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Every two years Berlin hosts one of the most imaginatively conceived, brilliantly executed, and consistently entertaining early music festivals in the world. Founded in 2002, this international biennale bursts not only with music, but also with ideas. The often-vexed relationship between past and the present inflects much of what one sees and does in Berlin, from the ambiguities of Prussian pride, to the horrors of the Nazis, to the remnants of the Wall. History tends to do a lot of looming around here.
The dynamic relation between then and now is cleverly captured by the biennale’s title—zeitfenster. The refusal to capitalize strikes a hip pose, like e.e. cummings meets the Danes, who chucked their noun-capitalization tradition just after World War II. The militant orthography is a sign that the aim of these eight early music days is to blow the dust off.
The image on this year’s festival program shows a hand holding an iPhone on whose screen is to be seen Caravaggio’s painting of a lute player. He stares back over his opened score right at the viewer. This digital lutenist has many megabytes of attitude: his gaze seems to demand that we make his music come alive otherwise he might just look away in disgust. History is not only watching, it’s listening, too.
The (capitalized) German word Zeitfenster means timeframe, and can suggest a window of opportunity. But as enlisted and modified for this early musical festival, zeitfenster conjures a two-way portal. We look through the window to the past, which, once opened allows the past to fly in.
One important way to animate this dialogue is through travel and ethnomusicological insight. I was in Berlin for the third biennale back in 2004; its theme was Klang der Ferne (Sound of the Faraway); that edition of the festival pursued in provocative ways the hoary notion that to go farther away from Europe is to go back in time. Among the many highlights of the week was a riveting concertante performance of Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail framed by a concert by one of Turkey’s most famous ensembles dedicated to the country’s own classical music. With this provocative
pairing, Mozart’s orientalisms were given critical context, as were the long-standing (and evolving) mutual musical influences between Turkey and Europe. As always, the 2004 biennale also included a so–called long night; Berlin loves on occasion to keep museums and other cultural venues open all-night and thereby encourage a festive atmosphere of nocturnal energy and ideas. That zeitfenster long night was dedicated to the music of Marco Polo’s world; traditional musicians from the Silk Road were called to Berlin and their offerings demonstrated the breadth and richness of central Asian music-making—as opulent as anything that could be served up in contemporary Venice.
Such confrontations between old and new, “art” and “folk,” the notated and the improvised, are in rich supply at zeitfenster 2012, which among its diverse themes and concerts, pursues an ethnographic approach that brings regional oral traditions into spirited colloquy with informed performance of historical Western music: the famed group Hespèrion XXI under Jordi Saval meets musicians playing “traditional” instruments from around the Mediterranean (Turkey, Morocco, Greece and Israel); the lively ensemble L’Arpeggiata will join forces with two Corsican sopranos, a dancer, and a male vocal quartet called Barbara Fortuna, a group dedicated to preserving (and updating) the island’s haunting polyphony; a highland fiddler will be called down to Henry Purcell’s saucy London, and then these urban musicians will be sent to Scotland to see how they fare there; Bach is summoned into the electronic climes of modern Berlin.
Throwing open the zeitfenster sends the thermostat in any musician’s climate-controlled comfort zone wild, and the ensuing conditions yield unexpected results. The regional musicians come with oral traditions predicated on repetition and improvisation. Spontaneous invention made possible by long hours of following musical recipes and altering them—sometimes slightly, sometimes massively—was long the basis of so-called art music as well. The ethnographnic strain encourages a return to improvisation, to the intense informality and exciting unpredictability that elaborating tried and tested models can bring.
Tuesday night the plaster busts of the great men of European music looking down from their niches in Berlin’s Konzerthaus and would have smiled if they could as the indefatigable Spanish gambist Rami Alqhai and his band Accademia del Piacere (Academy of Pleasure) set off into new territory with three Flamenco musicians: Arcángel, the most celebrated Flamenco singer of his generation; the sublime Flamenco guitarist Miguel Ángel Cortés; and the expressive percussionist Augustín Diassera.
Here again the group’s name (Accademia del Piacere) said it all: never have I heard a more varied, challenging, moving and pleasurable concert. There was no intermission over its two hours, which included the two encores that, with the bowing and hugging, took almost thirty minutes. The last of these was a lament built on the descending tetrachord, a bass-line in heavy use for several centuries, not least in Dido’s Lament and the Crucifixus from the B-Minor mass.
It was the thirty-four year-old Arcángel, a prodigy who won a Fandango contest in Andalusia at the age of ten and is now an international phenomenon, who seemed to rally the ten other musicians on stage and convince them to offer the wildly enthusiastic audience a final dose of the melancholy and fire of which so many of the evening’s songs had been made. With his glistening curls, dusky skin, and shiny two-tone boots, this towering musician seemed to want nothing more than to keep the night going, eager to let his pitch-pure voice ride again above the vivid combination of viols, recorder, baroque and flamenco guitars, and an assortment of drums.
Alqhai began the lament with his own improvised elaboration of this ancient harmonic scheme—a kind of forerunner of the minor blues. Alqhai’s was a plaint of long-held notes soaring with remorse; chromatic feints of doubt and desire; and bowed tremolos in which hope seemed to flicker brightly before being enveloped by darkness. What he made was both sad and tremendously uplifting music that seemed to have taken much from the artistry of Arcángel. The great singer entered into the lament after Alqhai’s long introduction as he did so often through the evening: with a sustained note supported by seemingly endless breath and absolute control of the microtonal nuances of the haunting, chromatically inflected Phrygian mode characteristic of so much Flamenco music. Arcángel has the ability make a single melodic line into a musical epic in itself; but his saturation in the moment works also to create larger dramatic arcs that bring to life the stories told. Melodic subtlety is coupled with tremendous rhythmic control, heard not only in his voice, but his palmas—the varied clapping of his hands and stamping of his feet below his chair.
The encore continued with improvised elaborations by the inventive recorder player, Vicente Parilla, and the fleet and flamboyant baroque guitarist, Enrique Solinis, and soprano Mariví Blasco vocalized her own threnodic choruses. But in the end it was Arcángel’s diminuendo of dying words mingling with the lasts sighs of Alqhai’s viol with which the lament and the concert came to end.
In contrast to this beautiful, tragic conclusion, the evening had also been one of unforgettable bravura moments: the duels between the guitarists in which the thundering descending scale of the flamenco player were answered by the fleet clarity of the baroque virtuoso; the abyss threatened by a near collapse in group improvisation was leapt into by the percussionist Diassera and drum that seemed to sing; and, most memorably, a cell-phone in the audience rang at the close of one of Cortés tremendous fantastical extemporized preludes; Arcángel waited until the offending machine then let silence reign for several seemingly endless seconds as he stared down the perp before finally crying out in song:
Tristes estilos de amor,
la vieja sonanta gime
Sadly, in the style of love songs
The old guitar moans
The idea for, and execution, of this confrontation between early music and flamenco came from Alqhai, who sought to bring together elements of European literate traditions with the indigenous music brought back to Europe from Spain’s colonies, with the sonic residue of the Moors, and with the Flamenco of Andalusia. The collaboration with Arcángel began a year-and-a-half ago and what it has showed so far is that the sonority of the viols, capable of fire and speed but also of plaintive singing, profoundly enriches flamenco’s already vibrant emotional palette with its songs about gypsies, beautiful Moorish women, desperate Andalusian men, lost love and honor. For its part early music ventures into a wider world, more exciting because it is more dangerous. What is created over the sill of this zeitfenster is something that seems new, but in fact is very old.
A version of the concert program will be released on CD and DVD in May. (http://www.alqhai.com/en/store/presentacionc/).