Curios in Metz

In the last week I made a couple of trips from Luxembourg to Metz to hear some of the con­certs at this year’s Centre Acanthes and check out the newly opened Centre Pompidou-Metz. Metz is clearly in a period of flux, re­ju­ven­ating it­self with art, cul­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture, which in all hon­esty out­shine any of the rival major cities in the ‘Grande Région’ (a.k.a. SaarLorLux). None of Luxembourg City, Trier, Saarbrücken or Nancy quite has the quality or the cre­ativity to match. (Though per­haps Metz comes across as par­tic­u­larly vi­brant when full of young com­posers and free con­certs of con­tem­porary music.)

Inspired by a Chinese hat found in Paris…”

When I vis­ited last year, the Centre Pompidou-Metz was still a building site — al­beit a prom­ising one — that looked some­thing like this:

Centre Pompidou-Metz in June 2009

But it is now com­plete and its Chinese-hat in­spired roof curves el­eg­antly over a sur­pris­ingly large amount of ex­hib­i­tion space.

Centre Pompidou-Metz in June 2010

A satel­lite gal­lery of the Centre Pompidou, though quite in­sistent on its own iden­tity, it be­ne­fits enorm­ously from its Parisian big brother’s vast col­lec­tion of con­tem­porary art. The in­aug­ural ex­hib­i­tion, Chefs-d’œuvre?, ranges through Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson and count­less other big names, but in­tel­li­gently in­ter­mingles these with re­lated but lesser-known works and little nug­gets of local art his­tory. It car­ried on into more con­tem­porary works in the three upper gal­leries, but un­for­tu­nately I un­der­es­tim­ated how big the gal­lery is and, run­ning out of time, could only af­ford a cursory glance around the first upper gal­lery. Seeing the un­fin­ished spaces last year they seemed modest, but once skil­fully par­ti­tioned, cur­ated and con­verted into some­thing of a maze, much more art fits in than I expected.

Luxembourg’s Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM for short) opened in 2006, the result of a lengthy, ram­bling and con­stantly meta­morph­osing pro­ject. The ar­chi­tec­ture is spec­tac­ular in a sense. I. M. Pei’s design re­flects the cen­turies of sand­stone build­ings in Luxembourg’s old town and even man­ages to give the heavy walls a weight­less quality as they are slit by streams of day­light, but it is a building best en­joyed empty — a nice space to be in, but one in which the art often seems out of place. Centre Pompidou-Metz on the other hand ex­cels in its chameleon-like ability to trans­form to suit the ex­hib­i­tion. It seems that while dis­tinctive on the out­side, its fabric is anonymous enough to re­cede be­hind the art, rather than loom over it.

Corey McCorkle's Heiligenschein

Also worth vis­iting, is the Fonds ré­gional d’art con­tem­po­rain de Lorraine, which has had in­triguing ex­hib­i­tions in its small gal­lery spaces both times I’ve vis­ited. Including this time this ring of in­direct nat­ural light which brought a slice of the burning European sun into this black room. It is the work of American artist Corey McCorkle and is titled Heiligenschein.

Contemporary Celli

Both my trips took in con­certs of cello music. First a re­cital by the vis­iting tutor Anssi Karttunen on Friday, 9 July, and second the half a con­cert given by his five stu­dents on Thursday, 15 July. Karttunen is per­haps best known for his long-standing part­ner­ship with fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho, the ma­jority of whose cello works were written for him. However, his Acanthes re­cital stuck en­tirely to Italian com­posers, in­ter­weaving music from either end of the repertoire’s his­tory, from the instrument’s ori­gins in 17th-Century Northern Italy to music of the 20th Century.

Anssi Karttunen. Photo © Irmeli Jung/Karsten Witt Musikmanagement

Quite pos­sibly not to all tastes, but un­deni­ably in­ventive, Karttunen’s playing has to be amongst the most col­ourful around. Every piece is col­oured in ima­gin­at­ively dif­ferent ways quite un­like any other cel­list I have heard, es­chewing the con­sistent full­ness of tone of the Romantic so­loist for a wider palette of sound that truly ex­ploits the instrument’s po­ten­tial. This is per­haps some­thing one might ex­pect of a con­tem­porary spe­cialist (es­pe­cially one fa­miliar with Saariaho), but it is more sur­prising when heard in older music. It can work well though and in Giuseppe Colombi’s Chiaccona — def­in­itely the pick of the Baroque pieces — the light­ness of his col­ours al­lowed the piece to blossom quite mi­ra­cu­lously from its ground bass into weight­less, in­tricate, higher fig­ur­a­tion. All the older works were played with a sim­ilar sens­it­ivity, feeling the po­ten­tial for flex­ib­ility with an im­pro­vis­atory style of playing, let­ting tempos sway quite vi­ol­ently at times, but to great mu­sical ef­fect. Somebody de­scribed these works as ‘like sorbets’ re­freshing the palette between ‘dif­fi­cult’ con­tem­porary pieces, but that seems to un­fairly trivi­alise their role. They demon­strated how re­mark­ably far the tech­nique of the cello had ad­vanced in those early years. Indeed, there is much tech­nique in these works that is ex­ploited in not dis­sim­ilar ways in the newer works. Obviously, the more ex­tended tech­niques, found es­pe­cially in Franco Donatoni’s Lame, which is filled with dis­tant har­monics, are ab­sent, but the dra­matic po­ten­tial of rapid fig­ur­a­tion and broad spans of range are to be found across the cen­turies. Live re­cord­ings of two of the 20th-Century works, Donatoni’s Lame and Luigi Dallapiccola’s Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio, can be found on Karttunen’s web­site here.

His stu­dents were in at­tend­ance to learn from Karttunen’s know­ledge of con­tem­porary music and presented a pro­gramme of Augusta Read Thomas, Carlo Forlivesi, Kaija Saariaho, Rolf Wallin, Tristan Murail and Beat Furrer (the last two both present as com­pos­i­tion tu­tors). Saariaho’s Etincelles is amongst her less well-known cello works (when one thinks of Près, Petals, Amers or the more re­cent Notes on Light), but it could easily be played more often. Short and to the point, it makes a de­light­fully im­me­diate and powerful im­pact with a low, vi­olent tu­mult be­fore rap­idly spiralling up and away to finish. The other high­light was Beat Furrer’s Epilog, for three cellos. Quiet, trem­bling waves tim­idly broke and skated in and out of the room with a lovely del­icacy that somehow man­aged to re­main un­ob­vious des­pite the re­pe­ti­tious nature of the material.

New String Quartets

Quatuor DiotimaThe second half of the stu­dent con­cert on Thursday saw the Quatuor Diotima (not quite as ludicrously at­tired as on their web­site) present three of the el­even stu­dent quar­tets that they had been work­shop­ping in the course of the fort­night with a team of tech­ni­cians from Ircam providing the elec­tronic ac­com­pani­ment to two of the three quartets.

The second move­ment of 32-year-old Swiss com­poser Michael Pelzel’s Vers le vent… provided a vig­or­ously en­er­getic acoustic opener. A little like Dusapin in its tautly chro­matic and dis­sonant har­mony, but with more dra­matic tex­tural vari­ation, an opening of quiet, rapid trilling was per­for­ated with in­creasing fre­quency by strong ac­cents. As often hap­pens with such ‘un­ex­pected’ ac­cents that are nev­er­the­less metered, the ef­fect be­comes un­in­ten­tion­ally square and weakens as it goes on. Nevertheless, two ex­cel­lently handled mo­ments of with­drawal from the oth­er­wise con­tinu­ously fren­etic tex­tures re­vealed an as­sured struc­tural mind at work and it would be un­fair place a final judge­ment on a work without hearing its first movement.

Lisa Streich’s ASKAR, which means ‘boxes’ in her native Swedish, presented a series of more or less busy sec­tions made up of tex­tures of high har­monics punc­tu­ated by sharp im­pacts — scratches and snap piz­zicati. Close mi­cro­phones forced more of the bow noise to the sur­face, re­in­for­cing scratchier ele­ments as well as lending the oth­er­wise fra­gile har­monics power. The prox­imity ef­fect of the mi­cro­phones also lent a strong bass sound to the snap pizz, which blended well with a tape part triggered by the second vi­ol­inist Yun-Peng Zhao’s foot pedal. The elec­tronic sound seemed a little muddy with the deep clangs and scrapes of the tex­ture sub­ject to a heavy re­verb, al­most evoking the quality of some early mu­sique con­crète. Over the course of the work the elec­tronics ebbed away be­coming less and less present and let­ting the amp­li­fied in­stru­ments re­as­sert their primacy.

The best was saved for last with Brazilian Aurélio Edler-Copês’s mas­terful Quatuor n° 2: Punto rosso. The elec­tronics, this time en­tirely in real time, draped each instrument’s sound in a halo of won­derful col­ours pro­du­cing deeply rich tex­tures sim­ul­tan­eously and mi­ra­cu­lously at one with the quartet’s own colour. One might think of the elec­tronic en­hance­ment of the quartet sound in a work like Kaija Saariaho’s Nymphéa, but it doesn’t de­scribe the es­sen­tial quality that Edler-Copês’s pro­cessing brings to the work. So often in works of great tech­nical skill — and this was vir­tu­osic in those terms — one hears the mis­for­tune of the composer’s dis­trac­tion by tech­no­lo­gical dif­fi­culties and a con­sequent losing sight of the mu­sic­ality of the work, but here was a fant­ast­ic­ally ab­stract work, which re­lied little on clear markers or formal mile­stones and yet wound its way with an un­ob­trusive but ir­res­ist­ible logic. Only the final climax seemed un­for­tu­nately over em­phatic or pos­sibly under pre­pared, but even that res­ulted in a gor­geously de­tailed quiet coda. A re­lated work for small mixed en­semble, Punto rosso sull’oceano, can be heard on the composer’s MySpace page, but it is no replacement.

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Saturday, 17 July 2010 at 10:57 am, filed under Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Microbiography

    Chris Swithinbank is a British-Dutch com­poser who works with both acoustic in­stru­ments and elec­tronic sounds. He is cur­rently a stu­dent at Harvard University with Chaya Czernowin.
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