Musikfest Berlin:2012

The programme for one my music highlights of the year Musikfest Berlin 2012 has just been released. Organising the event is the Berliner Festpiele in cooperation with the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation. This twenty day festival is mainly devoted to symphonic repertoire, but also includes three concert stagings of operas plus chamber and instrumental music. What especially draws me to this festival is the emphasis given to works that are rarely heard, either forgotten or unusual works from the past and also interesting contemporary works. In addition there is always a small sprinkling of the best known works of the repertoire. If there is a work considered difficult it is often programmed alongside a more accessible work.

John Adams will be conducting his opera Nixon in China, photo credit Christine Alicino

This year there are 25 events comprising of 80 works from 30 composers. There are 24 orchestras, choirs and instrumentalists attending during the 20 day festival. Several venues in Berlin will be used for the concerts but the majority will be held in wonderful Philharmonie. As usual visitors to the city of Berlin will include many of the world’s finest orchestras, choral ensembles, instrumentalists and renowned soloists all combining to present an ambitious festival programme. This year’s main theme is American music – mainly works from American born composers or composers that made America their home. The stated reasons for this year’s American theme are to mark the USA presidential elections and to celebrate the centenary of the birth of John Cage, but this rather stretches the imagination. Why not just say we wanted American music this year? As long as the music is interesting and of high quality that is all that should matter! The most prominent American composers to be played at the festival are: George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. As a secondary theme the 2012 festival is including the music of Arnold Schoenberg who, of course, lived in America from 1933, became a US citizen and died in Los Angeles in 1951.

Susan Graham is to sing Copland’s Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, photo credit Dario Acosta

Probably the best known of the American works on show is a full length concert performance in English of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess with the Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nations Chorus and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Following quickly on the heels of a performance at the BBC Proms in London is a concert performance in English of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China by the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. For the more adventurous there is what should be an intriguing performance of Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron performed by the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg and the EuropaChorAkademie under Sylvain Cambreling. I should think that the text to Moses and Aaron will be in the original German. The more popular of the American works will include George Gershwin’s American in Paris; Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Of the more challenging pieces I would include electronic music with orchestra from Karlheinz Stockhausen; the two Morton Feldman scores Violin and Orchestra and Piano and Orchestra,and also various orchestral; chamber and instrumental pieces by John Cage. To sweeten the pill a handful of popular staples of the repertoire are included. Undoubtedly the most famous are Beethoven’s Violin Concerto played by soloist Christmas Tetzlaff with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson and Rachmaninov’s highly virtuosic and demanding Piano Concerto No.3 with soloist Nikolai Lugansky and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchesters Berlin under Marek Janowski. There is Schubert’s masterly ‘Unfinished Symphony performed by the Konzerthausorchester Berlin under Emilio Pomarico and Rachmaninov’s lushly romantic Symphony No. 3 played by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Tugan Sokhiev. A full house is guaranteed for Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 played by the Staatskapelle Berlin under maestro Daniel Barenboim.

Michael Tilson Thomas is to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra, photo credit Susan Schelling-1

The Berlin festival continues its tradition of inviting world famous soloists and this year around 60 soloists are attending. Probably the best known soloists are: pianist Emanuel Ax; mezzo-soprano Susan Graham; violist Christmas Tetzlaff; bass Sir Willard White; pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard; bass-baritone Gerald Finley and violinist Isabelle Faust. There are three particular concerts from last year’s Musikfest Berlin 2011 that will live long in my memory. I will never forget the near-electric atmosphere at the Philharmonie when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under their musical director Manfred Honeck performed Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on the night of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA. Then there was a sublime recital at the Radialsystem V (a converted water pumping station on the bank of the River Spree) of Renaissance madrigals featuring Gesualdo and his Italian Renaissance contemporaries sung by the enchanting voices of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam. The madrigals were interspersed by harpsichord music of the period expertly played by Pieter-Jan Belder. To round off the festival was the stunning concert of Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 E flat major Symphony of Thousand’ performed by 8 soloists, massed choirs and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Creatively Sir Simon had prefaced the Mahler score with two contrasting sacred music gems for unaccompanied choir Antonio Lotti’s motet Crucifixus in C minor and the Thomas Tallis motet Spem in alium.


Gerald Finley to sing in Nixon in China, photo credit Sim Canetty-Clark

For what will be my fourth festival visit I have made arrangements to attend eight days of the Musikfest Berlin 2012 from the 4th-11th September. I’m particularly looking forward to the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and the Rundfunkchor Berlin under Mariss Jansons performing Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw; Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms; Barber’s Adagio for strings and Varèse’s Amériques for large orchestra. Also standing out for me is a concert by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting an all-American programme of Copland’s Orchestral Variations; Morton Felman’s work Piano and Orchestra with pianist Emanuel Ax and Charles Ives’s A Symphony: New England Holidays. Another mouth watering prospect is the Berlin première of John Adams’s celebrated and controversial opera Nixon in China with soloists that include the masterly baritone Gerald Finlay, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers conducted by the composer. However, I’m disappointed not to be able to have the rare opportunity of hearing Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron performed by the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg and the EuropaChorAkademie conducted by Sylvain Cambreling. For full programme details see:

Michael Cookson