peter Bromig. If the prize still existed, the most promising candidate for it would be Georg Friedrich Haas’s new, sensuous trombone concert (soloist: Mike Svoboda). Chains of glissandos in the strings form the uncertain ground upon which the solo trumpet spirals ever higher before gradually again sinking into the depths. Big applause at the conclusion of the 2016 Donaueschingen Festival!