Agora Festival: Week One

Ensemble Intercontemporain, Capella Amsterdam, Orchestra de Paris/Mälkki, Holten, Deroyer, Tabachnik etc.

Cité de la Musique, Salle Pleyel, 20 June 2009 4 stars

MalkkiThe Agora festival is held annually by IRCAM around Paris, this year running for two weeks. The theme of this year's festival is complexity in the arts – the forking paths taken by and thematised by art and science in the contemporary era. This theme has paved the way for two weeks of multidisciplinary activity, among which has been an international symposium on complexity in the arts and sciences, a seminar bringing together Brian Ferneyhough, author Mark Danielewski and filmmaker Lars Von Trier, art installations, a retrospective of Von Trier's work, and – of course – the laying-on of a lot of contemporary music. Twenty new works were being premiered over the course of the festival, which kicked off last Monday week.

The first large-scale concert was held on Tuesday 9 June, with Ensemble Intercontemporain performing a new work by Luis Fernando Rizo-Salom alongside Luciano Berio’s Passaggio.

Rizo-Salom is a young Columbian composer based in Paris. He has previously studied at the University Javeriana of Bogota and the Paris Conservatoire (CNSMDP), and taken the Cursus in composition and live electronics at IRCAM. Trois Manifestes, for ensemble and electronics, divides the players into three groups placed around the hall – one onstage and one on each balcony. The work is inspired by the El Bogotazo riots in Columbia in the late Forties, which saw thousands of people die in the wake of a political assassination.

The program note spoke of a non-harmonic music that displaces the note as basic unit of musical construction. Such a concept is familiar since Xenakis, and earlier still Varèse, but its principle is still underdeveloped. A music that integrates noise and the harmonic in a way lending priority to neither is something that becomes more practically viable the more developed our technology becomes. It is therefore fitting that it should here be taken as topic. But the topic itself needs to be as developed as those technological processes facilitating it.

While such compositional ideals can often end in boring atonal washes of extended instrumental technique, the listener gazing around to see who else is bored, this work had the opposite effect. In the hall were set a number of different forces of attraction around which the music shot like a charge of electricity set loose on a grid. It brimmed with different ideas and miniature flourishes of sonority. A gesture on cello on the left hand balcony would shoot across the hall to the right hand balcony, setting off a reaction in a group of violins. The integration of the three live groups was achieved by the spatialised use of live electronics. This set-up included speakers underneath the listener’s seats, which made the sound sources themselves a sort of counterpoint. The electronic sounds used were also quite varied, sometimes emenating like the dull thuds of Stockhausen's Kontakte and at other times in sparkling granular synthesis.

The conductor Susanna Mälkki as usual was on fine form. She marshalled the groups above her head strongly and conjured their music from a distance. The effect of the music's form, with its constant shard of energy flying around the hall, was to create myriad micro-processes, somewhat like the larger scale processes of classic spectralism. The general effect was of compressed gas bubbling violently in a closed bottle, making for a turbulent and enjoyable twenty-five minutes.

Luciano Berio The political aspect of Rizo-Salom's piece may have seemed incidental, but the same certainly couldn't be said of Berio's incredible Passaggio. Written in collaboration with Edoardo Sanguinetti, it is a sort of anti-opera, a 'messa in scena' for soprano, double choir and orchestra. When it was premiered at the Scala in 1962 it caused a scandal, explicitly taking issue as it does with opera and its bourgeois societal mores. If the dramatic arts are defined by conflict and resolution, Passaggio is certainly an important contribution to the form, onstage and off.

A female character (both the soprano and who she represents) finds herself persecuted by groups throughout the audience wearing civvies – a spoken word choir – and by another choir onstage. Cries of civic unrest arose from the groups in the audience, building tension. After five minutes the soprano – a fantastic Julia Henning – appeared under a spotlight, crouched in the corner of the stage with a suitcase, jacket and coat. The piece followed her through several stations: successively captured, humiliated and tortured by the forces around her. The plainclothes choir at various times shouted orders and threats at Elle (as she is called), and railed at her using percussive instruments and collectively blowing on whistles. The action sees Elle tied up, collapsed on an old mattress, reading scraps of paper which she pulls from her suitcase, and eventually rushing distraught from the stage and out the exit of the hall, in a magnificent 'false' ending, to a hectoring and grotesque round of applause from the choral forces situated throughout the audience, which melded into the audience's own applause in a through-the-looking-glass transition.

The performance was second to none, Henning in particular outstanding. There was a sense that these are the stories we need to be told now, adequate to our times and our place within the tradition in which they occur and in which we play our part.

A couple of nights later saw a concert by the Orchestra of Paris across town at the plush environs of the Salle Pleyel. More Berio came in the form of his orchestral work Formazioni, which formed a triumvirate along with Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestram, opus 10, and a new commission by Bruno Montovani, Le Livre des illusions.


Formazioni is from some way down the road of Berio's career, having been premiered in 1987. Its main point of interest lies in its reorganisation of the orchestral force onstage. The basing of the orchestra on traditional instrumental families is exploded, by disarranging those families around the stage to produce new vistas of interplay. This is something Berio already explored in Coro (as detailed below). And as with Passaggio, there is an extension of the work of the composer from the 'notes' of the music to the very context of the concert itself – the materiality of the hall and onstage, the fixtures of concert-going. The brass was outlaid to extreme right and left perimeters of the stage, flutes placed in the midst of the violins, and so on, the orchestral plan smudged like a wet painting and intermixed. The forces available for this process were certainly plentiful, a large orchestra filling all available space on the stage (eight double basses for example).

Despite the promise, the idea was never really fulfilled. The early part of the piece saw pedalled notes moving around the stage, altering with swirls and glissandi from different quarters. There was no real formal development however, the material not strong enough to retain attention. Some nice chamber music-like passages of counterpoint between violins and flute made use of the elaborated architecture. But the piece overall is a lacklustre one.

The Webern followed and was infinitely more lucid. Despite dating from 1913, it was the most modern sounding piece on the bill – in such a way as to make one think we still haven't caught up with what it says. The onstage forces were much smaller, and performed the slight piece impeccably. There is a world in each movement, in stasis like that one glimpsed by Keats on his Grecian Urn, apart from time. You may feel like talking about it forever, but there'd hardly be much point. Jean Deroyer at the orchestra's helm was convincing, as he was all night, staid while still breaking sweat.

The second half of the concert was taken up by a new work from Bruno Mantovani, a joint commission from the Orchestra of Paris and IRCAM. Mantovani is ubiquitous in the contemporary concert life of Paris, delivering regular commissions.

Le Livre des illusions (hommage à Ferran Adrià) is an orchestral work with a grand concept. While we're all familiar with programme music, this work invents a subgenre of that (and whose name I'm coining here): menu music. Its form in its entirety is based on a particular menu (from 2007, when Montovani visited) of a restaurant run by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. Thus we have a half hour work made up of thirty-five segued sections such as 'Olives sphériques', 'Risotto de pamplemousse', 'Framboise au wasabi' and so on. Before the piece, both composer and chef talked us through some of these plates and their aural counterparts, the orchestra obliging by playing examples of a taste explosion set off by a spherical olive, and the sensation of olive oil sloshing around on one's tongue. Bizarre.

FrancesconiWhat of the piece itself? Was it a rare delicacy – a tasty treat? (At this point we could be tempted to indulge in a string of food-based puns – 'whet your appetite', 'had the audience salivating', etc – but we'll resist the urge.) For what it's worth, apart from the concept, what was leftover was a standard contemporary orchestral piece using live electronics. The piece was certainly well crafted. But it simply came across as forty or so miniature orchestral cells and motifs, based on different techniques, tacked together to fill the required form, with crescendo and climactic gestures placed at the end and a bang placed at the beginning. The electronics, too, were superfluous. Overall well written, but unadventurous – but perhaps best enjoyed to the internal sounds of oneself eating.

The third and last concert of the Berio series followed on Saturday night at Cite de la Musique. The momentous Coro took up the second half of a concert that began with another new commission, Sirènes by Luca Francesconi. The works were performed by the Orchestra of Flanders conducted by Michel Tabachnik, and the Flemish Radio Choir led by Bo Holten – both of whom rose to the challenge posed by the massive programme.

Francesconi is now becoming generally known as a leading figure in the contemporary mainstream. (There was a Music of Today concert of his work last year given by the London Philharmonia at the RFH in London.) Having cut his teeth as Berio's assistant in the early eighties, he now teaches at Malmö, and is a frequent visitor at IRCAM.

Sirènes saw the choir take to the balconies again, as with Tuesday's concert. The male members of the choir remained onstage while the sopranos and altos took to either side of the upper galleries of the hall. The work is a dark and brooding one, formally organised in a similar style to Francesconi's earlier Da Capo (although the programme note was a little baffling). A motif first heard on trumpet recurs periodically throughout the work, seeming acting as centre of gravity for the general dark cloud in which the work drifts. The piece is brass heavy, with the choral parts similarly imposing. There was some impressive work by the sopranos on the night and the composer emerged from behind the hall’s mixing desk to take his applause onstage at the end.

Coro is one of Berio's major vocal works. Composed between 1974 and 1976, it is perhaps the most comprehensive work of Berio's vocal music. An array of different vocal styles and techniques are displayed (lied, chanson, African heterophony and polyphony), along with quotation of folk songs from all over the world. It also sees formal experimentation in the distribution of the choral voices throughout the orchestra, each instrument (except percussion) twinned with a member of the choir, sitting side by side. The main feature that strikes the listener during the colossal work (an hour long) is of a different and more honed application of the collage principle utilised by Berio in earlier works such as the famous third movement of Sinfonia. Here the collage is of folksongs and myriad vocal technique, the faces of which appear like different coloured plates on a stained glass window in a cathedral. These 'quotations', or fragments, are all held together by a harmonic base that regularly opens into massive chords sounding across the orchestra and choir, and which sees the individual vocal lines emerge and disappear again from its base.

The work made an apposite climax to the end of the first week of the festival, having a suitably exhausting and pleasurable effect on the listener.

By Liam Cagney

Photos: Susanna Malkki by Tanja Ahola, Luciano Berio, Bruno Mantovani by Christophe Daguet, Luca Francesconi © Ricordi


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Concert Review: Ensemble intercontemporain at Cite de la Musique in Aperghis
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Concert Review: New works commisioned for the London Sinfonietta's 40th Anniversary
CD review: Ensemble intercontemporain play Luca Francesconi (0012712KAI)