GIUSEPPE PENNISI experiences
Salzburg Festival's 'Ouverture spirituelle'
Salzburg Festival's 'Ouverture spirituelle'
When Alexander Pereira took over the responsibility of the artistic direction of the Salzburg Festival, he made the decision to extend the program by a week so that it could be introduced by an Ouverture spirituelle: music devoted to the Almighty. The decision was based on a return to the Festival's roots: when in 1917 (during World War I), the Festival began, on the basis of program drawn by Max Reinhardt, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, its center piece was Hofmannsthal's sacred play Jedermann, which even now has at least ten performances each year in front of Salzburg Cathedral. In addition, new and less expensive versions of the play are staged in the 'off Salzburg' festival in smaller theatres and nearby towns. Pereira maintains that this area is a mine still to be explored: a few months ago, for instance, an unknown Mozart oratorio was discovered. Also, a new and younger audience is attracted to the festival.
This year the Ouverture spirituelle lasts two weeks and overlaps with the start of the other sections of the festivals (opera, drama, symphony, chamber music). As I normally visit Salzburg in the last weeks of the festival, I have never reported on the Ouverture spirituelle. This year I made a point to follow at least part of it.
The Ouverture spirituelle started on 18 July 2014 with Haydn's Die Schöpfung, conducted by Bernard Haitink with an all-star cast, and concluded with a very special concert on 31 July in the baroque University Church: a confrontation between contemporary Christian and Islamic music with two world premieres commissioned by the Festival.
Due to time restrictions as well as to the need to follow other sectors, I attended only a sample of the Ouverture spirituelle: the 31 July Christian and Islamic contemporary music confrontation and the 29 July performance of Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt. Not only the calendar dictated this choice but also the fact that Israel in Egypt is seldom performed in Italy.
One of the composer's 'second phase' London works, it has highly political undertones because it was conceived when the House of Hanover had just taken over the Kingdom, while in the country a strong party favored a return of the Stuart family. Also the British felt victimized by Walpole's Excise Tax. This political context explains why Handel had to provide two versions before the oratorio was finally accepted and had its deserved success. The rendering by the Balthasar-Neumann-Chor and soloists under Thomas Hengelbrock's baton emphasized the terse and no-frills baroque; after all, this oratorio is not a drama with characters as with many of Handel's other works, but depicts the movement of a people towards Nationhood, which is why the political context is so relevant. The first part describes the exodus, the second Moses' songs. The audience was highly impressed; Hengelbrock and his team had to provide two encores.
The most juicy part of the material I heard was the comparison between contemporary Christian and Islamic music. Islam has a long tradition, mostly of vocal music (whilst in the West the tradition is mostly instrumental). It dates back to the poet and philosopher Mansur Al-Hallag, killed by extremists in 922. Al-Hallag was a precursor of ecumenism. For him, religion was a river flowing through several countries, and taking different names but with a single source, even though some countries considered it to belong only to them. Also for Al-Hallag, love is the only way to freedom, and each man and woman can dialogue with the Almighty without any intermediation. When he was executed, he died saying 'I am the Truth'.
Of course this philosophy was in the premise and background of the concert. The confrontation was between a live electronic composition by Mark Andre (of the IRCAM Boulez school) and compositions of Islamic 'tolerance'. Andre and Samir Odeh-Tamini (a Palestinian, internationally known also for his philosophical studies on the Koran) dealt with the same subject: the multi-ethnic and multi-religion Istanbul district named Cihangir: in different ways, the listeners hear mullahs, rabbis and priests from several Christian confessions during busy days. Kesik, for twelve instruments, by Turkish composer Zeynep Gedizlioglu, depicts the differences evolved over time in the Mediterranean Basin cultures; the oboe solo, full of Eastern tradition, was remarkable.
Egyptian composer Amr Okba presented the world premiere of a symphonic poem of Western late romantic tradition based on the novel Rhadopis of Nubia by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. The novel deals with the contrast between a wise and pious Pharaoh and power-hungry Priests. The last movement, on the Pharaoh's death, was quite gripping. Closer to contemporary European and American music was Hossam Mahmoud's Tarab 5, another world premiere: Tarab is a very intense religious chant; the composition is purely instrumental, and quite emotional.
Perhaps this dialogue among musicians will facilitate a broader and deeper dialogue on political, social and economic issues?