Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dresden Music Festival Explores Light and Dark Themes

Dresden Music Festival street scene (Photo: DMF)
REVIEW: Dresden Music Festival 2017, Part I

Dresden, Germany

The Dresden Music Festival, held each spring in the capital of Germany’s Saxony, has just rounded off its first four decades. Once a showcase for the ostensibly progressive but culturally conservative German Democratic Republic, its fare has rejuvenated in the last nine years under cellist-cum-entrepreneur Jan Vogler. As its Artistic Director, he has positioned the May through June Festival among the most important European stops in classical music, while also opening it up to more eclectic fare, spanning tastes from profound to pop-fun.

Jan Vogler (Photo:DMF)
Vogler mottoed this year’s edition “Light,” citing “humanity’s life elixir, a symbol of enlightenment, freedom, transparency and energy.” Featured were big works by Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Stravinsky; but also jazz sessions and retro-pop songs from the likes of Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester. Especially impressive were the symphony orchestras: the City of Birmingham’s, the London Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, and two, the Festspieleorchester and the Barockorchester, from Dresden itself. No fewer than 1,500 artists took part in 60 concerts at 22 local venues. Even the weather cooperated with mostly sunny skies for the 54,000 in attendance.

But talk in festival circles was of more than dazzling virtuosos and performances. It was about serious issues confronting the world today, and how, at least historically, music influenced social and political movements, shaping perceptions that led to reform. The need for music to speak again for change seemed palpable. Three events I took in cast light on some of the doppelgangers that darken human existence and revelations that brighten it.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in White Water and Dust

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (Photo: CGDT)

The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre hails from Taiwan, the Chinese island that sits uneasily off the shore of mainland China, one that the mainland claims as its own, and that even its closest allies like the United States acknowledge belongs to China. Yet the island is self-governing, at least for now, existing, it would seem, in suspended animation awaiting an uncertain future.

Two of the company’s recent works were performed in Dresden’s Festspielhaus Hellerau. Located in a sylvan setting in the Neustadt district across the Elbe from Altstadt, the utilitarian box-shaped art center has a wing-less stage and bleacher seats. The first work, White Water, suggested idyllic purity; its companion, Dust, a tortured dystopia. Their oppositional narratives lent them twin identities of light and dark. Both premiered in 2014 and were choreographed by the company’s founder and now venerable master, Lin Hwai-min.

White Water, a cyclic work of gentle contemplation, began and ended with the serene piano of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1. In between were works of similar feel by Albert Roussel, Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Maurice Ohana, and Jacques Ibert. With the stage bathed in cloud-bright lighting, dancers in milk-hued garments entered with graceful solos, duets, and groups of up to 14 dancers. They flowed on and off the stage in airy lyrics, interspersed with video projections of flowing waters and soft imagery that emerged and departed unhurriedly. Netting and bands around the dancers mirrored the rippling waters. Having achieved a maximum flow, as if to say that all combinations of humanity were in harmony, the dancers ebbed in reverse order, retracing sequences in a cyclic return to the beginning, reprising Satie’s haunting meditation.

(One had to admire the techniques of the dancers who hurled blithely off stage into non-existent stage wings, the walls facing them almost hugging the open space of the dance floor.)

While the earthly mysticism of White Water felt effortless, its Edenic state was turned on its head in Dust, all in dark shades of oppression and anxiety. The former had served as foil to the latter’s coming horrors. The music of Dust, by Dimitri Shostakovich, had been inspired by Dresden itself. The composer visited here in 1960, some 15 years after the Second World War, during the GDR days when most of Dresden’s destruction was still raw and ugly. Witnessing how the once magnificent city was flattened by allied firebombing, Shostakovich in just three days composed his tortured C-minor Quartet (no. 8, Op. 110). The music was so dark in its bleak emotions he chose it as his own musical obituary.

Lin Hwai-min’s choreography employed the Shostakovich as an outcry against the political cruelties and horrors of the modern era. Dust is a requiem for the present and last centuries, a rage against the machine formed by a chain of 16 dancers that rolls on the floor as an inexorable inhuman plow, grinding everyone in its path into the dust of the earth. The smoky stage had the feel of a coal mine or a vast dark chamber of horrors. Dancers strained to rise above their fate, only to writhe and wither under the weight. The last image was of frozen, standing victims, looking like a stage full of Munch’s ghostly screamers, or of land-locked fish with open mouths gasping for water. 

It was haunting.

Yang & Hoppe Violin-Piano Duo Seraphic in Paganini & Bach

Violinist In Mo Yang, Pianist Thomas Hoppe at Schloss Wackerbarth (Photo: R. Punt)
Rising-star violinist In Mo Yang, with pianist Thomas Hoppe, gave fluid, transparent accountings of works by Bach, Janáček, Szmanowski, Milstein, and Paganini in the acoustically clear, modern showroom of the historic Schloss Wackerbarth, a leafy hillside winery located outside of town.

Yang opened with a quasi-romantic interpretation of J. S. Bach’s Third Solo Violin Sonata (C-Major, BMV 1005). The 22-year-old’s take on the often severely-perceived Saxon composer was all sweet tones and lyrical phrases, revealing how limpid Bach’s solo works can sound when the interpreter is in a legato-rubato sort of mood. Not the only way to play Bach, it was on this occasion very beguiling.

Leoš Janáček’s Romance and Dumka for Violin and Piano is likewise lyrical, an early work by the composer closer in feel to romantic Brahms than spiky Bartok. It was a perfect work for Yang’s sensibility at this stage of his career, sweetly rendered by him and Hoppe.

The rest of the program consisted of four works penned or inspired by violinist Niccolò Paganini, whose flashy pyrotechnics mesmerized European audiences in the early nineteenth century. (Franz Liszt was to emulate similar flash on the piano and the two set in motion the era of the virtuoso instrumentalist.) Heard as almost diabolical displays by audiences of that era, in Yang’s interpretations these works seemed paragons of early romantic expression. In that positive sense, they resurrected the artistic and even spiritual reputation of a composer too often dismissed as a musical freak show.

Yang sailed through the high wattage of three violin-piano caprices on Paganini themes by Karol Szmanowski; a potpourri compilation, Paganiniana, by violinist Nathan Milstein; Paganini’s own Cantabile for Violin and Piano; and the latter’s potpourri assemblage (arranged by Fritz Kreisler) of themes from Rossini’s Cenerentola. Yang’s preternatural technical facility, delivered in Zen-like serenity, revealed extraordinary mastery. The virtuoso display made clear why Yang was chosen First Prize winner of the 2015 Paganini Competition in Genoa, the first such award that competition had bestowed in nine years.

After the fireworks, Yang glided off the stage as unruffled as if he had he had been in silent meditation the previous two hours. A perspiring Hoppe, who had also performed magnificently in the demanding pieces, seemed relieved to be done.

Coming up in the next post, Dresden Part II explores Beethoven's Eroica at the Frauenkirche church.

Dresdener Musikfestspiele, 40 Jubiläum 18 May to 18 June, 2017

Recital: violinist In Mo Yang and pianist Thomas Hoppe 
Schloss Wackerbarth (Radebeul), June 7, 8pm 

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre
Festspielhaus Hellerau, June 9, 8pm 

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