‘Here and Now’: Wien Modern

Marino Formenti performing 15 hours of Morton Feldman’s piano works and other wonders of contemporary sound

A children’s concert with theater, Ich Entdeck Dich!, at the MQ | Photo: Martin Johann Krennbauer

Modern music is not composed for dancing or consumption in a “feel good” fashion but is to be perceived in a concentrated and contemplative manner, has said young Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud, born in Innsbruck in 1974. And whether yea or nay, there will be plenty of chances to hear new music in contemplative settings during this year’s Wien Modern Festival, continuing through Nov. 20, where Staud will join a roster of leading contemporary composers for performances at the Arnold Schönberg Center, the Konzerthaus and the Musikverein.

“One should be open for everything,” conductor Claudio Abbado said when he set about creating the festival in 1988. The festival is, according to Vienna city councilor for culture Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, “an indispensable platform for contemporary music,” and its new artistic director Matthias Lošek terms it the “most important festival for contemporary music in Austria.”

Morton Feldman (1926–1987) forms the backbone of this year’s festival. Born in New York, he was part of the “New York School,” which also included John Cage, a group of composers who experimented with “indeterminate music.” This is music that is not precisely specified, compositions that leave something to chance when they are performed. Feldman is also known for writing pieces that are very long (the second quartet takes six hours to perform) and extremely quiet.

Once after a premiere of one of his (hours-long) works, Feldman was asked how he had liked the performance. “It was wonderful. I feel asleep,” the composer commented, without embarrassment. Marino Formenti will be performing Feldman’s entire piano oeuvre, beginning at 4:30 pm on Friday, Nov. 19 and ending the next morning at 7:30 am. That will be one concert where we can fall asleep with impunity, knowing that it is in the spirit of the composer.

One novelty will be two separate world premieres of the same piece, played by two different ensembles with different conductors, to be heard on consecutive evenings. Wolfram Schurig’s “…vom Gesang der Wasserspeier” (“…the song of the gargoyle”) will be performed on Nov. 17 by the Portuguese ensemble Remix, and again the next day by Vienna’s own Klangforum.

Matthias Lošek, artistic director of the festival | Photo: Julia Stix

In addition to the concerts, there will also be an exhibition in the “project space” of the Kunsthalle Wien on Karlsplatz entitled “‘Notation’: the intention of noting down a musical idea,” which has been curated by the lively Susana Zapka. It will focus on the ways music notation has changed over the last century to match the ever-changing conception of sound and music. While examining the changing look of the music on the page, it will also pose more challenging questions such as where to draw the line between the composer and the interpreter of music. Entrance is free.

Three podium discussions entitled “Wien Modern in Conversation” will be held with Lothar Knessl, the Grand Old Man of contemporary music. And at the other end of outreach, a series of nine children’s concerts with theater, “Ich Entdeck Dich” (“I Discover You”), will be offered at the Dschungel Wien in the MuseumsQuartier.

Performances will be in thirteen different venues altogether: as well as those mentioned above, the locations are as diverse as the Ruprechtskirche, Casino Baumgarten, Odeon and Semperdepot. The ensembles performing will include the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Klangforum Wien, the German SWR South West Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Arditti Quartet, among others.

Whether this year’s festival will prove as successful as in former years is yet to be seen. But the fact that it is taking place at all is something of a miracle given the difficulties it has faced in recent years to be financed.

Wien Modern is not an ivory tower of something strange for the initiated few. “The unfamiliar can become understandable, the abstract can take on a much more distinct shape and form,” writes Lošek. It is time to discover this.


For the program see: www.wienmodern.at 

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