And the Beat goes on: Goebbels, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic
Philharmonic Hall Berlin, Germany; Sept. 23, 2003
The series of concerts opening Sir Simon Rattle's second season as Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic has been a great success: much-lauded concerts in a sold-out hall. Heiner Goebbels's 1 '/z-hour Surrogate Cities, premiered in Frankfurt in 1994, is no exception; people were lined up hours beforehand to garner a rare ticket. The concert was preceded by a presentation of a music and video high school education project based more on the work's urbanization "issues" than its musical themes. That such a performance preceded the orchestra's rendition of the work in the hallowed halls of the former West Berlin landmark (40th birthday party just wrapped up) is typical of the institution's new mood of opening up now that Rattle has taken over.
Surrogate Cities explores the nature of cities using texts by Paul Auster and Heiner Müller, and other passages inspired by motives from Franz Kafka and Italo Calvino. The orchestra members did not dress in tails and long skirts, just black shirts and trousers; the lighting was used theatrically - spotlights, occasionally complete darkness, lights moving up and down the walls, the only constant the little lamps on individual music stands. The scene is constantly in movement - the soloists wander on and off stage, sing from off stage. The Philharmonic always looks aware and involved, but here there was lots of foot tapping, smiling and looking around when others were playing.
It is hard to describe the constituent elements of Goebbels's eclectic music: rock beats and jazzy passages, quotations from earlier classical works, dynamic build-ups using the entire orchestra, contemplative moments for one instrument and sampler. Heiner Goebbels specializes in collages of sound and text, in overlapping layers of meaning. He uses a sampler to record sounds, music, words, insisting on combining sampled sounds with live music to "build a balance between stereotypy and liveliness." The light show (with Goebbels himself at the console) was relatively discreet in this performance, perhaps due to the hall's possibilities, though it has played a larger role at other venues.
The evening's soloists were simply sensational - no hyperbole.
David Moss's role is for a speaking voice, and from the outset somberly speaking Auster's text describing a city in constant transition ("A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone"), his voice went through many rapid-fire transitions, creating a kaleidoscope of vocal acrobatics. Reminiscent of Tom Waits in his jerky movements and hypercool aura, his presence dominated whenever he appeared. Trained as both singer and percussionist, he occasionally interrupted the vocal tirades to break into a few drumbeats on the little drumset set up in front of him. Rattle too played a theatrical role, turning away from the orchestra to stroke Moss's shoulder, singing and yelling along with the dynamo.
Mezzosoprano Jocelyn B. Smith had a different kind of amazing presence. Dressed in a form-fitting black dress, stiletto heels, and red lipstick, her jazz and soul expertise shaped the way she sang the texts by Heiner Müller. The Horation Songs deal with a contest for dominance between the cities of Rome and Alba, and communicate a drastic message about killing and being left behind, about similarities and differences, about honor and emotion. Completely confident and on top of things, she often tapped the offbeats with her left hand or foot, engaged with the music being produced until she sang again. The apocalyptic sounds accompanying Smith's dramatic songs, the fifth of the work's seven parts, were accompanied by blue lights moving downwards through the hall in a threateningly anonymous way.
What can be hard to follow is the larger form - will there another tuneful passage, a jazzy one, a quiet one? What is the ebb and flow of what's coming? The instrumental groups were often used as blocks of sound. Passages were repeated a few times, though not hypnotically often. The concertmaster played a solo with the sampler; a classical fragment was played on the piano. Each of the percussion players had a major solo - and in fact, after the performance, Rattle found his way through the strings and winds to ensure each got a separate big bow. Six listeners did sneak out during the performance, evidently turned off by the unusual show. But the ayes far outweighed the nays. Throughout the hall one saw a mixed crowd of young folks, older rock fans and the usual Philharmonic concert goers, some nodding their heads and swaying to the catchy beats, and the audience's response at the work's close was overwhelmingly favorable.
www.classicstoday.com (US), 29 September 2003