Musica Viva Munich: A Love for Ives

GermanyGermany Ives, Poppe, Birtwistle: Stefan Asbury (conductor), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Herkulessaal, Munich, 17.2.2012 (JFL)

Ives: Robert Browning Overture
Poppe: Welt
Birtwistle: Gawain’s Journey

Picture of Stefan Asbury and Enno Poppe courtesy Bavarian Radio, © Astrid Ackermann


The role of Munich’s Musica Viva was once to serve as a forum for contemporary music. Founded after the war by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who thereby managed to squeeze his own (stupendous) musicinto concerts (for which it normally would have been far too conservative), it was incorporated into Bavarian Radio which gave it the resources and ensembles to become one of the handful of most important series for contemporary music in Europe… music that, for better or worse, was subsidized to be written and then needed subsidies to be listened to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with supporting the arts, of course, although private initiatives and church institutions probably have a better track record in fostering creative masterpieces than politics and bureaucracy.

But there are problems with this ghettoisation of contemporary music: a lot of the really good stuff would and rather should belong in the mainstream programs of ‘regular’ concerts, because it needs and deserves the exposure. Of course that would take considerable effort in priming the more reluctant ears, and is easier to nod to one’s duty to that music (whether that sense of duty stems from noble aspiration or courtesy of taking public money) by airing it in the contemporary-niche. On the other hand, one would presumably want to make any concert series somewhat popular (an unpopular word around most Musica Viva types, “popular”). And so Musica Viva—seemingly more than ever under its new leader Dr. Winrich Hopp—attempts the balancing act between being true to the ‘NOW’ in classical music, and recycling modern classics.

available at Amazon
C.Ives, Sy.No.2, Robert Browning Ovt.,
K.Schermerhorn / Nashville SO

available at Amazon
H.Birtwistle, Gawain’s Journey, The Triumph of Time, Ritual Fragment,
E.Howarth / Philharmonia, London Sinfonietta

It’s an ambitious act and it leaves me feeling rather ambivalent. I’m very much for popularity, actually. And I certainly think that any serious such series does a greater service to music for every fourth and fifth performance of a work than most world premieres. The ingredients of the Musica Viva concert I attended on February 17th were exactly what drew me out: Charles Ives, Harrison Birtwistle, Enno Poppe—in that order. But what, please, is contemporary about Charles Ives? My grandmother wasn’t born when he stopped composing.

With IvesRobert Browning Overture (1908) and Harrison Britwistle’s Gawain’s Journey (1991) taking Enno Poppe’s 2010 Welt by the hands, the program might rather have been a very innovative regular BRSO night. But any Charles Ives in concert is good to hear, whether introduced to listeners amid classics or his musical corpse re-animated by the avant-garde who wish to make him the proto-modernist. There are few composers that I’ve found harder to enjoy on recordings; yet in concert—from the charming Unanswered Question to the ferocity of the Concord Sonata—it is bliss or excitement: in any case wide open ears, every time! Same with the Robert Browning Overture (not premiered until 1956, by Stokowski), with its gentle drones, pious dissonances, and solemn, muffled fanfares that rear their head elsewhere in Ives, too.

After the initial quiet, there is a gathering of voices, like simultaneous orchestral rehearsals of circus bands. It’s as if the bars of a long Scherzo had been shoved together in a fifth the space, to save paper and time.  From beneath the abruptly ending thunder of the relentless timpanist’s fine work rise subtly shimmering elegiac strings with their radical innocence. Then the storm of voices, a well-humored noise very similar to the preceding one, rises again, before it simmers down and stops with just one final gentle chord.

It is interesting to read what Ives said about the work himself:

[The overture] is a kind of transition piece, keeping perhaps too much (it seems to me) to the academic, classroom habits of inversion, augmentation, etc. etc., in the development of the first theme and related themes. But the themes themselves, except the second main theme, were trying to catch the Browning surge into the baffling unknowables, not afraid of unknown fields, not sticking to nice main roads, and so not exactly bound up to one key or keys (or any tonality for that matter) all the time. But it seemed (I remember when finishing it) somewhat too carefully made, technically–but looking at it now, most twenty years after, it seems natural and worth copying out.

This illuminates the problem of much contemporary music—the deliberate, predetermined, calculated structure—and shows, ironically, what Ives isn’t. It isn’t too carefully made, and it certainly doesn’t sound that way. When the condensed musical passages arrive, it isn’t a calculating cluster, a shrewd stack of notes meant to be transparent and perfectly clever. It’s just that: a lot of noise and something of a sound, a sensuous feeling that emanates from it. Trying to ‘listen through’, as Boulez-trained ears might be tempted to try, will not yield success nor enjoyment. It’s not nouvelle cuisine of single ingredients, it’s a stout curry where many flavors become one. Indeed Ives’ music appeals to the nose much more than it does to one’s self conscious intellectual faculties.  (Not to be mistaken for music “that stinks to the ears.”)

In the ways of collage and strange parallels of different musics [sic], Ives is the American Gustav Mahler. But Ives’ music has an honest-healthy quality about it—a dash of sophisticated naïveté, even—that distinguishes it as much from Mahler’s wrung question marks as there are commonalities that connect the two.

Harrison Birtwistle, freely wielding dissonances, has something of a ‘bad boy’ reputation, and his music that of being controversial. Which might make remote sense if you think of him as following in the footsteps of Benjamin Britten (though hardly those of Michael Tippet), but it doesn’t add up listening to the orchestral suite “Gawain’s Journey”. The symphonic extraction from his opera Gawain is a lush and literal score, much like an newer version of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Too lush and literal for the selectively-curious Musica Viva audience: when Gawain’s horse trots through the score in the coconut shell-like clip-clop of the temple blocks you can almost touch the sense of quiet indignation. The applause afterwards, despite a splendid performance from the backbenchers of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (anyone who can seems to skip contemporary music duty) and Stefan Asbury, was distinctly cool. A shame, because the beguiling, flavorfully dissonant orchestral music goes down very easy: full of dramatic and descriptive color through with the underlying opera shimmers through at all times, the whole thing wouldn’t even have been that much out of place in the Lord of the Rings score. (Alas, Howard Shore was busy cobbling it together from bits by Strauss and Pfitzner, not Birtwistle.)

Those two works made for a thoroughly enjoyable Musica Viva program. But what of the one piece presumably most typical of the series? Among the young-ish, serious generation of “Neue Musik” composers, Enno Poppe is someone who strikes me as quite willing to crack a musical smile. That’s notable for a winner of the financially desirable but artistically rather negligible Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, which rarely picks composers whose music might be accused of concord or humor. And Poppe’s intermittently interesting, amiably forgettable Keilschrift (Musica Viva Festival 2008) had left a better impression after the fact than in the moment.

The piece at hand: Welt (“World”). Poppe loves those single noun titles, working his way up from “Bones” via “Wood” to “Forest” to “Gold” and now “World”. If this works like the dedications of Bruckner’s Symphonies—6th: Landlord, 7th: King, 8th: Emperor, 9th: God—he’ll run out of titles, soon. Unfortuately Welt for string orchestra—deliberately eschewing famous historically examples—isn’t terribly good. Like a big metallic musical saw, the work drones on; the only animation supplied by imaginary scurrying mice and chasing cats. (More in my head than the music.) The parameters of how Poppe puts his microtonal chords together change, but the idea and general sound does not; so the piece continues for at least twenty-five minutes, and it felt longer, still. It’s easily listenable, never unpleasant, possibly even amusing if it isn’t taken very seriously. It’s also perfectly boring, without emotional investment or any hint of lasting impression. “Neue Muzak”, if you will. No worries—not every work can be a winner. Even the very best composers have their lesser moments. It’s just that if that had been Brahms, he would have burnt the score.

Jens F. Laurson 

A copy-right infringing taster of the Robert Browning Overture can be found on YouTube (Naxos), if you don’t have Spotify or a subscription to the very much recommended Naxos Music Library.