MaerzMusik 2010 in Berlin

The Arditti Quartet; Ensemble Ictus; Konzerthausorchester/ Roland Kluttig; Klangforum Vienna/ Beat Furrer

Kammermusiksaal Philharmonie, Konzerthaus Berlin etc, 30 March 20104 stars

The Arditti QuartetAhead of Tuesday's MaerzMusik concert by the Arditti Quartet, a couple of performances by groups of children took place in the Berlin Philharmonie. This was part of Querklang, an initiative that saw composers and musicians work with students from schools around the city to produce and give 'world premieres' of collective compositions.

In front of a gathered crowd, the youngsters played on unconventional instruments – a bicycle wheel, wine glasses filled with water, a plastic bag and a little girl gargling water into a microphone being some of the sound sources used. It was great to watch, and doubtless for some the unconventional sounds made more sense coming from children than from their elders.

Later, the angular and disjointed Kammermusiksaal hosted the Arditti Quartet, and reflected somewhat their music. Before the performance I sat and tried to work out what the dimensions in the Escherish space are, but quickly gave up. The sound was certainly held well, a fantastic resonance illuminating the silences following struck notes.

The Ardittis' programme leant towards business of discourse, and wasn't particularly friendly towards harmony. Aperghis's Quartet Movement was the lightest work, with something of the pantomime to it, a subdued babble whose words you couldn't quite make out. Following this was Ferneyhough's Dum Transisset I-IV, setting a bizarre contrast with the preceding. It's a compelling enough piece, and my favourite of the movements was the ethereal third. The first half came to a close with a joint commission by MaerzMusik and the Huddersfield festival, James Clarke's String Quartet No. 2. Drones on cello combined with a wash of static noise on the other instruments to give the unexpected reflection of electric guitar-based noise music. The highlight was a virtuoso solo by Irvine Arditti.

Another new commission was Olga Neuwirth's in the realms of the unreal, giving us the only (welcome) triads of the night. The composer herself took applause afterwards, as did Hugues Dufourt following his work, which ended the evening (he was impeccably dressed). This latter work was probably the evening's standout. A viola presented an argument that was afterwards progressively aped until the whole quartet functioned as one instrument, sounding and resting in unison, an argument with one arguer. This also perhaps said something of the quartet writing on show. Although the Ardittis were outstanding, coasting with grace through the technically arduous musical landscape, the scenery displayed became tiring. I found myself fantasising about something classical – Beethoven, Schubert, even Bartok – for the variety that was lacking in the contemporary works.

NoseVariety was present in spades in Telegrams from the Nose, a collaboration between French composer François Sarhan and South Africa visual artist William Kentridge. Telegrams is a series of short pieces for small band (here the spirited Ictus Ensemble) featuring video and theatre. It is a meditation on the betrayal of the artistic and societal hopes of the futurists by the Soviet project, using Gogol's the Nose as guiding reference. Sarhan took the stage a couple of times himself, orating to the audience and managing to become detached from his shadow, which moved independently from him on the stage's backdrop. This backdrop was a mess of newspaper cut-outs, the headline A SHADOW OF A SHADOW looming large, the duplicity of art meeting with the duplicity of society.

Located in Mitte, the Konzerthaus Berlin makes for an impressive set of buildings, monuments and spaces on the outside. Designed by Schinkel, it was reconstructed after suffering bad damage during the War. Friday night there saw an orchestral concert given in the Great Hall by the Konzerthausorchester under Roland Kluttig.

In keeping with the festival's UTOPIA [LOST] theme – identifying history, perhaps, as the continual and ongoing loss of utopia – the first work was from the early twentieth century, and the hand of the Russian composer Nikolai Obuchow. In common with his countryman Scriabin's ambitions, Le Livre de vie was envisaged as a monumental mystical edifice that would scrape the heavens and plumb our hidden depths. Over eight hundred pages long in score, its preface saw a rare airing to open the evening.

His voice belting out around the hall, falsetto tenor Andrew Watts was fantastic in this bizarre work, which was lengthy and rendered muddily by the orchestra. Its kitschy sci-fi ritualistic aspect somehow fitted with the neo-classical design of the Great Hall's interior – heavy on mock-ornate marble and gold panelling, fake golden lyres for candle lights and so on. The value of the work was its presenting us with both a vision of and a vision from a lost time; but although it featured whistling onstage by the three singers, it's not something you were in danger of walking away whistling yourself.

The two middle works were recent. Hans w. koch’s stele für n. o. is a static harmonic piece which shimmers like a frozen red sunset for around twenty minutes. It wasn't to the taste of the audience or, it appeared, most of the orchestra, but I quite liked it, although its liberal appropriation of some Feldman material – chords and orchestration from Coptic Light – is questionable. Marking Time by John McGuire presents some metrically alternating material moving between four groups of the orchestra. Inane and bland, the unintended effect was of Satie's musique d'ameublement, the busts of the great composers around the hall looking on at the boring domesticity.

FurrerThe Konzerthausorchester were undoubtedly most at ease with Varèse's Arcana, which was by far the best piece of the night. This is music that really benefits from being heard live. Simultaneously pushing forward into the future and looking backwards to the past, it is a work that shows how well Varèse understood not only composition, but also the orchestra itself and how to write for it.

While the Volksbühne was once the Arts theatre for East Berlin, the Schaubühne is its equivalent in the West. On Saturday evening there I attended the second performance of Wüstenbuch, a major new music theatre work by Beat Furrer premiered in Basel a few weeks ago.

The libretto, a polyglot mix of texts from the ancient to the recent, offers up images of aridity and thirst, of unknown lovers meeting in the desert, rituals of death and addresses to the shades. It is a non-linear libretto, and the idea with the thinking behind this production, I guess, was to ground its abstractness and fragmentedness in a concrete situation, so as to balance the airiness of the one with the mundanity of the other. A parallel was so drawn between the desert imagery of the text and the set upon which modern post-industrial society is played out and which every day we're asked to believe is natural.

The audience had a vista on an opened-out building, three hotel rooms taking up the upstairs level and on the ground level a long basement room, akin to a warehouse, laid out, its walls and floor blanched white and lit by long gaudy striplights in the ceiling. Upon this latter area processions of women, dressed in 1940s clothing, traipsed around, sat on chairs or lay on the floor. In the upstairs level people were shown into rooms, lay in beds, came out to the ledge to stare like ghosts at the audience. At one point the assembled cast on the downstairs level produced cameras, approached the wall and from a distance of a foot began taking photos with camera flashes. On frequent occasions a woman picked up a fire hydrant for no apparent reason and did a little dance with it, raising some laughs in the audience.

This production, by Christoph Marthaler, reminded me of a production I once saw of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, which suffered similar problems. The attempted concretisation of the text for me actually had the reverse effect of creating a metaphor without any reference. It didn't help that there are no characters or characterisation, rarely any interchanges of dialogue between figures onstage, never mind plot or narrative (granted it's music theatre and that's someway expected). With everything flattened out, if you enjoy the flat metaphoric level fine – if not, it's not as effective as it could be.

These gripes aside it was entertaining. Furrer's music is compelling and held the atmosphere well, utilising many extended techniques and erring towards metallic and shrill tones. The redoubtable Klangforum Vienna, dressed in period costume, sat onstage in front of the actors and singers, and when they weren't playing feigned sleep in front of their instruments. At the end there was a massive applause and at least five rounds of bowing.

MaerzMusik ran until Sunday, and I only attended some of the many events that went on over its course. A successful, thought provoking production, we can look forward to future editions, whether in times utopian or otherwise.

By Liam Cagney

Photo credits: MaerzMusik

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MaerzRelated articles:

Concert Review: The opening weekend of MaerzMusik 2010
Concert Review: Works by Aperghis and Xenakis in Paris
Concert Review: Works by Harvey and Varèse at the Proms 2008