Contemporary Music 2010 As thriving and diverse as ever

The interest in contemporary music theatre remained unbroken in the German-speaking world in 2010. And the multi-faceted New Music festival scene featured a number of high-calibre and widely-acclaimed concerts. 

Peter Eötvös, Die Tragödie des Teufels Bayerische Staatsoper, 2010 Peter Eötvös, Die Tragödie des Teufels Bayerische Staatsoper, 2010 | © Wilfried Hösl Much of what goes on in New Music is not confined to Germany, though it is often closely tied into the German music scene. That goes for Austria in particular. What happens in Salzburg or at the autumn music festival in the Austrian town of Schwaz is part and parcel of the German New Music scene, not only by virtue of geographic proximity, but also content-wise, especially seeing as many performing artists, like the Ensemble Modern from Frankfurt or the Klangforum Wien, are equally present in both countries.

Vienna and Salzburg premiere Reimann and Rihm

A good illustration of this close nexus was the world premiere of Aribert Reimann’s new opera Medea at the Vienna State Opera: the Frankfurt Opera subsequently took over this staging in a coproduction for the German premiere, which made a powerful impression here as well.

It is always surprising how persistently and vivaciously the opera genre asserts itself in the music world: that goes not only for the traditional repertoire, but also for the enduring interest of composers in every conceivable form of New Music theatre.

Last year’s operas were based not only on literary works, such as Franz Grillparzer’s tragedy Medea, but also on remarkable literary characters or intellectual life in general.
At the Salzburg Festival in 2010, composer Wolfgang Rihm drew on Friedrich Nietzsche’s complex late works for his new opera Dionysos, which presents a view of a highly intricate philosophical mind through the prism, as it were, of music theatre. Rihm’s musical idiom here, as in previous works, is characterized by its tense expressiveness, in which a cantabile linear element increasingly gains in prominence.

Apropos of Nietzsche: not wanting to be outdone by Rihm, Franz Hummel composed Zarathustra, a somewhat different, lighter take on the subject, which enjoyed a passable premiere last year at the Regensburg City Theatre.

Music theatre writ large in southern Germany

Two other major music theatre events were the stagings of Beat Furrer’s piece Begehren (Desire) at Stuttgart’s Éclat Festival and his Wüstenbuch (Desert Book) in a highly suggestive production in Basel by Christoph Marthaler. Furrer’s musical idiom is persistently overwhelming by dint of the sheer complexity of its innovative sounds. This is indeed a truly new conception of opera.
The Éclat Festival has been exploring such radically novel approaches for years now with remarkable regularity.

For those partial to new works of opera, there was a great deal to see and hear once again in 2010. Munich’s Music Theatre Biennale alone featured four compelling works: Philipp Maintz’s Maldoror, Martón Illés’ Die weisse Fürstin (The White Princess) and Lin Wang’s Die Quelle (The Spring), as well as Amazonas, a music theatre project with extensive overseas collaboration.
Also down in Munich, the Bavarian State Opera put on an impressive world premiere of Die Tragödie des Teufels (The Devil’s Tragedy) by Peter Eötvös.
Peter Eötvös is one of the most prolific opera composers, and his works are regularly billed at music theatres, even on smaller stages: e.g. Drei Schwestern (Three Sisters) in Koblenz and Love and Other Demons in Cologne, both of which were fine productions.

Contemporary repertoire holds its own

Those who went to Vienna for Reimann’s Medea also got an opportunity to attend the world premiere of Johannes Kalitzke’s Die Besessenen (Possessed) at the Theater an der Wien.
Kalitzke is one of the most competent New Music conductors around. His wealth of experience also serves him in good stead in his compositional endeavours as well, in which his music is characterized by a very precise sound continuum.

Other world premieres of operatic works included Detlev Glanert’s Das Holzschiff (The Wooden Ship) in Nuremburg, Marc-André Dalbavie’s Gesualdo in Zurich, Michael Obst’s Die andere Seite (The Other Side) and, in Gladbach, the indefatigable Hans Werner Henze’s Gisela, as widely acclaimed as his Phaedra, which is performed more often: a positive sign that the old rule “premiered and then carted off to the archives” doesn’t seem to apply anymore. As a matter of fact, an astounding number of new music theatre works are subsequently restaged by the theatres.
New orchestral and vocal works also seem to be spared that fateful process of instantaneous obsolescence. Berlin’s Ultraschall Festival, for example, features mostly second runs, which can only help gain a better understanding of a given composition. After all, Beethoven’s Great Fugue also gets more than just one hearing.

Diverse festival scene

The most important vehicles for New Music in 2010 were, as ever, the ambitious festivals: the Musiktage in Donaueschingen and the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (New Chamber Music Festival in Witten), which finally gave Friedrich Cerha the attention he deserves – and with some wonderful renditions to boot.

Berlin’s MaerzMusik (March Music) festival maintained its standing in the New Music hierarchy, and the above-mentioned Éclat in Stuttgart and the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music under a new artistic director also went down well.
Weingarten, where for over 20 years the tireless Rita Jans has paid tribute to a different composer every year with a fine little festival in late autumn, held a fascinating encounter last year with Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who plainly felt right at home in the intimate atmosphere of this festival, particularly in working with young women piano students, whom she was able to give valuable “tips” on interpreting her works.

Performing artists

Any survey of New Music ought to include not only composers, new compositions and festivals, but also the performing artists.
Without the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern, the Klangforum Wien, the musikFabrik Köln and the ensemble recherche in Freiburg, without the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with its important Musica Viva concerts, or the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Baden-Baden and Freiburg, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra with its top-notch concerts for the broadcaster’s Musik der Zeit (“Music of the Age”) series, all the efforts to come up with authentic renditions of New Music would be in vain.
An ordinary orchestra simply wouldn’t have the time to thoroughly rehearse difficult New Music with the requisite attention to detail.

Looking and listening back on 2010, New Music in Germany displayed an impressive breadth and quality last year once again.
And the fact that more and more people, young, old and middle-aged alike, are thronging to the concert halls for the “new sounds” – Donaueschingen was almost alarmingly overrun – gives grounds for hope that the state and public broadcasters as well will remain alive to their responsibility for the future of our music.