Europe in summer is awash with hundreds of classical music festivals. Some are small, with a grassroots feel, and others are built on the scale of castles in the clouds. The latter is the Grafenegg Festival. Its outdoor amphitheatre, on an enormous estate in Austria’s province of Niederösterreich, is called the “Wolkenturm,” or “Cloud Tower.”
With the Danube River flowing and a medieval castle looming nearby, the sounds of great music at the Grafenegg Festival are being heard in a tripartite calendar (Midsummer Night’s Gala, Music-Summer and Music-Festival) from June 21 through Sept. 9.
The Grafenegg Festival was founded in 2007 as a top-flight arena for classical music under the artistic leadership of pianist Rudolf Buchbinder and features some of the world’s leading orchestras, choruses and soloists, and the venerable Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich is their orchestra-in-residence. To add to its list of attractions, a composer-conductor workshop, “Ink Still Wet,” was instituted last year. This year it hosts Scottish composer James MacMillan as composer-in-residence. He was commissioned to write new works for the festival in addition to holding seminars with six composer-conductors in late August. I attended concerts and seminars at Grafenegg from Aug. 23-27, specifically to focus on “Ink Still Wet.”
Symphonies for the soul
For the opening night’s concert on Aug. 23, Buchbinder spoke to the audience about the festival’s desire to bridge the centuries. “Here in Grafenegg,” he said, “we live between the old and new, between innovation and renovation.” Thus, both works from the past, together with works freshly penned, fit into the festival’s overall theme of “Eine Symphonie der Sinne” (“A Symphony of the Senses”), emphasizing works of a spiritual nature. That night featured a fanfare by MacMillan for brass and percussion called “They saw the stone had been rolled away,” which refers to the biblical story of what the women who visited Jesus’s grave discovered. This was followed by Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation,” performed by the Tonkünstler, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and vocal soloists, conducted by Claus Peter Flor.
Between Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 “La Passione,” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, the following evening’s concert offered MacMillan’s percussion concerto “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” (“Come, Come, Emmanuel,” a Christmas chorale chant), performed by Colin Currie and the Philharmonisches Orchestra Oslo, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. This concerto began with extended cacophony, then bitonal juxtapositions of the soloist to the orchestra, and an admixture of references to variety of musical genres. These seemingly disjointed passages, held together with long sustained woodwind chords behind Currie’s virtuoso performance on his arsenal of percussion instruments, had the effect of creating terrifying beauty and surprise. The brass brought in the chorale tune near the end, followed by the sounds of tiny bells everywhere, then Currie played the hanging tubular bells in a slow crescendo to a cataclysmic end. The ensuing waves of reverberations and the resulting emotional response were overwhelming as the spectral ringing slowly evaporated into the evening air.
On Aug. 26, two concerts, an afternoon prelude and an evening concert, explored the fervently religious music of romantic-era Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. For the prelude, the chamber ensemble version of his Symphony No. 7 written in 1883 and arranged for ten players in 1921 was performed by Ensemble Capriccio Wien. In the evening, Bruckner’s “Te Deum” (To You, God), one of the most potently uplifting choral works ever written, positively exploded under the baton of Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées and Collegium Vocale Ghent. What followed was Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9, which was the composer’s last and unfinished opus. After two structurally sound movements with hugely fatalistic themes, the third movement struggles uphill to find its direction, probably signifying Bruckner’s resistance to his own death.
‘Ink Still Wet’
MacMillan held five workshops that included orchestra rehearsals and conducting analysis sessions for six composers: Alexander Blechinger, Diego Collatti, Marco Lemke, Markus Pfandler, Nikolaus Schapfl and Hyun-Jin Yun. The first session for the six was conducting their own music, played by the Tonkünstler Orchestra. For some this was terrifying, for others, a snap. Pfandler is already a professional choral conductor and Yun, originally from Korea, is studying conducting in Mannheim. The other four braved the podium for the first time. The sessions were videotaped for analysis.
“This is important work,” MacMillan revealed to me during a break. “It makes them think about their music in a different way, how to bring it to life.” And for Collatti, who is originally from Argentina but now living in Vienna, bringing it to life was akin to childbirth. “I felt like I was swimming in waters I didn’t understand,” he said. “By the time I located where the cellos were, they were already three bars ahead of me! But I’m going to learn to conduct this thing from beginning to end, even if they have to take me out in an ambulance.”
But on the second day, after viewing and fixing the mistakes of the first rehearsal, the results were profound. “The step-up from day one is phenomenal,” said MacMillan. “I’m really hearing the music now for the first time.” Each conductor had done critical things like reducing the size of his beat, learning to use the left hand for cueing only, and making a successful rehearsal agenda for getting the desired results. And those results were magnificently revealed on Aug. 27’s grand finale concert with the composers conducting their own music.
This experience might be reflected in the decisions about the degree of difficulty in future compositions: “Next time, I’m writing something much easier,” confessed Collatti. “I’m tasting my own medicine now.” But for others, they experienced for the first time how they can transfer their written inspirations into sonic reality.