Contemporary Music 2012 Of theatre fun and farewells

The New Music scene in Germany can look back on 2012 as an eventful year. Harry Vogt reports on major music theatre premieres and the latest festivals, the widespread celebration of John Cage’s double jubilee, but also some departures and goodbyes.

A “new super-opera” , a “nadir in present-day New Music” or just “gigantic theatre fun”? Jörg Widmann’s much-discussed opera “Babylon”  in Munich. A “new super-opera” , a “nadir in present-day New Music” or just “gigantic theatre fun”? Jörg Widmann’s much-discussed opera “Babylon” in Munich. | Photo: Wilfried Hösl The centenary of John Cage’s birth, as well as the 20th anniversary of his death, was commemorated far and wide in 2012. The great inspirer and provocateur par excellence, Cage had something to offer to just about everyone, from 0'00” (“solo to be performed in any way by anyone”, as he directed) and his classic tacet piece 4’33” to his works for the stage Musicircus and Europeras. The jubilarian, though seldom on the programme of your garden-variety concert, was lavishly honoured last year – and sometimes stretched to the limit….

Happy New Ears: Cage 100

Hardly a single concert organizer left out the centenary artist last year – which is something living composers can only dream of (except maybe Wolfgang Rihm, whose 60th birthday was widely celebrated, e.g. in Berlin, but especially in his native city of Karlsruhe).

Major forums and festivals from Amsterdam to Warsaw are fêting Cage, including the RuhrTriennale, Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Luxembourg Rainy Days, MaerzMusik and Musikfest in Berlin, Musica Strasbourg und Cologne’s Acht Brücken, to name just a few. Even the Beethovenfest in Bonn with its pre-modern bent gave itself up to the legend of John Cage last year. Interestingly, almost the only festivals not to showcase the centenarian were the ones put on by radio broadcasters. Which is no coincidence: after all, during his lifetime they were the ones who gave him vital support and for his 100th anniversary they paid tribute to his music chiefly by playing it on the airwaves.

Meanwhile, Cage seems to have “made it” onto the commercial airwaves – or at least one of his oft-quoted phrases has: on their New Year’s posters for 2013, Radio Cologne wished everyone “Happy New Ears” – albeit without crediting the author. Though why bother? Most of the local private station’s listeners probably wouldn’t know who he was anyway.

Radio series & festivals

Now as ever, the leading forums for New Music in Germany – despite all the cutbacks, restructuring measures and mergers – are still put together by radio broadcasters. In addition to the long-established concert series like musica viva (put on by BR, Bavarian Radio) in Munich, das neue werk (NDR, North German Radio) in Hamburg, Musik der Zeit (WDR, West German Radio) in Cologne, all of which have been running for six decades now with unflagging commitment (and plenty of commissioned compositions), the main venues for New Music tend to be the festivals organized by radio broadcasters as well.

Starting with ultraschall in Berlin, the only festival held jointly by two different radio stations (Deutschlandradio Kultur and Berlin-Brandenburg Broadcasting (rbb)), which takes place at the end of January and, unlike the premiere-geared festivals in Donaueschingen or Witten, believes in extending the kiss of life for works that might not be brand new. Last year’s edition as a matter of fact even dug up some old pieces by Jean Barraqué and Claude Vivier, among others.

The Eclat festival in Stuttgart, put on in February by SWR and Musik der Jahrhunderte, is traditionally centred on music for the stage, such as works by Alvaro Carlevaro. Last year it featured new vocal music by the likes of Gordon Kampe, Luca Francesconi and Friedrich Cerha (winner of the 2012 Siemens Music Prize), as well as an imposing series of new piano pieces by Iris ter Schiphorst, Robert HP Platz, Harrison Birtwistle et al.

The Forum neue Musik, hosted by Deutschlandradio in Cologne and with multiple ties to local and national partners, took up the theme of “dialogue with God”, featuring contemporary music from Romania and world premieres by Jörg Herchet, Georg Katzer and Brice Pauset, among others.

The Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Witten Days for New Chamber Music), after city and state funding surprisingly fell through, was rescued at the end of April by an 11th-hour boost from the WDR broadcasting corporation. The programme was geared more than ever towards up-and-coming talents. By way of a “golden thread” it featured a portrait of Hans Abrahamsen, a Danish composer virtually unknown in these parts, as well as Emmanuel Nunes’ last opus and a significant find from the archives of Giacinto Scelsi.

Donaueschingen and Darmstadt

“Generation Kill” by Stefan Prins in Donaueschingen “Generation Kill” by Stefan Prins in Donaueschingen | Photo: Charlotte Oswald The SWR’s Donaueschingen Festival came out in mid-October with a facelift mottoed “New Interdependencies and Interactions: Man and Machine”.

The most talked-about items on the lineup there were pieces by Belgian composer Stefan Prins and German composer Johannes Kreidler: Prins superimposes the real and the virtual in an almost hyperactive manner, while Kreidler pirates acoustic and visual samples into his music. The generation raised on Internet and mobiles, rock and techno, finally seems to have made it into New Music. Whether this can really be called a sea change, the “dawn of a new era” (Dissonanz magazine), remains to be seen. The various encounters were exciting at any rate.

Two years after an overhaul, the Darmstädter Ferienkurse (Darmstadt International Summer Courses in New Music), held for the 46th year in 2012, proved bigger and more colourful, exciting and openminded than ever. The official programme – courses, lectures, concerts – was rounded out with setups like open space, a platform, open to everyone and used by many, for spontaneously presented projects. The Boost! series is an ensembliade that gives a hearing to young, lesser-known ensembles as well.

Music theatre: fun and nadir

There were a number of much-discussed German and world premieres of music theatre pieces in 2012.

Marco Stroppa, who teaches in Stuttgart, enjoyed a successful staging of his “light opera” Re Orso, Favola per Musica, which had gone virtually unnoticed here when it first premiered in Paris. The polyphonically whispered word looms large in this work – as it transitions from amplified to purely electronic music?. A “milestone in New Music Theatre” that combines “art and technology in an enjoyable way” (NZZ).

Far more attention was given to Jörg Widmann’s large-scale opera Babylon, which premiered in Munich in late October – and especially to the libretto by philosopher and opera novice Peter Sloterdijk, whose object is “to rehabilitate Babylon, the first functioning multicultural society”. In the music Widmann pulls out all the stops: from “grand” passages and monumental choral tableaux to traditional Bavarian and musical-style numbers, gravitas alongside the trivial and humoristic. The publicly acclaimed premiere polarized the press, however: “gigantic theatre fun” (Süddeutsche Zeitung) and “new super-opera” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) for some, a real “nadir in present-day New Music” (Die Zeit) for others.

The Munich Biennale is still an important venue for New Music Theatre, and the most compelling production there last May was Arnulf Herrmann’s chamber opera Wasser. “A haunted hotel, a leaky aquarium, an off-centre phonograph record: these are some of the elements” that go to make up this “atmospheric film-like study of loss of identity” (neue musikzeitung). A “flagship production” in which “everything symbiotically intertwines” (Merkur).

Spectacular premiere of “MITTWOCH aus LICHT”

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s MITTWOCH aus LICHT (Wednesday From Light) was staged for the first time in August.

What has got to be the most elaborate instalment in Stockhausen’s heptalogy, containing spectacular “scenes” like his “World Parliament”, “Orchestra Finalists” and “Helicopter String Quartet”, was finally produced in the context of the Cultural Olympiad in Birmingham nearly two decades after its composition – and after abortive attempts to stage it in Bern and Bonn. Albeit not without tweaking, and thereby professionalizing, some of the Master’s all-too-homespun scenic conceptions.

In addition, there were new encounters with ostensible classics of New Music Theatre. John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 were personally staged at the RuhrTriennale by festival director Heiner Goebbels himself, who with perfect stage magic turned them into a “mind-bogglingly expensive and elaborate Cage orgy” (DLF).
“A matériel battle, sumptuous sets, breathtaking artistry.All the same, it just doesn’t spark” (FAZ).

 John Cage‘s “Europeras”, staged by Heiner Goebbels at the RuhrTriennale John Cage‘s “Europeras”, staged by Heiner Goebbels at the RuhrTriennale | photo: Wonge Bergmann Meanwhile, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl) seems to have almost made it into the repertoire. Helmut Lachenmann’s “Music with Pictures”, as he subtitles the opera, was put on for the fifth time already: this time in Berlin after productions in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Paris and Vienna. Quite astounding “for such an obstreperous piece, which will turn any regular opera company on its head” (FAZ). Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Soldaten, on the other hand, has long since gained a secure spot in the extended repertoire. This monumental opus in fact made it into the Salzburger Festspiele last year, in a new production, in which the music is particularly compelling under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher. Who’d have thought it possible that a top-drawer ensemble like the Vienna Philharmonic should take on such a cumbersome piece – and give such an excellent rendition thereof?


The Babylon premiere took place by coincidence the very day Widmann’s teacher and mentor Hans Werner Henze died. One of the last remaining exponents of the postwar generation, Henze never really ranked among its avant-garde, which vehemently rejected him – as he did it. In 2012 we bade farewell to some other seminal figures as well: Emmanuel Nunes, who also showed a strong affinity to German language and culture; Elliott Carter, the doyen of US modernism, who kept composing actively up to the very end, at the biblical age of 104; and Jonathan Harvey, who made a name for himself above all through his use of electronics in ensemble and orchestral works.

Merger and dissolution

The planned merger of the SWR symphonic orchestras in Stuttgart and Baden-Baden/Freiburg nearly became another of last year’s casualties. But in spite of the public’s unignorable opposition to the plan, the two orchestras were merged, in the possibly record-breaking time of less than ten months, as decided by the committees and with no objections raised by the political powers that be.

Many bewail the imminent disbanding of the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, which “won veritable battles for New Music” (FAZ) and, in so doing, “truly wrote music history” (NZZ). For its “pioneering work with its finger on the pulse of the age”, the orchestra has now received the German Record Critics Award and has been recommended by Gerhard Rohde (nmz) as an “orchestral work of art” for inclusion on UNESCO’s list of endangered World Cultural Heritage.