Depth and Elegance
GIUSEPPE PENNISI visits the
Printemps des Arts de Monte Carlo
In Europe, the music festival season starts in the Spring with the Printemps des Arts de Monte-Carlo (the Monte Carlo Spring of Arts), now at its thirtieth edition (14 March until 13 April 2014). As discussed last year (Stylized and Abstract, 5 April 2013), because of the location, it attracts audience not only from nearby France, Italy and Switzerland but also from the United Kingdom and the United States. It is not a 'theme festival', strictly speaking, but it offers a cohesive program which places emphasis on a few composers. The intention — as emphasized by artistic director Marc Monnet in an interview with me -- is to provide music not often played by symphony and chamber music ensembles in Southern France, where the repertory normally spans from the eighteenth to the first half of the twentieth century. This year, emphasis is on providing 'portraits' of well-known composers (namely Haydn and Skrjabin) through some of their lesser known works, to open to music from distant lands (Japan and Morocco) and to have a fair amount of contemporary music. For this festival, thirteen short compositions (three minutes each) were commissioned from as many young composers from all over Europe. Performances are scheduled only during the week-ends (from Friday -- occasionally Thursday -- to Sunday) and each 'cluster' has its own focus.
I attended the first week-end. This entailed the inaugural concert by the Liège Royal Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christian Arming on 14 March, a long and extensive Hungarian Night on 15 March and as many as three different concerts on 16 March (at 11am, 5pm and 7pm) by internationally known pianist Philippe Bianconi.
The inaugural concert was also the first part of the 'Skrjabin Portrait' — one of the leitmotifs of the festival. The Liège orchestra is a highly professional group and Christian Arming is a very young Austrian conductor with a precise baton and a large opening of his right arm. The program started with an 'adagio' by Guillaume Lekeu (a Belgian composer who died when he was only twenty-four years old and thus left a very limited production), the Concerto for violin and orchestra, Op 82, by Alexander Glazunov and the Second Symphony, Op 29 by Alexander Skrjabin. It was the first time I had listened to these three compositions. In short, in spite of the skills of the orchestra and the conductor, Lekeu's Adagio is no more than a good end of conservatory essay. Instead, Glazunov's Concerto is a very good late nineteenth century work; a three-movement concerto where the violinist (Lorenzo Gatto) was a virtuoso in his dialogue with the orchestra. In short, a good opening to a festival which makes depth and elegance its key features. Skrjabin's Second Symphony was just excellent, a real discovery for me.
The Hungarian Night started at 6pm with an interesting lecture on the history of Hungarian music and its links both with the Uralian steps (where most of the populace came from) and the Indian-Gypsy tradition which reached the Central European plains following the Turks. The concert was a three part affair from 7.30pm until well after midnight. Hungarian music history was presented backwards, ie from current contemporary scores to old folk singing and dancing. In the pit was one of the best known conductors and composers, Peter Eötvös, a close friend of Pierre Boulez and with conducting gestures very similar to Boulez's. The Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo was in the pit with him. There was a prelude before entering the concert hall. In the two level foyer, an homage to György Ligeti was given by performing, at the lower level, the Poème symphonique for a hundred metronomes and at the higher level, Continuum and Hungarian Rock, both for harpsichord. A taste of the elegance, irony and humor of the recently deceased master of contemporary composition.
The first part of the concert entailed two compositions by Peter Eötvös himself: zeroPoints for orchestra composed in 1999 and the Concerto Grosso for cello and orchestra of 2011. In the second part, Nouveaux Message, Op 34a by György Kurtág (2009) and the Háry János suite for orchestra (1925-27) by Zoltán Kodály. The Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo performed these rather difficult works -- a travel backwards from the sophisticated timbric exercise by Eötvös, to the almost narrative program music by Kodály and Kurtág with an atmosphere reminiscent of French 'spectral music' of the mid-twentieth century. Of course, the Gypsy singing and dancing on a few ethnical instruments was a rather different epilogue which pleased those who had followed through the more-than-six hours of music and related lecture.
On Sunday 16 March, Philippe Bianconi ran a real marathon, with the support of violinist Geneviève Laurenceau, clarinetist Florent Héau, Dana Ciocarlie as second pianist and Emmanuel Curt and Florent Jodelet on percussion: as many as three concerts in one single day. The 11am and 5pm concerts were held in the plush Salle Empire and the 7pm concert in the small but highly decorated Opera House. There was a sharp difference between the two morning and afternoon concerts and the evening recital. In the morning and in the afternoon, Bianconi and his associates alternated Debussy and Bartók. This brought into the festival echoes of the First World War as well as of the inter-war period. In particular, Debussy's En Blanc et Noir (1915) was conceived on the composer's awareness that the conflict was going to be long and dreadful — as revealed by a letter to his publisher. Bartók's Sonata for two pianos and percussion was composed during a long span (1913-1936) and reflects the mood of a very troubled period for Europe.
The recital in the Opera House where Bianconi delighted the audience with the full Livres de Préludes by Debussy — the program that in 2012 had him awarded the Diapason d'Or, ie the French musical equivalent of the Hollywood Oscar Prize, was quite different.