Triumphs of the O/Modernters

There is no better region of the world for a summer music festival than Scandinavia. All that daylight banked over the dark winter months pays off in gleaming dividends on either side of the summer solstice, itself a major holiday seemingly celebrated on a different planet than the its pagan counterpart in December, now camouflaged as Christmas.

Rock jubilees abound, with the massive confab at Roskilde near Copenhagen having launched Wednesday, and the week-and-half long jazz festival at Copenhagen beginning Thursday. This is not to mention the jazz festivals in Stockholm (earlier in June) and that in Oslo coming up in August. In the classical realm, there’s the “Grieg in Bergen” festival that runs across the three summer months, and the famed Oslo Chamber Musical Festival in August, which spans repertories extending from Medieval to music composed in 2011. This venerable event uses an inviting collection of venues, from the Royal Palace to the new waterfront opera house, with its striking marble cladding laid out in huge, angled planes that allow opera goers and mere passersby to walk even on the sloping roof and look out over the harbor. The structure has something of the effect of an indestructible iceberg moored at the quay.

These are just a few of the many summer musical opportunities in the European North.

What the Scandinavians have are endlessly long days and venues?both enclosed and in open air?made all the more compelling by their proximity to water?fjords, lakes, and seas dotted with islands. With all these wonderful spaces and endless quantities of water and daylight there is room for still more festivals, but newcomers must compete vigorously for an audience.

A new festival extending over four days in the middle of June made its debut just outside of Stockholm this year: O/Modernt under the artistic direction of Hugo Ticciati, the dynamic, young English violinist now settled in Sweden. O/Modernt means Un/Modern and takes place at one of the Stockholm area’s magnificent 18th-century theatres, this one called Confidencen, because it has a special kind of dining room favored by the Swedish royals. Using machinery common to the theatre (ropes, pulleys, capstans), the floor could be made to open, and up would come a fully-set table with four satellite stands for the dishes cooked in the kitchen below. The monarchs and their courtiers could then dine without any servants in the room, that is, in confidence.

The Confidencen theatre was restored to its original state thanks largely to the efforts of the celebrated Swedish opera singer, Kjerstin Dellert, who also lent her support to O/ Ticcati’s new O/Modernt initiative.

Ticciati’s festival proves that even before a note has been played, a well-thought-out concept for a festival elevates it above the aimless succession of pieces that characterize so many concerts and concert-series. It’s true that one pretty piece after the next can be entertaining. But what so many programs and festivals lack is an intellectual framework that allows musical works and their interpretation to inform one another and yield unexpected insights. Ticciati’s has given his festival a good subtitle: “Reflections of the musical past in the present.”  Admittedly, this rather general phrase is not a manifesto, but rather a starting point for musical dialogue between works written centuries apart.

As Ticciati put it in his foreword to the lavishly produced and beautifully designed O/Modernt program booklet: “the enchanting atmosphere of the renovated Baroque theatre gave me the inspiration for the basic idea behind the festival: the exploration of the relationships between the work of old composers and the artistic and intellectual creations of modern culture.” This would be midsummer hot air if not fleshed out by Ticciati’s brilliant artistic direction, which yielded individual concerts having a logic of conception that still yielded unexpected echoes and inspirations, collisions and confrontations between old and new music

No composer was himself more interested in exploring the past in pursuit of his own musical vision than Bach, and Ticciati accordingly has devoted this first O/Modernt festival to Bach’s music and its resonance across the two-and-a-half centuries since the composer’s death. The cover image of the festival booklet displayed a fine sense of style and irony with its Apollonian human hands holding the pocked and squinting Dionysian face of Bach. A touch of this irony was occasionally evident in the festival’s musical offerings, but O/Modernt more often rejected postmodern jadedness. What I sensed much more deeply was an abiding sense of the enjoyment to be had from following some of the Bachian oeuvre’s historical implications as well as the music’s capacity to inspire joy.

The first of the concerts was entitled “Reflections on Bach,” and divided its two halves?amidst long evening light pouring in through the theatre’s large mullioned windows?between the Drottningholm Theatre Orchestra on 18th-century instruments with the indefatigable and unfailingly excellent Mark Tatlow directing. and the pick-up ensemble dubbed the O/Modernt Orchestra and made up of Stockholm musicians and international visitors to the festival. This group used modern instruments and was led by the crisp and lively conducting of Mika Eichenholz. The entire concert was framed by the Drottingholm and O/Modernt orchestras’ respective readings of the six-part Ricercar from A Musical Offering, first with old instruments playing one-to-part and finally in Anton Webern’s version of the piece for chamber orchestra from 1935. Webern meticulously orchestrated this keyboard piece to create an infinitely nuanced sense of tone color. Under Webern’s exacting, yet vibrant, pen every statement of the famous Royal Theme, devised by Frederick the Great to test Bach’s contrapuntal skill in another Baroque Palace (that one in Potsdam), is delivered by ever-changing combinations of instruments.

Bach gave his mighty Ricercar a self-consciously antiqued veneer when he wrote it, but the piece’s searching contrapuntal combinations stitched together into a near-seamless musical fabric imbue the whole with a haunting subjectivity that is fiercely modern. The Drottningholmers’ reading was mournful, inward-looking, the O/Modernters, was kaleidoscopic and even a bit impetuous, with Eichenholz’s baton demanding many quick and swerving tempo changes and diverse emotional refractions of constantly shifting hues. Yet none of these interpretative gestures could never erase the sepia tints that bathe the work in melancholy. In juxtaposing the two versions of the Ricercar, the musicians showed how Bach’s version of the “old” was itself truly modern, and how even high-modernism can be saturated in the antique. On either side of the intermission came Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, and a piece directly modeled on it?Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks. Bach’s thrilling engagement with the trendy Italian concerto outmatched Stravinsky’s coy flirtations with baroque style. But presented as a pair the works showed how both composers had an irrepressible sense of fun that continues to draw musicians and listeners to their music.

Bach’s own penchant for symmetries was further matched by Ticciati’s programming: in the middle of the first half he placed arias on texts by George Herbert and William Shakespeare set by Roxanna Panufnik for soprano and baroque orchestra. These subtle gems were preceded by the luxurious embrace of Bach’s sleep aria, “Vern?gte R?h,” from Cantata 170. The hugely talented Katja Zhylevich sang both the modern and the unmodern with real taste and feeling, choosing her moments to unleash her rich, powerful, and pure voice.

The counterpart to the vocal music in the second half was even-gown clad Canadian pianist, Angel Hewitt, the fourth Bach French suite followed by his D-Minor Keyboard concerto done with the O/Modernt orchestra. A mighty B?sendorfer concert grand piano was wheeled out, and its brakes promptly locked to prevent a runway-train scenario over the lip of the raked stage. The outsized black beast seemed as out of place on the intimate 18th-century stage as a Hummer in Marie-Antoinette’s powder room. Hewitt fired the piano’s hammers at Bach’s trills with all due sensitivity, but these graces and other baroque fineries inherent in the music cannoned around the Confidencen stage’s live, and somewhat unruly acoustic. Hewitt is a much-praised interpreter of Bach’s music, though the 18th-century context goes to prove that the concert grand is a concert hall instrument: Hewitt’s pianism and instrument provided evidence of how the modern is not always at home in the past.

The subsequent three concerts in the festival pursued this dialogue in constantly shifting and always thought-provoking ways. Many commissioned premieres by international composers both young and distinguished were heard and many musical references made to the musical letters (B-A-C-H) of Bach’s name.  Ticciati also included room for student musicians from Stockholm’s excellent music high school?with hardly a lapse in quality and concentration.

The last concert, “Bach to Salsa,” was a triumph. It moved through many of the emotional states surveyed in the preceding concerts: from the serious and virtuosic to the uninhibitedly exuberant. Cult cellist, Svante Henryson (also an electric bassist and guitarist of standing) rhapsodized in the twilight on Bach’s fifth suite, before Russian composer Sergey Yevtuschenko’s endearing orchestral lament on those ubiquitous Bachian letters. Zhylevich did her own rhapsodizing on Villa-Lobos’s well-worn Bachianas Brasilerias no. 5, a piece that verges on kitsch, but convinces, when done well, through unabashed and unrelenting lushness.

The second half of the final concert began with Estonian flute player Oksana Sinkova walking the stage in high heels and provocative concert dress while delivering a fiery rendition of Astor Piazolla’s ?tude tangostique no. 3.Bach’s Flute Sonata in E minor followed, again with Henrik M?we sensitively accompanying at the hulking B?sendorfer. Classically trained dancers B?tina Marcolin and Marina Prada drew on their expertise in baroque choreography, and used what was given them of the small stage, in a musically sensitive pas de deux to young Swedish composer Niklas Breman’s confrontation with Bach’s Ciaccona in D Minor for solo violin. Around Ticciati’s technically flawless  and emotionally-charged performance of the work on his “Baron Knoop” violin by Vincenzo Rugeri made in Stradivarius’s Cremona around 1700, the elegant and expressive Swedish soprano Lena Hoel vocalized otherworldy glosses while flute and cello brooded and apostrophized, as the dancers carved out musical figures, both baroque and intensely modern at the same time.

After this moving dialogue between dead and living composers and between the aural and visual elements of music, world champion salsa dancers Marina Prada and Ibirocay Reguiera joined the classical dancers Marcolin and Hans Nilsson for a joyous exploration of the vibrant rhythms and movements inherent in, indeed crucial to, so much of Bach’s music.

The music for this unforgettable summation to the festival was a salsified fantasia on bits of the Goldberg Variations and the Air on the G string done by Norwegian composer and arranger Sverre Indris Joner and using amplified instruments: Ticciatai still on the Baron, Sinkova on her flute, Henrsyon on his cello, and the St. Petersburg Cello Ensemble (they’d done the Villa Lobos Bachianas stuies earlier on the program and then thrown in as a first-half encore the marvelously off-topic Khachaturian Sabre Dance) wailing away on the Bach’s most well-known melody amidst the Latin sounds rhythms.

Pastiche and transcription were a crucial techniques of 18th-century composers, ones practiced without apology by Bach himself. Joner is a master of these techniques, albeit in updated form, and his “Bach with a Salsa Dip” sublimely demonstrates what irreverence, imagination, and real composerly skill can achieve between them.  The haughty salsa dancers sparred with the baroque dancers before eventually swapping partners as old again met new. The Latinist then reunited for improvised solo flights and duo acrobatics as the evening and festival concluded with a sense?shared equally by performers and audience’of the physicality of Bach’s music in the here and now.

The two next O/Modernt festivals will be dedicated to Monteverdi and the somewhat more unlikely Rameau. I look forward to following what Ticciati’s sensibilities bring to these figures and their music in the magical Confidence theatre, itself a great gift from the past to the present.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


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