Magical Worlds of Multidimensional Nature

Christoph Schlüren (nsnbc) : Munich’s ’Pinakothek der Moderne’ is one of the most impressive contemporary museum buildings in Central Europe. It was planned and built under the direction of Stephan Braunfels, grandson of the once very prominent German composer Walter Braunfels whose operas and orchestral works demonstrate excellent craftsmanship. They are clearly influenced by Richard Strauss and only recently found some adequate recognition. Having in mind this ancestry it may not come as a surprise that the ’Pinakothek der Moderne’ that opened its doors for the public in 2002 also offers a series called ’Nachtmusik’ (Night Music) portraying always one key composer of the 20th or 21st century in three concerts per season that start at 10 pm and are exclusively reserved for the Münchener Kammerorchester (Munich Chamber Orchestra).

Per Nørgård. Photo by Lars Skaaning.

Per Nørgård. Photo by Lars Skaaning.

These events are always preceded by an introduction where the composer (if still alive, and, if this is the case, if available), the conductor (traditionally the orchestra’s chief conductor) and whoever else try to help the public in understanding the background and circumstances of what they’re gonna listen to. The concert takes place in the auratic rotunda under the 25 meter high glass dome. These late night sonications have become a cult among the friends of modern art in the politically drowsy Bavarian capital that likes to preserve its beery image as a ’large village’.

The current chief conductor of the Münchener Kammerorchester is Clemens Schuldt, now serving in his second season, is one of these aspiring young conductors who are particularly educated in coordinating the often very abstract sound structures of so-called contemporary ’avantgarde’ and therefore the challenging basic thought of presenting master modernists is well suited to his skills.

The Night Concerts offered several surprises over the years, be it the great national music hero of Romania, George Enescu, whose orchestral music is almost never played in Germany, or the Polish emigré Andrzej Panufnik who fled to England and tried to establish his constructivist approach in the Western world. But normally the series is – like almost all the forums of contemporary music in Central Europe – reserved for those composers who set or follow the main trends in the ivory tower of the international avantgarde.

As a belated preliminary it shall be noted that it came as a great surprise when Per Nørgård, the leading Danish composer of our time, received the high-profile Ernst-von-Siemens-Musikpreis (Ernst von Siemens Music Award) in 2016. He was the first Nordic composer at all who received this annually awarded prestigious prize in more than fourty years (btw this is a real scandal, but of that kind almost no-one notices in the unconscious climate of a self-declared ’First World’ of music). And now, 1 ½ years later, Nørgård is presented for the first time in Munich in a concert exclusively dedicated to his music.

Most things work out on a very personal level. Clemens Schuldt, the young chief conductor, is a good friend of the leading Finnish conductor John Storgårds who served as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and currently works as First Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester (they made some truely impressive recordings of the cycles of symphonies by Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, as well as a sparkling recording of George Antheil symphonies, all for Chandos). Storgårds commissioned Nørgård’s last symphony, his Eighth, during his Helsinki tenure and premièred it in 2012.

He recently conducted the recordings of four symphonies by Nørgård and made no secret of his conviction that Nørgård is the greatest and most original symphonist of our time. Storgårds is artistic director of the excellent Lapland Chamber Orchestra in the Finnish town of Rovanniemi for more than twenty years now, and one of the regular guest conductors is Schuldt. Therefore it is not surprising that Schuldt brought Storgårds to Munich as main guest conductor of his new orchestra, and Storgårds leads a highly successful project combining symphonies by Joseph Haydn with highly complicated works by the Hungarian avantgarde icon György Ligeti running over two seasons. Of course, it is an open secret that Storgårds inspired his younger colleague to take up the case of Nørgård. And now Schuldt, in an overnight action, is the well-deserved Nørgård pioneer in South Germany.

Nørgård himself couldn’t attend the event anymore. Progressed stage of Morbus Bechterew keeps him in Copenhagen and doesn’t allow him to write the Ninth Symphony the world would like to receive from him. Per Nørgård is a towering figure in contemporary music, a rare innovator and visionary, and the legendary Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra 1979-96) saw in him the truly revolutionizing potential to open up new, unheard-of vistas beyond the realms of the avantgarde establishment.

Just to summarize it briefly: when Nørgård discovered the whole range of the underlying principles of his music in the early 1970s the three structurally directive parameters were: melodic development in accordance with the so-called ’infinity series’, a kind of artistic pre-echo of fractal science with its striking self-similarities; harmonic unfolding according to the natural phenomenon of the overtone series and related epiphenomena; and rhythm following the proportions of the ’golden section’. The latter makes the conventional notation horribly complicated but when experienced by the ear it seems astonishingly natural.

Key works of this period are the Second Symphony and the opera Gilgamesh, culminating in the ideal manifestation of the Third Symphony including Rilke’s sonnet ’Singe die Gärten, mein Herz, die du nicht kennst’ (Sing the gardens, my heart, that you don’t know). In the 1980s Nørgård put this perfect hermetical system under attack by infiltrating chaotic elements and turning the musical structure into a never-ending adventure.

Among the most riveting examples for this new-found spontaneity is his Fourth Symphony ’Indischer Roosen-Gaarten und Chineesischer Hexensee’ (Indian Rose Garden and Chinese Witch Lake) after the frantically fantastic madhouse artist Adolf Wölfli. (Of course, Nørgård is a real master of orchestration too.) All these stylistic manoeuvres are full of fascination but I must confess that in a way his early works from the 1950s are closest to my heart with their innocence, freshness, and their inherent spectrum between threatening darkness and tender brightness that transcends traditional horizons of emotional familiarities, in particular his Sinfonia austera (Symphony No. 1) and Constellations for strings. A common feature of his early and his late works is their fragile and always unpredictable freedom of expression beyond personal identification.

The Munich program was dramaturgically extremely well designed comprising five works in completely different style and atmosphere. It started with ’Konstellationer’ (Constellations) for 12 solo strings written in 1958 by the 26 years old composer. Its three movements (Constellations, Contrasts and Interplay) carry us off into a magical world of inscrutably multidimensional nature that finds its centre in the slow middle movement. It was played very well but especially the fast outer movements would need more rehearsal time to get really familiar with all the polyphonic interaction.

This was followed by ’Nacht und Träume’ (Night and Dreams, 2005) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, a free re-composition after Franz Schubert’s eponymous song. With utmost tenderness this atmospheric piece extends Schubertian harmonic relations and dives into his deeply affecting emotional world without the slightest hint of cheap sentimentality. A wonder, transcending space and time, and played with full devotion and flawless refinement.

Per Nørgård. Photo by Lars Skaaning.

Per Nørgård. Photo by Lars Skaaning.

Then a maximum comtrast: ’Out of this World’ for double string quartet, written in 1994 in memoriam Witold Lutoslawski, the expressively thrilling avantgarde high priest of Poland. The gates of deep darkness are opened, and one may wonder how Nørgård manages to organically unite the conflicting energies into a correlating gestalt. This was followed by the most opposite world imaginable that became a kind of string orchestra hit in recent years due to the wonderful recording of the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra: the Pastorale from Nørgård’s soundtrack to Gabriel Axel’s cult movie ’Babette’s Feast’. In this music that is singularly bright and lovely in character we find an unprecedented fusion of immediately accessible and consonantly floating tonal idyll with refined metrical phase shifts that elevate the music into the intangible.

The concert was rounded up by the 2010 chamber orchestra version of a legendary orchestra piece from 1968: ‚The Voyage into the Golden Screen’, without any doubt the most static composition in this program but extremely fascinating in the highly developed art of minimalistically organized transition from one solar fire to the next, evoking a feeling of cosmic eternity. This music fit perfectly into the open acoustics of the high hall, acoustically symbolizing its wide space.

It was a collective experience of an unexpectedly stirring kind, and we can be sure that every listener to this concert will never forget this unique Nørgård experience. Almost the whole public had never before heard a single from this great master’s pen. May it be just a beginning of a sustainable revelation.

Christoph Schlüren – nsnbc 14.11.2017     –    Christoph Schlüren, from Munich in Germany, works as conductor (Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss, Symphonia Momentum, St Michel Strings Mikkeli) and musical mentor for chamber groups and soloists as well. Christoph Schlüren has more than 20 years experience as journalist, music author, music editor and program adviser. Artistic director of Aldilà Records. Particular interest in never-ending discovery of substantial unknown music in any kind of style and genre. Studied with Sergiu Celibidache from 1981 to 1996. A basic book on musical phenomenology will be released soon.

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