Intimacy and Passion Abound
“A good festival”, explains Markus Hinterhäuser, “should create something outstanding which is not, in the ideal way, something you can experience every day in a concert hall or opera house, it has to be something different”.
Hinterhäuser is coming to Sydney Festival to perform a unique production of Winterreise. It marries Schubert’s song cycle with charcoal animations by South African artist William Kentridge. But he is not the only international star. In the following week Elise Caluwaerts and Wiard Witholt will feature in Sydney Chamber Opera’s production of Passion, directed by Pierre Audi. And in the lead up to Australia Day, Jos van Immerseel and his period orchestra Anima Eterna will perform the full cycle of Beethoven symphonies in a marathon series, the likes of which Sydney has never seen. It’s classical music but not as we know it.
Hinterhäuser believes a good festival has to “tell you something about the world we are living in and about the world we are forced to live in.
“I mean there are so many things happening in the world and art maybe doesn’t have an answer for everything but it asks the questions.”
Sydney Festival 2016 is all this and more. Now in its 40th year, the festival, like the city of Sydney itself, has evolved. Lindy Hume (Festival Director, 2010-2012) encouraged its expansion to the west and outgoing director Lieven Bertels brought an international connection and reinvigorated the classical music program.
On interviewing Hinterhäuser, Witholt and van Immerseel, it becomes clear that what they have in common is that their work lives beyond the stage. Indeed a part of them is tied to their unique projects. Van Immerseel founded the orchestra with an eternal soul, Anima Eterna, in 1987 to serve as a “laboratory”.
“Back in those pioneering times”, he explains, “it was simply impossible to perform certain oeuvres on historical instruments because research was lacking, instruments were hard to find or in a lamentable state, and professional musicians with a track record in period performance were scarce.”
Van Immerseel’s musical “experiments” resulted in a wider scope of historically performed repertoire – from Monteverdi to the modernists – while also providing a backdrop for new generations of talented musicians, who know how to handle their gut strings or ‘chalumeaus’ with the highest skill.
The use of period instruments is not an attempt at authenticity but rather led by the belief that composers could only write for what they knew.
“To uncover the true colours of musical masterpieces”, van Immerseel describes, “requires a thorough knowledge of the instruments that a certain composer, at a certain time and place, has known and used.
“Instruments provide the key to a composer’s musical world, set the perimeter of his soundscape, and allow us to re-create a composition with respect for the original work of art.”
Beethoven’s music may be more than 200 years old but his approach very much fits the festival vibe. Speaking of him like a friend, van Immerseel explains how Beethoven “consciously sought out how to implement new features in his music, and how to create scores that no one had ever attempted to write before”.
“The paradox of it all is that Beethoven, the true progressive, speaks most loudly today when his music is re-created through period performance: only then does it pierce our 21st century ears with its baffling modern sound.”
Sydney will be treated to this Beethoven made new through antiquity over five nights. The series opens with the only non-Symphonic work, the overture to The Creatures of Prometheus which, written in the same period as the first two symphonies, seemed the relevant choice to “ignite the symphonic series in Sydney”.
Each night, two more symphonies will be revealed until the fifth night and climactic finale that is the Ninth Symphony. Audiences might be surprised by the small size of the orchestra and choir (a mere 25 singers) but van Immerseel explains that it in fact enhances the experience.
“This might sound strange”, he says, “but in my view there is a clear limit to how much the sound of an ensemble can be enlarged by simply doubling or multiplying the number of its musicians.
“When ‘just’ six violins have to make it happen, they really need to put in all they have – a powerful tone, precise intonation and articulation, almost like a solo performance.”
Critics have described this cycle as an “edge of your seat performance”- with such a mentality critical to their ethos, it’s not hard to see why.
From the familiar Beethoven to the lesserknown Pascal Dusapin – his opera, Passion, is a contemporary re-imagining of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in which he strips the story bare. Dusapin creates just two characters: He, an embodiment of Orfeo and the general female She as Eurydice. Dutch baritone Wiard Witholt will perform the role of He in the Sydney production. He explains how he has “lived with the part for several months now” and this investment is clear when he describes the work.
“Dusapin”, he explains, “has not made a copy or pastiche of Orfeo. He makes a sort of Orfeo story but he asks himself questions about this story… in this opera we start from the point where Eurydice is already dead… Orfeo goes down into the inferno to get her but Dusapin asks himself the question, what if Eurydice didn’t really want to go back with him to Earth?”
The opera becomes less a Greek drama and more a contemplation of human mourning. “Passion shouldn’t be translated as sentimental passion but really like suffering and through this suffering, learning,” said Wiltholt. “When you think of mourning you think of this sense of ‘what did I do wrong that this person is no longer with me?’. You get angry, you get very sad; you can also get very happy thinking of beautiful moments in your life with this beloved person.
“This is the sort of 10 passions, the 10 states of mind that Dusapin goes through with this piece. Through, joy, through suffering, through every emotion, he tries to cope with death.”
Directed by acclaimed theatre and opera director Pierre Audi, Passion is an amazing journey, both for the audience and the performers, dependent on an intimacy and mutual trust. Witholt may not have worked with soprano Elise Caluwaerts before but he believes that the music will ensure they find a bond. “I am very dependent on her musically”, he explains, “because it’s not very easy, this piece, that is clear. It’s very long, there are a lot of levels of music to learn and a lot of entries when I come in and am dependent that she is in the right time and she’s depending on me so in this sense we have to find each other and form a sort of intimacy, musically”.
Technological advances in the past 40 years have certainly aided international collaborations. Witholt, too, has not met Sydney Chamber Opera’s conductor, Jack Symonds yet, but Skype means that they are not strangers – he describes the sense of collaboration that has already been established.
“Working with these small groups”, he says, “you become much more intimate, much more familiar with the company. And for the results of the opera it’s always better. It’s always the whole team – everyone is there to make it work and that is really fantastic”.
So what should audiences expect? As Witholt explains, the opera has some “beautiful sounds but it’s also harsh and it really confronts you with life – it may even be a mirror for the audience”.
Lieder with a difference
Winterreise is “not just a cycle of 24 beautiful lieder but a piece with a very profound and very deep political reflection,” according to pianist Markus Hinterhäuser.
The work includes a video montage featuring the work of South African artist William Kentridge. Hinterhäuser says of Kentridge: “I was always fascinated by the political dimension in his work which is not a political dimension he uses in a predictable way but is always merited in an artistic view, an artistic utopic”.
The video montage is not there to complement the narrative but as an integral part of the performance. “It’s a trio for a singer, a pianist and a video operator. It’s like chamber music with another parameter, the visual parameter, but it’s an incredibly refined and sophisticated way for three artists to work together.”
Hinterhäuser’s contribution to the work has been much praised. An Italian critic described him as being like a discreet shadow bent over the keys of the piano. But even though Schubert has elevated the role of the piano, Hinterhäuser insists that ultimately the narrator is the singer. And with the baritone Matthias Goerne, Hinterhäuser has formed “a beautiful acoustic relationship”.
“There are very few, very few singers who are able to sing lieder like Matthias Goerne does. With outstanding singing quality, outstanding performance quality… it is a privilege to play with him,” he said.
So what is Hinterhäuser trying to evoke in this interpretation? He will not commit to an intended ‘lasting message’ believing “that the perception of art is also to do with freedom. And freedom of listening, freedom of feeling, freedom of not judging something…” but even that statement captures the currency, the political verve that seems to affect Hinterhäuser.
Winterreise is about a journey and though often interpreted as a private situation, to Hinterhäuser and Kentridge there is also something about “the situation you have with people who go from one place to another place, all these hundreds and thousands of refugees who move without knowing where, what to do there”.
It’s a piece about the uneasiness of the world at hand, not providing the answers, but raising the questions, as a good festival performance should.
– Nicky Gluch
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This artice was the cover story from Fine Music Magazine January 21016 edition. To read the complete magazine click here
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