At the Barbican Hall, London, François-Xavier Roth conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. With Roth, always expect the unexpected. Those who think he's like any other conductor don't understand him at all. Appropriately, he headed the LSO Futures project which involves much more than concerts but offers an in-depth immersion into the process through which orchestras and composers work together to bring performance to life. Roth's theme was the way the concept of symphony has adapted and transformed by contrasting two pillars of modern music, György Ligeti's Atmosphères with Luciano Berio's Sinfonia,
It's hard to believe that Ligeti's Atmosphères was written 55 years ago, for it still sounds shockingly fresh. Schoenberg horrified audiences in 1908 when he included two movements for voice in his String Quartet no 2, the second of which, Entrückung, floats between keys, evoking the other-worldly, mystical rapture Stefan George described in his poem. The famous first line runs "Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten." but its last strophe is perhaps even more significant : "In einem meer kristallnen glanzes schwimme-- Ich bin ein funke nur vom heiligen feuer - Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme." (In a sea of crystal clarity, I swim, I am only a spark of that Holy Fire, I am only a whisper of the Holy Voice). I quote at length because this illustrates the eternal search which inspires good artists to seek new frontiers and original means of expression.
Roth may not have included Schoenberg in this concert (with a full orchestra, not chamber ensemble) but Schoenberg's innovative spirit hovers over Ligeti's Atmosphères. like an invisible guiding spirit. In Atmosphères Ligeti dispenses with conventional pitch and form, creating instead ethereal "atmospheres", planes of sound where pitch seems to disintegrate, The long, reverberating opening chord gives way to other planes. What form there is, is created by subtle changes of direction and density. Long hollow chords which seem to move from some extraterrestial plane, heralding a rumble from which other planes of sound arise. Low brass pulsates, and the strings shimmer, like rays of light stretching outwards,sublimated into silence. Ligeti's Atmosphères. holds a special place in Roth's heart. It was premiered by Hans Rosbaud, who created the SW German Radio Symphony Orchestra of which Roth is Chief Conductor, the orchestra now sadly doomed. Read HERE about how Roth protested in mega high profile about the demise of the orchestra and its pioneering principles
Berrio's Sinfonia with its concepts of confluence as form furthers George's mystical vision, that so inspired Schoenberg : Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme. The artist channels something greater than himself. Hence the idea of water, of a flowing river broadening until it reaches the ocean,. We are right back swimming in George's "Kristallen Meer" And, to paraphrase a line from Sinfonia, "The spirit of Schoenberg hangs in the cool, clean air". .I've written many times about the synthesis and innovation in Berio's Sinfonia - please READ MORE HERE and HERE
There is so much in Sinfonia, so many directions and elusive cell-like fragments, it's fundamental to respect what Boulez called "trajectory", that is. direction and purpose. This performance was wonderfully taut and vigorous, rather like the fish leaping around while St Antonius preaches. They represent a powerful life force that can't be contained by sermons. Roth, the LSO and Synergy Vocals interact like chamber performers, responding to each other, while propelling the music forward. Words emerge like signposts : "Keep going, keep going" and later "Stop!" but the music propels ever forward. Thunderbolt ostinato, screams of protest. Berio also incorporates different levels of reality, such as the mock emcee naming the performers of the night: this part of the score always varies. Sounds seem to clear, just as in passages of Ligeti's Atmosphères which is specifically named and cited, but this is by no means the end. Pitches hover and sounds rise upwards. In this performance Roth and his forces seem to create the aural image of an aircraft engine readying for takeoff, an absolutely appropriate metaphor for the way the sounds levitate. Yet here was joyous, dance-like back and forth liveliness. Quelques contradictions, as a voice called out. Fragments of words are lobbed like tennis balls between singers : the vocal balance here so tight that it was easy to spot the different timbres.
In between these two cornerstons of modern music any other music would inevitably pale. Elizabeth Ogonek's Sleep and Unrememberance is based on a poem by a Polish poet, written as she confronted death, Ogonek develops an idea thatb time and space can be compressed, and that perhaps, ultimately what we cling to as important might be only a dream. It's a big, ambitious piece, resplendent with glossy textures and broad sweeps of sound, highlighted by eddies and flurries for contrast. I kept thinking how successful it would be in Los Angeles, probably because of its shiny polish, but also because it reminded me of Esa-Pekka Salonen or Thomas Adès. Ogonek was a member of the LSO's Panufnik scheme, through which young composers are nurtured in memory of Andrzej Panufnik, whose influence on British music thus lives on.