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Convincing gibberish opens modern music festival
Rainy days

Convincing gibberish opens modern music festival

by Douwe MIEDEMA 3 min. 16.11.2021
Luxembourg festival is wonderful way to get to know contemporary classical music
Kentridge (left) in his absurdist dialogue with soprano Greif, violinist Igor Semenoff and tap dancer Peter Kuit
Kentridge (left) in his absurdist dialogue with soprano Greif, violinist Igor Semenoff and tap dancer Peter Kuit
Photo credit: Philharmonie Luxemburg / Alfonso Salgueiro

A man well into his middle age walks onto the stage, installs himself behind a lectern and opens a book. He clears his throat, and it looks like his audience is in for an earnest lecture about some worthy topic. But as soon as South-African multi-artist William Kentridge starts speaking, only utter nonsense comes out of his mouth - which he keeps up for the next 40 minutes.

Such was the audacity of Kurt Schwitters that his Ursonate still shocks a hundred years after the German Dadaist wrote it, even if you have heard it before. The opening line – “Fümms bö wö tää zää U, pögiff, kwii Ee” - is a sign of what is about to hit you. The rest of this four-part Klanggedicht (sound poem) does not do much more to compromise. Nothing, in fact.

Yet Kentridge is a compassionate performer, whose smooth delivery keeps you listening with interest. At times he even sounded convincing. The 66-year-old can obviously count on some goodwill in the Grand Duchy, after the Mudam exhibited his art this year (one of the better shows it has had on offer). Friday’s performance was a worthy coda to it.

The Ursonate was the opening night for the Rainy Days festival for contemporary classical music, which Luxembourg may count itself lucky to have. It is now the 20th time the festival is taking place and the works on offer are of world quality. There are no less than 18 world premieres, while eight other pieces will be performed for only the second or third time.

Contemporary music is notoriously niche. Classical composers have pretty much stopped gaining broad popularity after Igor Strawinsky. While abstract painting is now almost more a cliché than figurative art, music without a clear melody, harmonic structure or rhythm is asking too much for most audiences. That is a shame, because contemporary music contains a trove of sometimes – not always, it is true – surprisingly beautiful or moving works.

This is music that is best savoured live, with the stunning skills of the musicians performing these demanding works on full display. If you have never heard it, Rainy Days is a great chance to pick one or two concerts and decide if you like what you hear. If the strictly classical sounds too foreboding, there is also electronic music, world music and film music, and jazz.

On Friday, for instance, the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra will bring works of three composers in their forties and fifties – one French, one German, one Belgian – one never heard before, the others twice or three times. On Saturday, you can be among the first audience ever to hear works from young composers from the US and Europe and, in the evening, a world premiere of a work from Greece’s Georges Aperghis, a leading modern composer.

There are also works that blend Persian with western contemporary music, a new work for two big names in experimental rock and electronic music from Cedric Fermont, a “musical traveller” in search of experimental music in Africa and Asia. And yeah - tickets are still generally available.

Back to William Kentridge. Just as he started sounding like just another boomer on a stage droning on about something you don’t understand, a woman in the audience got up and fiercely started shouting his words back at him. This was Ariadne Greif, a New York soprano who has gained glowing reviews in America for her roles in Baroque and contemporary works.

As she got on stage for a dialogue with Kentridge, so did a violinist and - why not - a tap dancer. The final 10 minutes were a pure spectacle to look at and listen to. The disruption was a comment on the spartanic way with which Schwitters treats his audience - and provided just the touch of diversity the evening needed. As an absurdist amuse, it boded well for the festival.


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