Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 2 ) – Preview

AustriaAustria Preview: Salzburg Festival,  5.8.2011 (JFL)

Logo "Notes from the Salzburg Festival 2011" jlaurson


After a chamber concert prelude (review here), I am back in Salzburg for the festival, and this time for good… which is to say: more or less the rest of the festival. Even though Salzburg is only two shakes of a lamb’s tail away from my current cultural forward operation base, Munich, the cancellation of late trains has cut Salzburg off from daily in-and-out traffic. Staying away a-near gives a greater sense of special purpose to the festival attendance, one need never rush, and work productivity is higher than within one’s own four walls, too.

The weather typical Salzburg: Reasonably warm, sunshine, and rain which—just as typically—retreats again, just in time for the evening performances, and again just before the performances are over. German speakers believe St.Peter to be the chief culprit when it comes to rain… and him being of the approximating kind, the timing is not always perfect, which creates a spectacle of umbrellas popping up as colorful as an instantly blooming spring meadow. At three o’clock and at quarter to six you can, nay: are forced to observe the daily competitions among church towers who can ring the longest and the loudest, a spectacle also repeated every morning at quarter to nine, and on weekends at what feels like five in the morning, even if the official reading might suggest seven or eight.

That the Salzburg Festival is lots of fun to stay at even for those who are not at home with the Salzburgian self-proclaimed in-crowd, society’s crusty upper crust, is in some part due to the changes it has gone through in the decades since Karajan. It doesn’t exude the snobby air that it had (even at long distance to non-attendees), and its elitism is restricted to the quality of the offerings in that they tend to be superior.

The programs too, have changed considerably, and 2011 might well be the culmination of this trend. 2011 is a year of transition between the directorship of Jürgen Flimm (2006 – 2010) and the incoming festival director Alexander Pereira. The care-taker director is Markus Hinterhäuser—pianist (a Leonskaja and Maisenberg student) and increasingly artistic administrator—who has been responsible for the Festival’s concert series during Flimm’s regime and the biannual Zeitfluss series (1993 to 2001) when Gerard Mortier was at the helm.

In that behind-the-scenes position, he has been the most significant (and hopefully lasting) influence on the Salzburg Festival since Mortier himself. Modern and contemporary music are no longer the occasional occurrence, blip, or fig-leaf, but now a central part of the Festival. That move enlarged the Festival’s objective from merely keeping the flame and embalming musical culture to being a genuinely interesting source of musical stimuli even for those jaded by the parade of the conventional which remains an important, pleasing, perfectly legitimate staple of the festival.

Hinterhäuser, who can be seen pacing the Festival grounds, cigarette between the lips, head bent down, hair shaggy, like a pensive big cat from a Rilke poem, initiated the Kontinente series that has focused on one composer per Festival, allowing an unparalleled appreciation of their respective output: : Giacinto Scelsi in 2007 Hinterhäuser’s second year after re-joining the Salzburg team, then Salvatore Sciarrino, Edgar Varèse, and last year Wolfgang Rihm.

In this year between Intendants, he heads the Festival—with his air of reluctance and musical determination. Although a champion, programming and performance-wise, of contemporary music, he never once strikes as an ideologue (unlike some of the previous regular directors); he celebrates with music when it is embraced, understood, and loved. And suffers with it when it is wasted or neglected or presented with lacking enthusiasm. Hinterhäuser’s handwriting is all over the 2011 Festival, for the first time to this degree and for now for the last time. The Kontinente series receives a kind of retrospective celebration, “The Fifth Continent”. Nono’s Prometeo (performed in Salzburg at a 1993 Zeitfluss concert) returns now as a veteran work with (almost) main stream appeal, completely sold out now when twenty years ago it needed some gentle prodding to get people to dip their ears into this music.

Sciarrino’s Macbeth plays alongside the traditional highlight of the 2011 Festival, the Riccardo Muti / Peter Stein collaboration on Verdi’s Macbeth. Sasha Waltz presents a choreographed mélange of Varèse, Claude Vivier, and Iannis Xenakis (premiered last year in Zurich). Vivier gets another concert all to himself, Gerard Grisey and Morton Feldman share an evening as do John Cage (with the 1983 Ryoanji and the startling-excellent Georg Friedrich Haas mit “in vain for 24 instruments”. A night of Stockhausen and finally string quartets of Scelsi and G.F.Haas round out the series that brings more contemporary music together and to a considerably reater audience than some dedicated avant-guardish festivals. This is not your grandmother’s Salzburg anymore. Fortunately, comes to mind, because the prominent red flags along both sides of the State Bridge could be said to have been convenient after 1945, as only the logo needed to be switched out, while the spirit (so different from the founding ideals) remained.

Even if living music isn’t your main concern, 2011 bristles with highlights. To see Claus Guth’s complete Mozart/DaPonte trilogy in one summer is a treat. For me they present everything what intelligent-modern-conservative music theater should be, starting with the excellent Figaro (seen last night) and ending with the Don Giovanni I saw last year (2010 review here) in as nearly a perfect performance as I’ve experienced. The combination of Richard Strauss and Christian Thielemann would be a draw anywhere, but in the ambitious, difficult-to-cast, overlong, truly-literally fantastic Die Frau ohne Schatten (Strauss abbreviated the work to the cute, misleadingly diminutive “Frosch” – Frog), it’s especially tempting. Early reports—even from known Thielemann detractors—coming in suggest an unadulterated musical success that makes one easily overlook the dramatic irrelevance of the staging.

The 2010/11 double-anniversary of Mahler doesn’t leave the Salzburg Festival unscathed, either. But instead of mounting yet another cycle of the complete symphonies and perhaps the big song cycles, Hinterhäuser has arranged concerts under the heading “Mahler Scenes”. As part of WETA’s 2009 Mahler Month I wrote one (intended were two) short pieces that tried to grab Mahler by the influences on him and those he influenced (The Spheres of Mahler) and Mahler Szenen, does that, just better and filled with music. That includes the next particular joy for me, a performance of Hans Rott’s Symphony in E. (Paavo Järvi on Rott here; concert review from Järiv’s Frankfurt performance here.) Guest orchestras like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, regular Mozart Matinee’s, and a cycle of the complete Shostakovich String Quartets courtesy of the splendid Mandelring Quartet (WETA review here) in just two (!) days are to be looked forward to. Maurizio Pollini is a guest, of course, Viktoria Mullova and one of my favorite fortepianists, Kristian Bezuidenhout are performing together, I will hear Grigory Sokolov tonight (in Bach and Schumann), and Fazil Say will play the Rite of the Spring for four hands with his computerized self. Two concerts down, and twenty-six promising more to go.

Jens F. Laurson