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Contemporary music festival kicks off with a bang
Music

Contemporary music festival kicks off with a bang

by Douwe MIEDEMA 3 min. 18.11.2022
The Rainy Days festival of contemporary music opened in Luxembourg on Thursday
Noa Frenkel in "Subnormal Europe", which was performed on the opening night of the Rainy Days festival on Thursday
Noa Frenkel in "Subnormal Europe", which was performed on the opening night of the Rainy Days festival on Thursday
Photo credit: Rainy Days

An opera singer moves about the stage, hurriedly telling a story of how the production she is performing in came about. A man's voice from the back of the theatre - or the audience, it's not clear - tells her how to move, as she re-enacts the movements from actors in brief historic recordings.

He is never happy with what she does, instructing the singer to fire the neurons that make her move at exactly the same time as the projections on the walls of the stage, which are full of Zoom calls with the producers - including their personal data - and loads of administrative documents.

Such was the intriguing opening night of the annual Rainy Days festival for contemporary music, undoubtedly one of the more ambitious achievements in Luxembourg's cultural calendar - and one that rarely disappoints.

Lydia Rilling has been the festival's artistic director since 2016, and this year will be the last she oversees the programming
Lydia Rilling has been the festival's artistic director since 2016, and this year will be the last she oversees the programming
Chris Karaba

Two days earlier, percussionist Christoph Sietzen and organist Christian Schmitt performed an encore after a standing ovation from the audience for their renderings of 20th-century compositions. That is a rare event in this type of art, which, admittedly, can be cerebral and sometimes downright obscure.

The pair had brought a work from Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina, a spectacular piece of music from 1978 written for this unusual combination of instruments, fit for a science fiction film so good it has yet to be produced. Sietzen performed two works for percussion solo, from Japanese composers.

To be true, the ovation was due in part to minor cheating, as the two performers mixed some properly classical - and widely popular - repertoire into the mix: the Danse Macabre from Saint-Saëns and two pieces from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

It was pure spectacle, with a second percussionist, from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg, lending a hand on a specially cast bronze bell he wheeled onto the stage. Not something many will have seen before.

There are 20 more concerts to come in the next weeks, for which tickets should still be easy to come by. On Saturday, there is a rare chance to see a performance of a puppet theatre designed by Swiss painter Paul Klee around 1920, accompanied by music from Greek composer Georges Aperghis in a work first performed in 2007.

One of the Paul Klee puppets that will be used in "Zeugen" on Saturday evening
One of the Paul Klee puppets that will be used in "Zeugen" on Saturday evening
provided by Rainy Days

On Sunday, a Ukrainian silent film from 1930 will be shown, with a live performance of a score by Russian composer Alexander Popov from 1997. On Tuesday, you can hear Ionisation, a work written for 13 percussionists from Edgar Varèse that is well-established as part of the modern classical canon, from 1929-1931.

Many of these works are rarely performed, and hearing them in Luxembourg may be a rare chance to hear them at all.

It is the last year that artistic director Lydia Rilling, who first directed the festival in 2016, will be responsible for Rainy Days, as she is handing over the baton to Catherine Kontz, a Luxembourgish composer. 

The fact that Rilling's tenure has been a success is reflected in her new appointment as head of Germany's Donaueschinger Musiktage, arguably one of the most prestigious contemporary music festivals, which started in 1921, and where Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern were once guest composers.

Meanwhile, on Thursday's opening night, contralto Noa Frenkel (who, sadly, barely sang) loses her voice in "Subnormal Europe", after not only the male voice tells her she is not good enough, but her computer too. 

Catherine Kontz will become the festival's artistic director next year
Catherine Kontz will become the festival's artistic director next year
Anouk Antony

Forlorn, she sits on the stage, showing the audience the various media through which we have consumed data in the past half century: grammophone records, cassette tapes, compact discs, DVDs, floppy discs and USB sticks.

The production was commissioned by the Munich Biennale in 2020, when Germany took on the presidency of the European Union, and was a critique on the European Commission's controversial decision to name a Commissioner for "Promoting our European Way of Life" - or so the programme states. 

That, honestly, was not clear from watching the performance. But Frenkel certainly succeeded in giving an authentic performance against a loss of humanity in a society overloaded with data and procedure.


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