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ISCM WORLD MUSIC DAYS 1996 - Menachem Zur




Reports on the 1996 ISCM World Music Days in Copenhagen
Menachem Zur, ISCM Israel

The WMD ISCM '96 in Copenhagen was well organized and and succeeded in exhibiting a more pluralistic musical picture than did the previous festival in Essen. The high esthetic sense of the Danes was evidenced by their use of beautiful halls of the Stock Exchange, the Arken museum and the Planetarium, as well as through the esthetic design of the program by Dafna Naphtali.

In the introduction to the program, Mr. Jens Hesselager and the artistic director Mr. Lars Graugaard expressed their credo regarding the choice of pieces on the program. They could have come even closer to their goal of showing the pluralism of styles in today's musical world, had the ISCM allowed them to do so by eliminating the filter of the international jury. An artistic committee that strives at presenting the choices of many national juries will, in my openion, exhibit much more diversity in taste and choice. Most of the discussions in the general assembly of the official delegates dealt with this issue. The need for true representation of different sections and different juries is an old subject among the delegates and we are far from solving it successfully.

Again let me note that an international jury is not a guarantee for a successful choice since they have very little time in which to consider many pieces. Of course, one may claim that they chose from the best there is. Only those among us who are familiar with some works that were submitted and not chosen know that this is not the case. Future festivals in Seoul and in Manchester will have to solve this problem if the ISCM is to continue living.

Given this problem, the problems of logistics in concert organization and last minute cancellations together with the budgetary constraints, the Danes handled the festival very well. The concerts included orchestral, chamber, electronic, and vocal pieces, all well-balanced and spread out with sensitivity to the audiences' capacity to absorb new information and artistic experiences. Not once did they have to announce changes in the program and that alone says a lot about the ability to plan and produce.

Regarding the composition I found that most of the concerts included only one good piece on each program. Few concerts had none and one (concert #18), performed by the Niew Ensemble of The Netherlands, had a choice of "all stars" excellently performed. The biggest treat of the festival, however, was the opening night, with A. Berg's Lulu, which included the completed third act by Friedrich Cerha whose name was , by the way, missing from the festival's program .

This was the first Lulu I've seen and I enjoyed it tremendously in spite of a few minor faults: a) The leading soprano, beautifully done by Constan Haumann, should have had a stronger voice to balance with the thick textures of the orchestral sound. b) The staging used too many vague symbols, and this forced me to engage in a constant guessing game. This problem peaked in the production of an unintelligible film in the third act. c) Crowd scenes were staged very naively, with many uniform movements, which oppose the Bergien spirit of involved, thick counterpoint. On the other hand, the decision to present the opera in the rough hall of the Riding School, instead of in a shiny modern hall, added credibility to the spirit of the characters and supported the decision of the stage director to make most of the stage entrances from the bottom of the earth. In spite of strong stylistic differences between Berg's original work and the music of the third act, as completed by F. Cerha, the third act is wonderfully done and the choice of the ISCM delegates to elect Mr. Cerha as an honorary member was well-timed.

In the first concert that opened the new music events, I liked the first piece only, City Of Threads, composed by the Dane Anders Nordentoft. It was well chosen by the Danish artistic committee and set a poetic delicate mood against the background of soft, steady pulses . Concert #2 opened with the only successful piece of that program, by the Brazilian composer Arthur Kampela, Percussion Studies I &II for solo guitare.

Concert #3 was devoted to Per Norgard's Opera Nuit des Hommes, nicely done, beautifully sung by Sibylle Ehlert & Mark Janicello, well- played by the Zapolski String Quartet and well- conducted by Kaare Hansen. As for the composition itself, my interest in this work diminished as time went by. The electronic sounds were simplistic , the textures of the string writing were not too varied and the interesting effects of the on-stage cameras and the projected text in Danish repeated with a sense of directionless motion. Even those among us who understand the French language did not get the meaning of the text and the drama of this opera. In spite of some interest in the production, it left me cold and sad, sad about an opportunity being missed.

Concert #4, in the Arkend Museum, opened with an interesting piece by the Japanese composer Michiharu Matsunaga and ended with a very good work by a Swedish composer Mikael Edlund, Blue Garden. Even though it was a bit too long for its material, this one- movement piece for piano trio was very musical, of the type that I wished we had more of during the festival.

Concert #5 included the unforgettable, and indeed the best piece of the whole festival by the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, entitled Akrostichon-Wortspiel. Ms. Chin has developed a clear personal musical language that is nourished by the rich textures of Far-Eastern spoken languages . The piece consists of seven songs, beautifully sung by Marianne Lund and played by the Esbjerg Ensemble. Each song had its individual "tone" and mood, and successfully employed michrotones. The strong impression of this piece stayed with me throughout the festival and beyond. This composer is undoubtedly one of the best our generation has produced.

Concert #6 was a sound-installation by a Japanese composer. It saddened me deeply to see such effort wasted on unmusical material. What went through the jury's mind choosing such a work? It was unfair to the devoted performers and to the public to present it. One phrase will sum it all up: there is nothing older than a new sound. It has the effect of today's newspaper, sure to be thrown out tomorrow. I feel similarly about most of the electronic works we heard in this festival.

In contrast to this poor choice there was an interesting theatrical piece by Carola Bauckholt, a piece named In Gewohnter Umgebung II in concert # 7. It is a type of work that is very hard to produce and probably unrewarding , since this may be the only performance it may get. The composer tried to involve all daily sounds and trivial gestures in a musical score which, even if not strongly and tightly composed, showed a great deal of talent and was amusing.

Concert #8 saddened me even more than concert #6. Here, in the beautiful and well-equipped Planetarium three of the most famous of our electroacoustic composers presented their works and none were either interesting or musical. I know and appreciate other compositions of those three composers: A. Nunez, J.Harvey, and R. Enstorm, and their failure to produce good works ( chosen by the international jury) was very apparent.

The next concert # 9, included one good piece, by the British composer James Clarke. His Oboe Quintet is a unique work with traces of folk-like melodic lines and multiphonics set against rich textures of string quartet idiomatic writing.

Concert #10 was an orchestral concert and did not contain even one good piece . I'm sorry to note that even Mauricio Kagel's piece and his active participation as a narrator did not help this concert to rise above mediocrity.

Concert#11, was performed in a church and included only one interesting piece; a string quartet, entitled Lunga Ta, by the Canadian composer Linda Bouchard. It was her bad luck to appear on the program after a very long, boring piece and thus her work found an exhausted audience which had difficulty staying alert and tuning into to the many nuances of her recitative style.

On the way to concert #11, the organizers prepared a lovely surprise for the audience. A street opera, ten minutes long, by Svend Rastrup Andersen entitled Efteraret & Vinteren, written in a neoclassical style and especially composed for the occasion, was well performed by three musicians and three singers. I did not catch the dramatic subject but learned enough about it from our Danish host to admire the idea and enjoy its simple outdoor production.

Concert # 12 was presented in the Tower. Here the listeners enjoyed two very good pieces featuring voices and instruments in dramatic and musical settings. The first piece, by Robert Zuidam of The Netherlands, Les Murs, beautifully portrays a text about the constant striving for freedom. This work for two trumpets and two female voices is one of the most spirited, optimistic and uplifting pieces of this festival.

Without attempting to be new or avant guard, it succeeded in capturing the spirit of its text musically. The next piece, Prison Music III,IIIb&IV, by Mogens Winkel Holm of Denmark was outstanding and deserves a prize (after the piece by Ms.Chin of Korea). The contrasts and similarities between the three oboes and the three female voices on the one hand and the writing for the harp with the rest of the ensemble and against them, was a masterpiece of drama, harmony, counterpoint and orchestration. Even the next piece on this program which was much more simple and simplistic could not weaken the strong impression of these two beautiful works.

Concert #12 was dedicated to the opera of Lars Klit of Denmark, The Last Virtuoso. Except for some nice singing lines (Menotti-style) this work was a complete failure. Good acting and a fair production were wasted on an unmusical, boring and badly orchestrated score.

Throughout this report I have tried to mention only the good pieces in order not to hurt the composers of the less successful pieces. But some works (and the jury that selected them) went too far, in my opinion, and I decided to mention some unsuccessful events. This opera is an example for that failure.

Concert #13, of electronic music was but a continuation of my impression of Concert #12. At least in the comfortable seats of the Planetarium one could close his eyes and ...wait for the next piece.

Concert #14 opened with a very good piece by the Belgian composer Andre Laporte, Litanie Con Epitaffio. After Berg's Lulu one can not escape the similarities of the style and the idiomatic Bergian(-Belgian) flair. I say this with full admiration, not with a critical voice. The work should be (and I'm sure will be) heard a lot in concerts, for a good reason. It is very musical and moving.

Concert #15 was an orchestral one in the concert hall of Tivoli. The first piece, H'un (Lacerations) by the Chinese -American (USA) composer Bright Sheng, was excellent. This piece is made up of long, tense sounds with very clear tonal directions, scary and ever-growing without being predictable. Even in the quiet, second section the tension was ever present. The audience accepted the piece wonderfully. It ranks among the "five best" of this festival. This concert ended with Lutoslawsky's 4th Symphony, which was well performed, which helped put contemporary music into nice prospective.

Concert #16 was again an electronic concert and included the best piece (in fact, the only good one) of that medium in this festival. It was a piece by John Wynne of the USA, Ode to the South-Facing Form. In it sounds of the human voice were pitted against each other in interesting and innovative counterpoint, enlived by imaginative orchestration of various attacks. None of the other electroacoustic pieces of this festival came close to this one, not even the ones composed by famous composers. Many composers of electroacoustic music were tempted to use the audio-visuals of the planetarium and in all cases it did NOT help the music. I was very glad to hear Mr. Wynne's piece without that unnecessary crutch.

Concert # 17 at the Stock Exchange brought us another good piece by the Austrian composer Gerd Kuhr. Kuher's language is very personal, lyrical and intellectual, without losing its strong emotional impact.

I spoke about concert #18 ("the all star" event ) at the opening of this report. It consisted of a fine choice of repertoire pieces performed by the Niew Ensemble of The Netherlands well-directed and lead by its young conductor, Micha Hamel. The pieces by Carter, Loevendie, Hosokawa, Ton de Leeuw, Boulez, Xiaosong, Donatoni were models of contemporary music . Concerts #19 and 20 were the the last ones and only ones I am sorry to have missed.

Before I close by thanking our hosts, I would like to note a few incidents where spouses of delegates were not given any free tickets to concerts together with their husbands. It seems to me that a full measure of hospitality to guests coming from afar should include that little token of friendship from the hosts (if the house is not sold out). A few guests were really hurt and I feel that it is my duty to be their mouthpiece.

Let me end with many thanks to the Danes for an enormous effort, well-planned and well-produced. And as for my harsh words regarding some compositions, let me stress that I know that it is much easier to criticize than to write, and that everybody seriously engaged in the sacred work of writing music deserves a bow of respect.

Menachem Zur


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