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Published On: Wed, Dec 13th, 2017

Real music beyond commercialism

Christoph Schlüren (nsnbc) : In a way, Belgium as the centre of the European Union is a symbol for the problems with diversity in the United States of Europe. The old conflict between Flemish and Wallonian quest for dominance still also affects the cultural issues. And it is particularly symbolic that the most famous and still most popular Belgian composer, Liège-born César Franck, was a citizen of France who spent most of his life in Paris. Apart from him, the best known Belgian composers were the leading violin virtuosos Henri Vieuxtemps and Eugène Ysaÿe.

Daniel GazonAfter the twilight of Romanticism, Belgian music became a strange phenomenon of isolated obscurity. Even such outstanding masters as Albert Huybrechts (a true genius who died much too early) or Vic Legley never got their international breakthrough, and even a modernist like Karel Goeyvaerts who paved the way for Stockhausen’s pioneering work with electronic means but was maliciously betrayed by the Cologne egomaniac is quite unknown today. The situation of classical music in Belgium today is still isolated and – herewith following the Europe-wide tendency – in a continuous decline due to financial restrictions and power struggles of rivaling cronyism. But there are still some rays of hope amidst the abyss even as the traditional divide between Flemish and Wallonian culture remains unchanged. There is basically neither a Belgian identity nor a remarkable standing in global culture.

At the Mons Conservatoire the finest Belgian conductor of our time, Daniel Gazon, works as professor for conducting and leads the student orchestra. Born in 1955, he studied with Igor Markevitch and completed his studies with the great Sergiu Celibidache who remains the main musical influence in his daily work. His programs are a shining example of outstanding quality and offer a completely unorthodox sense for quality that doesn’t ask for established names but for musical substance and originality beyond the mainstream ideologies for many years now.

This orchestra has to operate with limited forces, and it is not too easy to find convincing and challenging program combinations with pieces that are technically not too difficult for an ensemble of unevenly educated players. Gazon is not only a master conductor with impeccable gestural clarity and freedom who can communicate his deep musical insight in the most natural way and knows how to rehearse the most complicated scores with inexperienced players. He is also a master in balancing and improving the musical understanding irrespective of normal daily obstacles and inadequacies. The results are stunning.

On 1 December the Orchestre d’Arts2 du Conservatoire Royal in Mons gave its final concert of the year under Gazon. The program is a wonderful example of stylistic diversity in well-correlated contrasts. It started with the suite ’Antologia quarta’ for chamber orchestra after four piano pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach brilliantly arranged by the intriguing Brussels composer Robert Groslot. The four movements originate from completely different works but built a totally balanced whole: it opens with the Prelude from the 6th French Suite in E for piano solo, followed by the Largo middle movement from the 5th harpsichord concerto in F minor (now for solo flute with pizzicato strings accompaniment) and Contrapunctus No. 9 from the ’Kunst der Fuge’ (Art of the Fugue), and ends with the final Gigue from the 4th French Suite in E-flat. Groslot’s arrangement is stylistically adequate and offers a very rich spectrum of colors, and it is playful music in the best sense. Gazon doesn’t participate in the random ideology of so-called ’authentic performance practice’ with its infamous high-speed staccato mannerisms and primitive emphasis on the ’heavy beats’ and therefore brings out the linear logic of harmony and counterpoint in singing quality and exposes and develops the individual and dynamic character of each movement beyond any sentimental romantic connotations.

Bach/Groslot was followed by a towering masterwork of Berlin expressionism that is totally unknown today: Heinz Tiessen’s ’Visionen’ (Visions) for violin and small orchestra, a revised version of his original ’Totentanz-Suite’ (Dance of the Death Suite) from 1927 that emerged from several stage scores written between 1918 and the early 1920s: Shakespeare’s ’Cymbelin’ and ’The Tempest’ in the utterly chromatic first movement, Carl Hauptmann’s ’Armselige Besenbinder’ (Wretched Broom-Makers) in the incredibly beautiful slow middle movement that opens with the extended solo violin ’Totentanz’ melody ”Like resonating from the blowing in the wind”, and Dietrich Grabbe’s ’Don Juan und Faust’ in the menacing finale, ”spookily moving” and building up in several waves an abysmal waltz catharsis until the relentlessly breathless end. I have been waiting for decades to hear this dense and epoch-making little concerto finally for the first time in a concert. The soloist Maïté Wenda was brought to her limits but considering the fact that she is still a student and her part is truely challenging the result was respectable. Heinz Tiessen (1887-1971), born in Königsberg and teaching for more than half a century in Berlin, was mainly influenced by the revolutionary Richard Strauss of ’Salome’ and ’Elektra’, and by Arnold Schönberg, but he never abandonned consciousness of tonal relations and explored the adventurous regions of dissonant free tonality and ’non-functional’ modulation. Among his students were two of 20th century’s greatest musicians: Eduard Erdmann and Sergiu Celibidache.

Next piece was ’Lento rubato’ for strings by the highly gifted and original young Romanian composer Lucian Beschiu. His sense of harmony and modulation is outstanding and shows an individual character without any artificial attitude. He drew some perceptible inspiration from the phenonemal but neglected British composer John Foulds and in his music there is some subcutaneous relation with Maurice Ravel particularly concerning the aristocratic and melancholic atmosphere. ’Lento rubato’ had received its world première under Lavard Skou Larsen conducting the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss in May 2017, and this flawlessly enchanting piece beyond the slightest trace of pretentious superficiality seems to establish itself in its fresh and innocent mood as a favorite of string ensembles after several performances. A very promising statement by a composer who is still virtually unknown and has an unmistakable sense for the overall proportions of the form as a dynamic organism.

Next came a world première of a two-movement piece written some fourty years ago by a then teenager: Baudouin de Jaer, one of the most versatile and unorthodox musicians in Belgium today who is a master in animating and inspiring amateurs in spectacular performances as well as an experienced traveller in globally cross-linked world music practices. He wrote a truely adventurous piece almost bursting out in its fantastic youthful fantasy. The conductor, Gabriel Camacho from Mexico, a student of Gazon, led the orchestra with clear gesture and stability through the cataracts of de Jaer’s seductive ”juvenile sin”. An effective counterpoint in this very serious program.

Gazon himself returned to conduct the final work, accompanying the viola virtuoso Marc Sabbah, a rising star who may become a familiar name on European concert stages. (In the dress rehearsal the day before, Belgian queen Mathilde made a short visit and had the opportunity to admire Gazon’s indepth musical skills and to experience how a viola can sound under the hands of a representative of Juilliard education.) They played the Concerto for viola and strings by Leo Smit (1900-43), a Jewish-Dutch composer who died in the concentration camp. The concerto was written in 1940 and caught the listeners immediately with its exciting jazz appeal in the outer movements and with a substantial slow middle movement. It is a great pity that Smit’s undisputable talent couldn’t come to full bloom due to the Nazi terror. The viola concerto is one of the few works where one can already recognize his distinctive voice. Sabbah played with some quite unpredictable rubato, and Gazon managed to keep the orchestra in complete synchronicity and consciously refined phrasing. The whole concert was more than a striking success. It opened up new vistas into a concealed world of substantial music that was presented with utmost clarity, purity of expression, and inexhaustible sense for correlation of the manifold details into an irresistable general context. Real music emerges timelessly beyond the glamorous lowlands of commercialist star cult.

Christoph Schlüren – nsnbc 13.12.2017     –    Christoph Schlüren, from Munich in Germany, works as conductor (Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss, Symphonia Momentum, St Michel Strings Mikkeli) and musical mentor for chamber groups and soloists as well. Christoph Schlüren has more than 20 years experience as journalist, music author, music editor and program adviser. Artistic director of Aldilà Records. Particular interest in never-ending discovery of substantial unknown music in any kind of style and genre. Studied with Sergiu Celibidache from 1981 to 1996. A basic book on musical phenomenology will be released soon.

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