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A double dose of contemporary classics

Two weekends of contemporary classical music: Sounds and Visions at Barbican Hall and Ligeti in Wonderland at Southbank Centre

Session One of 'Sounds and Visions'. Credits: Mark Allan/Barbican

Quite recently during the Composer’s Collective weekend at Southbank Centre two renowned composers – Unsuk Chin and Esa-Pekka Salonen – mentioned (almost in unison) the fact that London is a unique scene for exploring classical music because of the variety and the quality of the concerts it offers to its listeners on daily basis. It is especially true for those who want to discover and get acquainted with the contemporary classical music scene. Sometimes it feels that London offers too much, and one can’t physically stretch oneself between several incredible concerts. They also do come in packages, as it happened during one wonderful weekend of 11-13 May 2018. The Barbican Centre had a unique weekend ‘Sounds and Visions’ curated by composer Max Richter and his wife, the filmmaker and artist Yulia Mahr that featured Richter’s music from his different pursuits (orchestral, electronic, ballet and film scores) alongside with performances from other exciting chamber ensembles and electronic musicians. At the same time, The Southbank Centre had a celebration called ‘Ligeti in Wonderland’ dedicated to Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti, one of the major figures of the 20th century music. It was curated by the acclaimed French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Southbank Centre’s Artist in Residence) known as one of the most important interpreters of this composer’s music and who had been personally close to him.

Although one could not be present at two places at once for all events, it was possible to combine some of them and together one made a real feast of 20th and 21st century works performed by musicians who are known for championing new music. And it is indeed was heard in abundance, with one the most well-known names of the 20th century being on the programme of ‘Sounds and Visions’ (Luciano Berio, Steve Reich, Charles Ives, with the host Max Richter being the centre of musical attention for all three days) and Györgi Ligeti forming the material for the Southbank Centre weekend. It is hard to describe the feeling of excitement that was characteristic for both weekends where Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elisabeth Hall, Barbican Hall (including its freeStage) and LSO St Luke’s bubbled with people, but some of the impressions from the works heard could be indeed put down here.

12th May 2018 (evening), Barbican Hall

The weekend of ‘Sounds and visions’ was fully under way by the time of its ‘Session Four’ on Saturday evening. It started on Friday 11th May with ‘Session One’ that had electronical music from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Jiin, the latter being accompanied by dancing of Lilian Steinter and visual installations prepared by Theresa Baumgartner. The most important work of the evening was the orchestral performance of Max Richter’s music (originally released as an album) for the ballet ‘Infra’ (with choreography by Wayne McGregor) that was produced by the Royal Opera House in 2008 and will be revived in November 2018. There were also freeStage performances by 12 Ensemble (strings) on Friday and Saturday, playing the music of Lutosławski and on the next day American composer Bryce Dessner’s Réponse Lutosławski. There were also ‘Session Two’ in LSO St Luke’s (with Vikingur Ólafson and Will Gregory Mooh Ensemble performing chamber music) and ‘Session Three’ at St Giles’ Cripplegate with London Syrian Ensemble.

After Session One on 11 May, 2018. Credits: Mark Allan/Barbican

However, ‘Session Four’ with BBC Symphony Orchestra joining Max Richter, Colin Currie and two renowned vocal ensembles Synergy Vocals and Roomful of Teeth, was the most important event of the weekend. It was saturated with 20th century and 21st century music to the extent of running well beyond 11pm in the evening, but it was undoubtedly one of the richest and most interesting events of the season. Max Richter, a youthful and handsome 50-year old host of the weekend (his wife Yulia Mahr was in the audience, coming on stage for future sessions), presented each of the elements of the programme. He made an extensive introduction into personal connections he had with Steve Reich and Luciano Berio (who was his teacher in Milan), and also explaining his ideas behind his own work ‘Three Worlds that was to finish the evening. Then Colin Currie, the leader of Colin Currie Group, came on stage and took his position in a conductor’s box, some special purple-green-yellow lights lit the Barbican Hall, and the evening started.

Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981) was the work performed by Currie and his Group with the help of beautiful voices of the Synergy Vocals (alto Heather Cairncross, sopranos Micaela Haslam and Rachel Weston, and high soprano Caroline Jaya-Ratnam). Currie, a leading British percussionist, is known as one of the main interpreters of Reich’s music, with his ensemble frequently exploring the composer’s output at Southbank Centre and Saffron Hall. Tehillim is the first work in Reich’s output where he addressed his Jewish heritage and made music based on Hebrew texts of four Psalms, forming four parts of the work. While still staying within the minimalist tradition (certain melodic lines repeated many times over a tonal centre and with continuous pulse forming the rhythmic base of the work), it could also be said as an exploration of several musical traditions (Baroque and earlier Western music). As the lines of Psalms directed the composer to longer melodic phrases, the elements of its motive structure are larger and ‘less’ minimalist in a way. It also has a ritualist, Eastern quality to it, as Reich obviously tried to imagine how these Psalms could be chanted in an imaginary historic temple, and here the listeners could extend their phantasies not only to Jewish religion, but also to Buddhist, Sikh or Zoroastrian.

Indeed, the audiences of the Barbican could experience this magic, religious quality of Reich’s work in the fullest. It is worth mentioning that due to some technical fault Colin Currie had to restart the piece after about 10 minutes into it, and a strange happy thought crossed my mind: ‘I will listen to that beguiling, entrancing beginning again’. This was the music one could not help wanting to listen forever. Like an ocean it rose and fell, with waves of human voices joined by the accompaniment of a chamber ensemble in their peaks and then receding walls of sounds having direct impact on our souls as though the link was built between the stage and us from the very start. The musicians were ‘layered’ in a stage set-up rather than forming a circle around the conductor. So strings were followed by a percussion group (a very intricate one, with six people tuned tambourines, crotales, maracas, vibraphone and marimba, and sometimes also clapping a very complicated set of intertwining rhythms), then came a row of woodwinds and the last stood the women soloists who were the actual leaders of the whole piece.

The alto Heather Cairncross had a part that continued from the beginning to the end, while the sopranos made their rhythmic entries to form a beautiful web of voices continiously forming several layers on top of each other. One could indeed drown in this timid, resting ocean growing in its strength tenderly, almost imperceptibly, having its effects as naturally as a world phenomenon or our own thought or emotion would, and gradually becoming a part of ourselves to the extent that we never want let it go. And so when it stopped one had a feeling it never really did and will live in our ears and memories as the mosaics of sounds that has left a physical impression in our minds. Beautiful work performed in a wonderful, concentrated, intense atmosphere of a packed audience of the Barbican by Colin Currie and his musicians who revealed their expertise in a silent, but assured way that was full of self-effacing mastery in their powerful channeling of Steve Reich’s work.

Colin Currie, his group and Synergy Vocals after performing 'Tehillim'

Then after a 40 minutes interval (during which the freeStage of the Barbican had 12 Ensemble play Bryce Dessner’s work), BBC Symphony Orchestra and Roomful of Teeth vocal ensemble came on stage to perform Charles Ives’ ‘Unanswered question’ and Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. The conductor André de Ridder came to the podium to conduct both pieces, as well as the Three Worlds by Max Richter that finished the evening. The first piece has a string ensemble, a trumpet and a woodwing quartet interacting in a sort of dialogue where strings have ‘silences’, a trumpet repeats the same ‘question’, while the woodwinds find an answer it in different, more and more disturbing and dissonant ways, when finally a trumpet is left with final, unanswered question. Then came the time for the highlight of this part of the evening, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, commissioned by New York Philharmonic, dedicated to Leonard Bernstein and premiered in 1968. Max Richter jokingly mentioned beforehand that when he was deep in his modernist writing that was difficult for a listener to perceive, Berio recommended him to get simpler and just allow oneself to ‘write stories’. However, Berio’s own Sinfonia revels in its complexity and revolutionizes contemporary classical music by showing how intensively and deliberately one could play with the existing musical material of previous centuries of classical music.

Max Richter talking before the performance of 'Sinfonia', 12 May 2018

Sinfonia combines a collage of several literary sources (Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked, Beckett’s The Unnamable, Mahler’s instructions and thoughts left on his scores, Berio’s own diaries) with an extensive and witty interaction (the third movement is unique in this respect) with around twenty different classical pieces including Mahler’s Symphony No 2, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Berg’s Wozzeck, Debussy’s La mer with inclusion of Stockhausen, Boulez and Schoenberg. While this incredible collage is played (to understand its intricacies one has to listen to it more than once and know all these pieces very well to appreciate what Berio has done with them), The Roomful of Teeth ensemble speak or sing over the orchestra, with their voices and lines of texts very intricately intertwined and sometimes difficult to follow. They also inserted additional funny ‘on the spot’ comments about the conductor and the whole experience of being on stage and performing this piece and did it in a whirlwind manner, with words and sounds falling from all directions, as though they were pearls scattered on the floor.

The most important thing about Berio’s Sinfonia as demonstrated by BBSCO led by Ridder and Roomful of Teeth is that you have to be actively engaging with the piece through all its 40 minutes, getting different things from it as they will depend on how many of its sources (both literary and musical) you know and can distinguish in its cascading, racing development. It also makes a statement about our inevitable post-modernism where quotes from previous works abandon, and our brains are wired to look for traces of previous centuries in every new music composition or a poem (novel, article, play) produced today. It was one of the greatest intellectual and emotional experiences listening to this work, and it also had an immense youthful drive of its own, as though the sheer daring fact of putting it all together in his piece energized Berio and made him transfer the joy of its creation to all of us present in the hall.

André de Ridder, BBCSO and 'Roomful of Teeth' after performing 'Sinfonia'

After one more interval to let all these experiences sink in, there was an instalment of Max Richter’s own work – Three Worlds, the music that was written for Wayne McGregor’s ballet ‘Woolf Works’ that was part of ROH’s 2016/2017 season. Richter and McGregor divided the work in three parts, each dedicated to one of Woolf’s novels: ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘Orlando’ and ‘The Waves’, with some additional autobiographical writings (such as her suicide note) also used. In a concert version each section had Woolf’s voice or an enacted version of it preceding the music, with Max Richter being on keyboards, moving from piano to different synthesizers and controlling their sounds together with the sound director (placed in the back of the stalls) who was an important part of the team for ‘Three Worlds’. Having watched the ballet when it was on, I must say the music alone left me with slightly less enthusiastic response, as I always felt that it needs a visual complementary field to work.

Max Richter presenting 'Three Worlds' before its performance, 12 May 2018

Max Richter’s score (his minimalist affiliations and preferences still being felt there) at some moments may be got slightly repetitive, with its long melodic loops and atmospheric, tender build-ups of sound sometimes serving as a lullaby rather than being as electrifying or lyrical as they seemed when seen as part of the ballet. I also felt that Richter may be sometimes veers into the mainstream sounds (almost touching on the verge of easy listening, never being too challenging) as compared to the complexity and indeed dificulty of his earlier works. When listened to after Berio, one could feel that the intellectual depth is slightly too shallow here to enjoy it fully. Obviously, a ballet score serves different purposes than an orchestral score standing on its own, but somehow it did not fully work for me, and may be was too long also to concentrate on it and give it due attention. One really missed Alessandra Ferri as Virginia Woolf, but participation of soprano Esteli Gomez toward the end of the piece added an additional piercing tinge to the score. However, overall, the impession of that evening was immensely positive. It was one of the richest and cleverest events in terms of programming, and felt intensely personal with Max Richter supervising, commenting and participating in it, and other performers (like Colin Currie) also making a strongly personal input into it. That evening would indeed remain forever in Barbican Hall audiences’ memories who, despite it being 30 minutes to midnight, gave a standing ovation to all musicians involved in it. The history of contemporary classical music is made of such events indeed without us noticing it at the moment, but realizing it later.

Max Richter, Esteli Gomez, André de Ridder and BBCSO after 'Three Worlds'

13th May (afternoon), ‘Ligeti in Wonderland’ at Southbank Centre

The evening preceding the afternoon concert of 13th May had the curator of the weekend, Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing the complete Ligeti’s complete Études for Piano (in three Books, with 18 études, with two dedicated to Aimard himself). The first Book of the Études won one of the first Grawemeyer Awards for composition in 1986, and Ligeti continued to write them through the 1990s till 2001. The études follow in the footsteps of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy in addressing the composition tasks set by composer to himself and reflecting his preoccupations with polymetry and micropolyphony in music. The metres are chaning, two hands can play diatonic and chromatic scales, existing almost independently of each other, the vertiginous, almost impossible swiftness of tempos is reflected even in the names of specific pieces: Á bout de souffle, Vertige, L’Escalier du Diable. The études are one of the most difficult pieces to play in the history of piano music, it takes such an accomplished and versatile pianist (who, it is known, can play almost anything) as Pierre-Laurent Aimard to play them. Afterwards the pianist also spent almost an hour with Director of Music at Southbank Centre Gillian Moore to give the audiences his insights into Ligeti’s compositions and share memories of working with him. Having established an online resource in 2015 centred on giving people resources for understanding and teaching Ligeti’s music, Aimard had indeed the authority and expertise to make this talk insightful. As Gillian Moore herself related the next day, the atmospere was of utmost suspense and enthusiasm.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Credits: Marco Borggreve

The afternoon of May 13th had another comrehensive celebration of Ligeti works in an intimate setting of Queen Elisabeth Hall. All of composer’s concertos were played by the guest soloists known for their long-term involvement with music of Ligeti togethe with the renowned and innovative Aurora Orchestra under their conductor Nicholas Collon. The creative director Jane Mitchell and the head of animations Ola Szmida, together with Nicholas Collon and the soloists ensured that some of the complexities of Ligeti’s music were explained and presented in small and entertaining videos beforehand. Thus, for Ligeti’s Piano concerto that was inspired by Caribbean and African music, Collon explained the differences in rhythm for a pianist, percussion and strings, by showing (with the help of a video) where they meet and where they disperse again. Aimard confessed that the Concerto is hardly easier than the études and one needs to be constantly aware of multiple layers that this Concerto is made of, including several that only the piano has plus those of the orchestra. Despite (or may be due to) its complexities and occasional frenzy, the piece is incredibly interesting to listen, with our attentions drawn also to ocarinas and slide wistles that woodwind players occasionally used instead of their usual instruments. Aimard was as always superlative in delivering those richly textured fractal images that Ligeti tried to create through the ever-present sensation of acceleration of sounds’ delivery.

Nicholas Collon explaining the score of Ligeti's Piano concerto. Credits: Viktor Erik Emanuel

Marie-Luise Neunecker played Ligeti’s Hamburgisches Konzert for Horn (composed in 1998-99, it was dedicated to her and she has played it all over the world), the seventh movement of which (added in 2002) is the last piece of music Ligeti ever wrote. The horn concerto is played with the use of natural hors (the predecessors of the modern instrument), with both the soloists and four hornists having to exchange pairs of instruments in the process. While the metres of its relatively short movements are again very complex (the influences of Turkish aksak musical tempo-rhythms is there), the concerto is more subdued, gentle, melancholic and contemplative than the adjacent concertos. The silences between the movements when a player had to change her instrument added to a general sense of silent focus and in-depth exploration of Ligeti’s work. Neunecker played it imposingly, carefully and with utmost concentration, with the spirit of Ligeti probably entering the hall at its finale and silently praising the dedicatee for her faithfulness to his ideas.

Marie-Luise Neunecker playing Ligeti's Hamburgisches Konzert for Horn. Credits: Viktor Erik Emanuel

Violin Concerto was the last piece to be played that afternoon, done with outstanding freshness and panache by barefoot Patricia Kopatchinskaja, a young Russian violinist (an expert in chamber music and recipient of a Grammy award for her recording Death and the Maiden on Alpha Classics) already making her name for her inventiveness and dedication to both modern and classical music. The video that presented the piece brought out the images of Ligeti’s childhood memory where he dreamed he was entangled in a web with different objects from the centre drawn to its centre together with the boy who had it all in his head. Seemingly, violin concerto seems to be Ligeti’s exploration of his memories and a return to a beginning of a kind. It includes folksong motives, and its nostalgic melodies are more pronounced here than in any another concerto, with Kopatchinskaja’s violin being an incredibly powerful channel for these emotions.

The 'dream of a web' explained by Nickolas Collon before Ligeti's Violin Concerto. Credits: Viktor Erik Emanuel

Having compared playing this concerto to walking a rope with one leg in the air, Kopatchinskaja indeed bravely and dedicatedly found her balance within this demanding piece. She invigotated the whole concerto with her own energy, making the piece her own and being almost its co-author. Her final cadenza was especially powerful, with the violinist whistling and singing along with her play, and constantly turning to members of the orchestra, almost coiling herself around them to produce the synergy of multiple instrumental voices. Indeed a feat from a young Russian who deserved a roaring applause and in a way dared to outshine Pierre-Laurent Aimard himself in her youthful creativity, openness and selflessly fresh and masterful approach. The afternoon at Queen Elizabeth Hall could not have ended on a higher note indeed, bringing ‘Ligeti in Wonderland’ weekend to a close.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja.. Credits: Eric Melzer

13th May 2018 (evening), Barbican Hall

In the meanwhile, ‘Session Seven’ of ‘Sounds and Visions’ weekend was a screening of a famous and acclaimed animated war film Waltz with Bashir directed by an Izraeli director Ari Folman to which Max Richter wrote a score. Chineke! Orchestra played Richter’s score on stage, with Fawzi Haimor (whose family in fact comes from Lebanon) conducting. The film is a very lyrical autobiographical story of Folman’s search for truth through exploring his confused memories of being part of 1982 Lebanon war. He cannot recall the night of Sabra and Shatila massacres, while he knows he and some other men he knows must have been in it or know something about it. The real-life figures (including a TV reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, psychologist Zahava Solomoon, and friends and acquaintances of Folman who are veterans of Israeli Lebanon war) appear in the film in animated versions, with a short, but very shocking documentary fragment from Palestinian refugee camp showing the aftermath of the killings included in the end. The film developes as a series of meetings of the protagonist (Folman himself) with these people in their homes in an attempt to investigate what did happen on that night. It traspired in the end the massacres were perpetrated by the Lebanese Christian phalange, with soldiers and groups around never consciously aware of something happpening or indeed never interfering or trying to check on something that felt wrong that evening. While doing so, it focuses not only on the final goal of this search for truth, but also on details of people’s memories, reactions, their suppresion of hurtful images, their attempted escapism, their existence with this experience under cover, as though it never happened.

Richter’s music came in usually at the moment when a protagonist had a vision or a dream, or was caught in the recurring memory of standing up in the middle of the coastal sea and walking through the streets with his friends. It was an overwhelming experience to hear it, as one was almost swamped by images from the screen and piercing, painful, and also dreamy and very beautiful music of Richter. Actually, without Richter’s music, it seems, the film would have never acquired that intimate, exploratory, very humane character that it did, and the instrumentation suited the animation very well, leaving us completely immersed in this wonderfully drawn world, almost forgetting that real figures and faces could exist on screen. The post-screeening Q&A with conductor Fawzi Haimar, composer Max Richter and film director Ari Folman, hosted by Yulia Mahr, brought some additional insights to the process of creation a film score (from Max) and to a long personal journey that was making of this film for Folman. It seems this collaboration was indeed worth it, as the film collected many accolades, including a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Fawzi Haimar shared some insights into difficulties of conducting a live score where there is no room for slightly imprecise temporal entries. He explained how he had a prompt underneath near his box indicating the minutes of film corresponding to particular bars in the score, and that the orchestra in this case did not have the choice of starting a second or two later as it happens in usual concert – they had to begin on the spot, with the conductor’s hand. It happened because each element of music needed to match a particular image on the screen presicely, as animation also develops (and thus important ideas and image depend on this precision) in correspondance with recorded music that is now heard on stage instead. Then all the participants answered some questions from the audience, where I tried to question Max on the process of writing scores for art forms that are heavily dependent on visual perception – ballet and films. I wanted to know what comes first – the visual image ‘prescribed’ by his collaborator or his own inner perception of a given theme, and Richter tried to explain the details of his composing process, explaining that writing such scores come quite naturally to him, as indeed images abound in his head before he actually sees the work that would be superimposed on his music.

Max Richter - one of two hosts and curators of 'Sounds and Visions' weekend

There was also a very positive personal impression from seeing Yulia Mahr and Max Richter sat together on a sofa on the stage of the Barbican Hall. They were also spotted in the audience of the Barbican Hall throughout the weekend, always close to each other, whispering something and exchanging ideas, with their bodies and heads always in a certain invisible harmony. The ‘Sounds and Visions’ weekend being just one of their creative ‘children’, this couple seemed to be a perfect, ideal example of unity of love and creation. I presumed that in music world partners of musicians are always ‘shadowed’, left behind to look after the children or to be involved in some other non-creative activities, and it was so inspiring to see the example of a man and woman intensively and effectively collaborating on projects, bringing in their talents in one mutual pool of activity. It seems that such synergy can indeed cause unpredictably forceful results and have repercussions well beyond the separate talents of each of the two. Interestingly, the parallel weekend at the Southbank Centre had the same kind of energy building behind it, as the same could be said of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and his wife Tamara Stefanovich who took part in the first evening of ‘Ligeti in Wonderland’ weekend on 11th May 2018 and who have worked on several projects together and continue to do so. Somehow, these thoughts left a very tender light in my heart, and hopefully the number of similar creative couples like that among modern musicians, artists, writers, film directors, university professors, etc. will only grow and multiply.

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