MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Breaths of Fresh Air: The Seattle Symphony Premieres Olga Neuwirth

Last night’s concert was the first chance I’ve had to experience Thomas Dausgaard in action with the Seattle Symphony since his inaugural season as music director began. Even with just a fraction of the players onstage for the entire first half (and a modest-sized orchestra for the second), this was music-making on a very high level. There was no fall-back on routine — which might easily have been the case, in view of the presence of two ultra-familiar works anchoring the program: the fourth of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Mozart’s final Symphony, the so-called (though not by the composer) “Jupiter.”

What gave the programming an edge was the inclusion, side-by-side with the Bach, of a new work by the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth titled Aello – ballet mécanomorphe. Dausgaard led its world premiere in Stockholm last year, with flutist Claire Chase as the soloist and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (which he helmed until starting his SSO tenure this fall). Neuwirth was one of six contemporary composers commissioned by Dausgaard and the SCO to write new response works that somehow react to the Brandenburg Concertos. (For the record, the others include Uri Caine, Brett Dean, Anders Hillborg, Steven Mackey, and Mark Anthony Turnage — the whole project was presented at the 2018 BBC Proms [see video above].)

The Seattle Symphony had the honor of giving Aello‘s U.S. premiere — and, it is to be hoped, will continue pursuing the music of this boldly imaginative, singular, uncompromising composer. Neuwirth is at last gaining long-overdue recognition. She was a key presence at the recent Musikfest Berlin
(where I had a chance to hear Susanne Mälkki conduct the young Karajan Akademie musicians in Aello, with Berlin Philharmonic principal Emmanuel Pahud as the soloist).

Neuwirth’s commission was to write a companion piece to be paired with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major (BWV 1049), using essentially the same chamber ensemble. Except she replaces Bach’s soloist trio of violin and two flutes (or flute-like instruments) with a solo flute as protagonist. Her counterparts are a pair of trumpets (one piccolo) that play with various mutes — taking on the role of the Bach flutes. (The doubleness of the latter come back as well in the flute soloist’s alternation between her “normal” instrument and a bass flute for the final movement.)

As “continuo,” Neuwirth substitutes a multiple-personality “harpsichord” comprising a synthesizer and a percussionist (Michael Werner) who plays a mechanical typewriter (the score specifies an “Oilivetti Lettera 22” model, which is amplified), a triangle made to resound with an automatic milk foamer, and a water-filled glass pitched to a high E. And even the string ensemble is “de-natured” by the complex multiple tuning system Neuwirth establishes for the whole ensemble (including the solists), with four layers of different pitchings.

Claire Chase, the score’s dedicatee, is a widely acclaimed musical adventurer who has built her solo career around expanding the potential for her instrument. Neuwirth avails herself not only of Chase’s extraordinary musicianship but of her stage charisma as well. The flutist’s performance last night cast a spell with her commanding gusts and mysterious whisperings, egging on the motley trumpet sounds and breaking free from the ensemble’s attempts at hegemony.

As she nimbly — indeed, balletically — turned and twisted, Chase’s compelling stage presence seemed to conjure an oracle, at times blissful, at others demonic in its aura. Aello actually refers to an ancient Greek harpy, but Neuwirth subverts the sexist image by making her mythical being into “someone sent by the gods to restore peace, if necessary with force, and to exact punishment for crimes.”

Similarly, the “macho” personae of Baroque trumpets is tamed and, as it were, Dada-fied through the mutes and the resultant kaleidoscope of colors (Neuwirth herself studied trumpet). The legacy of Dada — its absurdist play with machines and “stuff,” with the mechanical aspects of modernity — is another important influence on Neuwirth’s aesthetic.

There were some muffled gasps and giggles from the audience, reacting to the absurdist humor of the piece — yet Aello is by no means a simple “parody” of the Bach companion (neither in the usual sense of the word nor even the Baroque sense).

Neuwirth follows Bach’s three-movement design and quotes snippets of his motifs and melodies, but these appear more as vanishing recollections of a musical world that no longer makes sense. Along with the playfulness, there are moments of mesmerizing mystery — above all in the slow middle movement, which approaches the ethereal — and even of terror. Neuwirth’s sense of pacing is superb — no wonder she has a flair for the stage and for film scoring. She dramatizes a remarkable attempted coup by the ensemble in the final moments that is thwarted, once again, by the flute-goddess’s knowing breath.

Dausgaard led a (mostly) standing ensemble in the Fourth Brandenburg itself to start the program and set the stage for Aello. Claire Chase joined principal flutist Demarre McGill and concertmaster Noah Geller to form the solo group. All of them listened intently to their fellow musicians and responded with in-the-moment honesty. Dazzlingly stylish and refined, Geller gave the insanely difficult violin cadenzas the elan of breakout jazz solos. I especially relished the mingled “mega-flute” colorations McGill and Chase created as their lines bobbed and wove together.

The Mozart sounded … BIG in comparison to the chamber delicacy of the first half (Baroque and Dadaish alike). I would have preferred a slightly less beefed-up string section. Dausgaard mostly succeeded in keeping balances beautifully weighted, but Mozart’s wind writing was at moments a tad lacking in presence because of the wall of string sound.

Still, the Danish maestro enjoys an inspiring rapport with the SSO, and everyone was on high alert to deliver. He even pulled a few Arthur Nikisch moments, in which he conducted using nothing but his eyebrows. Dausgaard approached the “Jupiter” as a proto-Beethovenian epic, exploiting explosive accents (with dynamic contributions from James Benoit on timpani) and delineating a sense of musical travel, above all in the outer movements.

He obviously possesses a fantastic ear, and the ability to coax microsecond readjustments, so that rich, unexpected colors emerged — most wondrously, in the veiled murkiness he elicited from the slow movement’s harmonic clouds. Mozart’s pauses became a powerful theatrical device through which he drew intriguing connections between the first two movements, the one Apollonian in majesty, its cantabile counterpart an Orphic reverie.

Mozart famously performs his own retoolings of Bach (and Handel) in many of his late period works: the “Jupiter” finale is glorious exemplary. Dausgaard kept the architecture cleanly in view without dampening the visceral excitement.

The program will be repeated on Saturday 12 October at 8pm. And Claire Chase performs in recital tonight at 7.30pm at Octave 9.

Review (c)2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Olga Neuwirth, review, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Clocks Without Hands at Maerzmusik


Looking forward to this concert tonight: orchestral works by Ashley Fure, Justė Janulytė, and Olga Neuwirth. Program book here.
https://www.ricordi.com/de-DE/News/2015/06/Neuwirth-Masaot.aspx

Filed under: Maerzmusik, MärzMusik, new music, Olga Neuwirth

Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway at Oper Frankfurt

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left to right: Steffen Ahrens (Ensemble Modern), Elizabeth Reiter (Alice), and John Brancy (Pete); photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

My review of Olga Neuwirth’s extraordinary video-opera, directed by Yuval Sharon at Oper Frankfurt, is now online at Musical America:

FRANKFURT, Germany—Questions give rise to more and more questions in Lost Highway, including one that kept recurring to me as I became increasingly entangled in the performance: Why is Olga Neuwirth still so woefully underrepresented in America’s new music scene? The evening I spent with Oper Frankfurt’s production (September 19) proved to be so engrossing, so provocative in all the right ways, that the neglect of her fascinating body of work seems all the more outrageous—and our loss all the more to be pitied, until it’s remedied.

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Filed under: Musical America, new opera, Olga Neuwirth, Oper Frankfurt, review, Yuval Sharon

Olga Neuwirth’s New Percussion Concerto for Lucerne Festival

Last weekend at Lucerne Festival brought the world premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s latest major orchestral work: a percussion concerto titled Trurliade – Zone Zero (which references one of the Austrian composer’s sources of inspiration, the sci fi master Stanisław Lem). The soloist was Victor Hanna, and Matthias Pintscher conducted the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy.

Trurliade was the eighth in the ongoing Roche Commissions series, which picks from the leading composers at work today to commission a new orchestral work every two years, which is then premiered at Lucerne Festival. Neuwirth has also been serving as this year’s composer-in-residence at the Festival, which is focusing on the theme of women in music.

Neuwirth is a genuinely fascinating, one-of-a-kind composer who has created especially striking works of music theater (including collaborations with fellow Austrian and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, an operatic treatment of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and a “musicstallation” in homage to Herman Melville, among others).

In her Neue Zürcher Zeitung review, Michelle Ziegler writes:

Trotz der plastischen Anlage geht Neuwirth mit den Bezügen und Zitaten in ihrer «Trurliade – Zone Zero» ungemein feinsinnig um. Sie lässt die Zahnräder der Orchestermaschinerie zwar wie geschmiert laufen, verliert sich aber nie in einem vorhersehbaren Trott. Sie fügt Geräusche nicht zur Show ein, sondern findet im Klang der Schrottobjekte einen poetischen Zauber. Damit hat die Komponistinfür ihre zweite Residenz beim Lucerne Festival ein wunderbar persönliches, zugleich tiefsinniges und erfrischendes Werk geschaffen.

The composer has written an intriguing program note introducing her new concerto:

This is why the title of the piece refers to Stanisław Lem’s Trurl’s Machine. With his warning against unfreedom, Lem in turn alludes to George Orwell’s novel 1984. In Lem’s story the machine designed by Trurl insists on its mindless and inflexible assertion: “Two plus two is seven.” In Orwell’s book the apparatus of power demands obedience through re-education, propaganda lies, and surveillance by illogically claiming that “two plus two is five” – until the individual complies with the stipulations of the regime and gives up thinking. The regime “teaches” renegades and dissidents to love Big Brother by using cruel methods of torture. The protagonist, already demoralized and worn down mentally and physically through continual re-education measures, nevertheless does not give up the fight and becomes dangerous to the Party when he dares to express (mathematical) facts: “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two is four.” And he does so even though, according to Orwell, the loudspeakers keep demanding over and over again that everyone accept whatever Big Brother defines as true, including that two and two is five. This phrase represents the obedience required by an ideology in contrast to rational facts and truth.

 

 

Filed under: commissions, Lucerne Festival, Olga Neuwirth

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