This is Not Your Mother's Berlin Philharmonic
Simon Rattle and his band close the 2003 Lucerne Festival with Heiner Goebbels's hyper-ambitious Surrogate Cities.
Surrogate Cities has reached an awkward age: Having been toured, recorded and marveled at worldwide for nine years or so, the work's confrontational eclecticism is no longer novel. Soon the world will start asking more probing questions - such as what, genrewise, exactly is Heiner Goebbels's 80-minute monster which uses large orchestra, performance artist, amplified soprano and pre-recorded sound samples to suggest a quasi-archeological cross section of urban life? And with such a dazzlingly complex apparatus, what does it succeed in saying?
Maybe the well-heeled mainstream listeners gathered to hear Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic at the closing night of the Lucerne Festival weren't quite at the point of wondering these things. After all, these were surely the most glamorous circumstances under which the piece has yet been heard. But sooner or later, audiences will start to wonder, since Goebbels's score, nearly a decade on, shows no sign of going into the post-premiere eclipse that most new music suffers.
As one who has lived with Surrogate Cities for a while, I find it ever more fascinating as an architectural entity, thanks partly to a recent re-ordering of the movements. While "Suite for Sampler and Orchestra" opens the ECM recording of the work, the Lucerne performance put the purely instrumental "D&C for orchestra" first (it's third on the CD), intelligently setting the tone for the piece as a whole: the brass writing in this section imitates car alarms, which is not only properly atmospheric but also demonstrates how the composer structures his movements around short, ejaculatory motifs. The "Surrogate" movement has been moved to the end, and its propulsive rhythms make an effective climax to this sprawling score, which now comes together as a single entity after the idiosyncratic fashion of Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette. Though it's an uneasy marriage of highly individual sound worlds, Surrogate Cities represents a marriage nonetheless.
But the piece is more poetically vague than it has any right to be - and only seems more so with repeated exposure. We're told that Surrogate Cities is all about humanity's need to create and destroy, but the texts Goebbels selected tend to throw up smoke screens. Paul Aster's quasi-street smart meditation on how nothing lasts in the city is a highly arguable notion on many levels. (Does anything last anywhere?) Three songs set to Heiner Muller texts about an ancient battle form, according to Rattle in his pre-performance comments, a metaphor for the joy of urban destruction - an idea I don't get at all. What I do get is how the Hugo Hamilton words, as spoken by performance artist David Moss in the "Surrogate" movement, convey the disturbing overtones of the speed-for-its-own-sake element of urban life. So the literary success rate is one out of three. That isn't good enough, especially in contrast to the sonic muscle of the score, which is like film music for your nightmares - and which, at its best, communicates on the strength of its own irrational but visceral power.
Both on stage and on disc, Moss seems to blur the line between performer and compositional collaborator, since it's hard to imagine the piece without him. Though his stocky silhouette suggests a benign personality that gives nothing to fear, in his chaotic stream of words and noises he became something of a human TV satellite, constantly catching and bouncing different signals. Less impressive - surprisingly so - was vocalist Jocelyn B. Smith, who makes an electrifying impression on the ECM recording despite some distracting vocal mannerisms. Her manner was less emphatic in Lucerne, though she continues to handle the dense, syllabically complex text with surprisingly little labor. Broadway diva Audra McDonald had been originally scheduled to do the female vocals for this performance; she undoubtedly would have delivered more vocal lushness, though I'm not sure, in a lurid account of murders and executions, how appropriate that would be.
The Berlin Philharmonic didn't always get the piece - notes were there but inferences sometimes weren't - which accounts for why purely instrumental sections sometimes seemed longer than they do as played by the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie on the ECM recording. (Maybe it's a generational thing?) Yet the customary Berlin Philharmonic glamour definitely gave the piece a welcome grandeur. Rattle gave one of his more technically accomplished performances, one particularly successful in blending the orchestra's live sonorities with sampled ones. The serpentine entanglements between a pre-recorded Jewish cantor from the 1920s and the live instruments were supremely effective.
Certainly, the choice of Surrogate Cities for the festival's closing night signified how the world is changing. As Rattle put it in some pre-performance comments, "it's not your mother's Berlin Philharmonic." But if festivals are to distinguish themselves, even the most conservative of them need to replace the standard closing-night Mahler symphony with a new kind of special-occasion programming, whether it's Osvaldo Golijov's Pasión segun San Marcos, Berlioz's little-known version of Weber's Der Freischütz or Surrogate Cities. And that programming development stands to have a domino effect. The fact that the Lucerne audience stood and cheered for Goebbels suggests that Rattle might even, with the public's blessing, truly transform your mother's - and Herbert von Karajan's and Claudio Abbado's - Berlin Philharmonic.
David Patrick Stearns
andante (US), 20 September 2003