Highly ambitious undertakings in German town and country

Harry Partch's „Delusion of the Fury“, German premiere at the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum
Harry Partch's „Delusion of the Fury“, German premiere at the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum | © Ruhrtriennale, Photo: Wonge Bergmann, 2013

The contemporary classical music scene in Germany was highly diverse and engaged last year. Frank Kämpfer provides an overview of some spectacular projects, big-name festivals, and remarkable world premieres in Germany’s municipal theatres as well as some important people, anniversaries, and projects to put New Music across and keep its musicians working.

“An event of bright exultation,” not far removed from Led Zeppelin and the Doors –the Süddeutsche Zeitung freely associated last summer after the musikFabrik in Cologne rediscovered Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury. Partch (1901–74), dark horse of the US avant-garde, was brought centre-stage at the Ruhrtriennale 2013. Back in the 1930s, the American composer developed a 43-tone scale based on just intonation and built a number of unique instruments to play his microtonal music. And Partch’s 1966 music theatre piece calls for those instruments on stage, so Thomas Meixner saw to their reconstruction, whereupon members of the musikFabrik enthusiastically set about learning to play them. Content-wise, Delusion of the Fury, staged by Heiner Goebbels, combines Japanese Noh theatre and an Ethiopian fable.

Broadcasters’ festivals and concert series

Special festivals put on by Germany’s public broadcasters last year continued to bring out special features of New Music in and from Germany and underscore its international relevance and position. After excursions into the multimedia world of today’s up-and-coming generation of young composers in 2012, the Donaueschinger Musiktage in October 2013 put the spotlight on long large-scale scored works. SWR (public broadcasting in southwest Germany) commissioned Bernhard Lang, Walter Zimmermann, Raphaël Cendo, Enno Poppe, George Aperghis et al. to compose new works for orchestra or large ensembles.

The Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Witten Days for New Chamber Music) curated by WDR 3’s Kulturradio in late April explored the horizons of contemporary Central European composition in more than a score of world and national premieres, in particular works by Dieter Ammann, Bernhard Lang, George Aperghis, Alberto Posadas, Peter Ablinger and Fabien Levy. Fringe events included acoustic performances and installations in central Witten itself (Wittendrin) and the awarding of the Mauricio Kagel Music Prize 2013 to Michel van der Aa.

Bayerischer Rundfunk’s musica viva series in Munich presented in 2013 various commissioned concertante works by Michael Pelzel, Matthias Spahlinger, Salvatore Sciarrinio, Gerald Barry, Philippe Manoury and Jorge E. López. The highlight of the concert series was the production in late June, spread over several days and locations, of Samstag from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht cycle. The opera was performed in its entirety by Kathinka Pasveer, the musikFabrik and Bayerischer Rundfunk ensembles, among others, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher.

The Ultraschall Festival in late January, produced by Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg and Deutschlandradio Kultur in Berlin, chose German-French relations for this year’s main theme. Hence the selection of works by Pascal Dusapin, Franck Bedrossian, Philippe Hurel and Fabien Lévy. Stuttgart’s Eclat Festival took leave of Hans-Peter Jahn, its long-time director, at the beginning of February. The programme featured in particular new works with theatrical potential or context by Markus Hechtle, Jörg Widmann, Carola Bauckholt and Thomas Witzmann.

In mid-April, Deutschlandfunk’s Forum neuer Musik thematized post-colonialism and globalization, showcasing compositions by Alan Hilario, Andile Khumalo, Wisam Gibran, Adriana Hölszky and Jorge Horst, among others. The WDR-produced Acht Brücken / Musik für Köln Festival in early May opted for a double theme: namely electronics and Iannis Xenakis. And late last November, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s music was writ large at the cresc …biennial in Frankfurt organized by the Ensemble Modern and Hessischer Rundfunk.

Special regional initiatives

New Music is increasingly gaining a sustainable foothold in smaller cities and outlying areas of the country, and building up an international profile there. It is encouraging to note that forums for contemporary classical music have recently sprung up in the northern states of Germany as well: cases in point are Kiel’s Chiffren, Rostock’s Brücken, and Provinzlärm in Eckernförde, a resort on the Baltic Sea. The 4th Provinzlärm festival to date was particularly remarkable in 2013: after focussing on Iceland, Latvia and Finland in the past, last year’s spotlight was on Poland and the Kwartludium ensemble, special guests from Warsaw.

Unusual hallmarks have emerged in the regional concert scene as well: the Cottbus Philharmonic, for instance, have been initiating audiences into new orchestral music for five years now. The concept there, one-of-a-kind nationwide, is the brainchild of general music director Evan Christ. The idea is for the orchestra to world-premiere a brief contemporary work at every concert. Last year’s commissioned compositions were by the likes of Nina Šenk, Philipe Manoury, Bernd Franke, Malika Kishino and Philipp Maintz. The most important New Music initiative in the neighbouring state of Saxony-Anhalt is the Impuls-Festival, which was spread out over seven cities last year.

Multifarious contemporary opera

Despite widespread cost-cutting measures, new works for the stage as well were put on in many a municipal or national theatre. The nationwide penchant was not so much for sophisticated musical experimentation as for socio-politically pertinent subjects that can be put across to conventional operagoers, too. Cristóbal Halffter’s Schachnovelle, after Stefan Zweig’s eponymous novella (titled “The Royal Game” or “Chess Story” in English translation), enjoyed its world premiere last year at the Theater Kiel. In this opera, the Spanish composer adapts Zweig’s 1942 tale about the survival of intellectual culture in a world ravaged by violence and dictatorship.

The Theater Osnabrück put on an ambitious ensemble production of Das große Heft (The Notebook), a new music theatre piece by composer Sidney Corbett after the eponymous novel (original French title: Le grand cahier) by Swiss-Hungarian author Agota Kristof about 9-year-old twins learning the inhumane lessons of growing up in the war. And British composer Adam Gorb’s chamber opera Anya 17 about sexual slavery had its world premiere at the Meiningen municipal theatre.

As their contribution to the Wagner bicentenary, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf staged Helmut Oehring’s new SehnSuchtMEER, a reworking of motifs from The Flying Dutchman.

The likewise restless individual in search of identity was the subject of a three-part Orlando project at Bielefeld Theatre, composed by Vito Zuraj, Martin Grütter and Michael Langemann. And the age-old wish for a second chance is the theme of Ludger Vollmer’s opera Lola rennt(Run, Lola, Run) at the Regensburg Theatre, a work inspired, needless to say, by Tom Tykwer’s eponymous film.

Professional developments

The stability and continuity of the ensembles is vital to the emergence and performance of New Music in Germany. So the uppermost concerns in the ensemble scene last year were economic security for performing artists and the need to pass their experience on to the next generation of musicians.

Building on their experience of the nationwide New Music Network (2008–11), contemporary classical ensembles from six German cities have joined forces in the project Ensemble-Gesellschaft. The Ensemble Resonanz (Hamburg), ensemble recherche (Freiburg), El Perro Andaluz (Dresden), ascolta (Stuttgart), ensemble mosaik (Berlin) and Das Neue Ensemble (Hannover), in several project stages and their several cities, now seek to heighten awareness of and reflection on contemporary ensemble culture as lifelong projects for the performing artists involved.

Meanwhile, ambitious up-and-coming musicians in the state youth ensembles for New Music in Lower Saxony, Thuringia and Rhineland-Palatinate/Saarland pooled their forces last year for the first time to form an Ensemble der Länder (i.e. an inter-state ensemble) during the Rheinsberger Pfingstwerkstatt (Rheinsberg Whitsun Workshop). Other activities are envisaged for 2014 to further boost networking among young musicians interested in contemporary classical music, ranging from concerts with other new state ensembles to possibly forming a national youth ensemble.

The European Workshop of Contemporary Music, a German-Polish group of young musicians funded by the German Music Council, celebrated their 10th anniversary with a concert at the Warschauer Herbst (Warsaw Autumn). The Internationale Ensemble Modern Akademie (IEMA) fêted their 10th anniversary too, putting out a CD and a book and appearing at several festivals, e.g. in Cologne, Schwaz (Austria) and Frankfurt am Main.

Jubilees, people & awards

In addition to the aforementioned events, last year was also marked by various jubilees, personalities and music awards. The centenaries of the births of Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutosławski and the 50th anniversaries of the deaths of Paul Hindemith and Karl Amadeus Hartmann were imaginatively and abundantly celebrated in concert series, theatre and radio programmes, as well as in local initiatives. The Herrenhausen Gallery in Hannover, for instance, put together a whole nightlong programme of Lutosławski’s Music for crowd-funding purposes. Meanwhile a church in Cologne brought together amateurs and pros alike for several Britten Days. The Bavarian Chamber Philharmonic took part in a gala concert to perform the world premiere of Hartmann’s early Symphonie-Divertissement. And the music schools in Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Hannover devoted several days’ events to Paul Hindemith.

The release of a CD, a biography, a documentary film and various lecture concerts in Berlin, Göttingen, Munich, Wolfsburg, Chemnitz and elsewhere paid homage to composer Ursula Mamlok for her 90th birthday. Given her Jewish background, Mamlok emigrated in 1939 to New York, where she spent six and a half decades before returning to Germany in 2006. Various initiatives in Germany have long been committed to rehabilitating composers and musicians who were persecuted and driven out by the Nazis and have since faded into obscurity.

Journalist and producer Rolf W. Stoll received the German Record Critics’ “Certificate of Special Merit” for his WERGO Records, voted “outstanding German CD label for contemporary music”.

By international standards, Germany does have quite a diverse scene of small, specialized and ambitious avant-garde music labels.

Composer Friedrich Schenker died in Berlin last year at the age of 70. Schenker was associated with avant-garde music theatre works as well as the Hanns Eisler Leipzig New Music group. In the former East Germany and until recently, he was among the more important and politically and aesthetically unconventional artists of his era.