The Salzburg Festival Opens in Search of Elusive Peace

The Salzburg Festival Opens in Search of Elusive Peace
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The Salzburg Festival Opens in Search of Elusive Peace

The Salzburg Festival Opens in Search of Elusive Peace

SALZBURG, Austria – “What is peace? asks a singer in Latin at the beginning of “Quod Est Pax?” »By Klaus Huber The orchestra responds with a wandering spectral sound that underlines the question, as it is posed again and viewed from different angles, until the instruments burst into a disorderly mass as if to answer: Peace is not a pleasant tune.

After all, peace – the theme of this year’s Spiritual Opening, the concert series that opens the Salzburg Festival – is often more of an off-stage character, evoked through crises and conflicts. And that was particularly elusive as last week’s performances were almost thwarted by the world’s troubles.

In the early days of the festival, heavy rains brought the Salzach River to dangerously high levels – a reminder of the deadly floods that recently swept through parts of Germany and Belgium. Across the Atlantic, extreme heat roasted the western United States as a multibillionaire prepared for a minutes journey to the ends of space. The dumpster fire metaphor for the state of affairs seemed to lose its appeal as Earth was, in fact, on fire. And, most urgently for Salzburg, the pandemic still loomed over the performing arts.

After a very small and very small festival last year, Salzburg was aiming for a return to form this summer, not least because it wanted to celebrate its 100th edition with great fanfare. He was planning a full lineup of opera productions and often several concerts a day until August 31, as well as his signature cut of the play “Jedermann” and other events.

And it would all start with The Spiritual Overture, a nearly decade-old spiritual programming series similar to the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center in New York City, but with a more curatorial focus and a less nebulous view of the relationship between music. and faith.

Alexander Pereira, the former artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, which presented the Overture concerts in 2012, said in an interview that the concept initially encountered resistance, especially from the local tourism industry. The artists responded well, but the administrators did not see concerts as a source of income.

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“The idea was not to think of something where we could make more money,” he said. “We thought it was to have more substance. And I’m glad this idea still works really well.

He does it, in his idiosyncratic way. The Overture is a gem among summer festivals: within its deceptively narrow focus are centuries of music, much of which is rarely scheduled elsewhere. In a range of venues, including the airy Felsenreitschule and the sacred space of the baroque Kollegienkirche, its scope this year ranged from solo singing to the immense “War Requiem” by Benjamin Britten. Everything seemed possible.


Although the Opening concerts may seem like a spiritual retreat, the outside world has taken hold before they even begin. The opening was supposed to feature Britten’s requiem with the Birmingham City Symphony Orchestra of England, who premiered it in 1962, and its choir, under the direction of its musical director, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.

But pandemic restrictions affecting performers coming from England, combined with the ensemble’s massive roster for the piece – which calls for two choirs and two orchestras – made the appearance impossible. And, in a sort of post-Brexit message of European unity, a new group quickly formed from nearly 20 countries: members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Wiener Singverein. Grazinyte-Tyla always conducted, admirably, but didn’t always elicit a performance in which the details penetrated the scale of the piece – although there were strengths in tenor Allan Clayton, his turn bitter and beautiful, and in the dark bewitching of Florian Boesch baritone.

It wasn’t the only time the coronavirus nearly derailed concerts. (The mood also changed when a member of the “Jedermann” audience tested positive for Covid-19, resulting in an immediate requirement for medical grade FFP2 masks for all performance.) Results were mixed. . In a program by Josquin des Prez on Monday, for example, Renaissance specialists Cinquecento were a suitable replacement for Tallis Scholars, but never as unforgettable as other performers in a similar repertoire, such as La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion. XXI under the ever- elegant conductor Jordi Savall the following evening.

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Messiaen’s radical and mystical ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, however, received one of the best readings I have heard – despite having two substitutes, pianist Francesco Piemontesi and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, who performed with the fifth movement. . I have no idea what the work would have looked like with the originally planned performers, but this narrative was masterfully and meditative played out. Clarinetist Jörg Widmann sculpted elongated and touching crescendos in the third movement, while moving registers of peace and despair with magnetic intensity.

This movement alone sums up the dominant theme of the week’s concerts: that peace does not exist without its antithesis. Much of the programming did not deal with the paradise implicit in sacred music, but with mourning and remembrance as a path to hope. Ronald Stevenson’s “Passacaglia on DSCH”, an 80-minute piano solo performed with unperturbed command by Igor Levit on Wednesday, seemed in this light to embrace these ideas through a kaleidoscopic odyssey of keyboard technique and historical memory .

With the character of a cadence – ceaselessly virtuoso, ceaselessly accelerated and accumulated – the “Passacaglia” deals not only with the history of music, but also with the history of the twentieth century with allusions to the Second World War. , to postcolonial Africa and, at one point, to the music of Lenin. promise to provide peace, land and bread to the people. It’s no wonder that in the end, Levit looked giddy, oblivious to the audience, as he bowed.

Elsewhere, the Overture concerts have served as a reminder that for much of the history of Western classical music, the work of composers has been inseparable from faith, through patronage or inspiration. It can be more abstract, as in Stockhausen’s mysteriously mystical “Inori” or Giacinto Scelsi’s “Konx-Om-Pax”, a brilliant glimpse of a cosmic life force performed by SWR Symphony Orchestra and the Bachchor Salzburg, and conducted by Maxime Pascal with patient control over the slowly changing textures of the room.

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But there is also music written explicitly for sacred spaces, which I had the privilege of hearing at the Kollegienkirche: “Officium Defuntctorum” by Cristóbal de Morales, conducted with a precision of Savall who paid off in a sublime resonance; and Messiaen’s “Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum”, presented the same evening by Klangforum Wien under the direction of Pablo Heras-Casado, heard as it should, with terrifying acoustic effects – the shimmer of a persistent, lengthening crescendo , becoming more and more foreign.

As if to prove that there can be too much of this good thing, however, conductor Teodor Currentzis and members of MusicAeterna – in town for the new production of “Don Giovanni” which will be part of the main festival – held a late-night concert of impressive choral music that was undermined by theatricality. The setup, of a dark church and candlelit performers in uniform dresses, looked like an “Eyes Wide Shut” ritual. At the end, the spectators, a little restless after two hours on wooden chairs, had to stay in place until the singers, leaving the building in a musical procession, could no longer be heard. At this quiet hour, the sounds faded very slowly.

The music should have been enough. It is, as Stravinsky noted, “the greatest ornament in the church.” His “Symphony of Psalms” received an unpretentious and harmonious reading on Saturday, with Philippe Herreweghe at the head of the Orchester des Champs-Élysées and the Collegium Vocale Gent.

It was a moment of peace, however brief, before thunderclaps outside heralded the arrival of another thunderstorm.

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