July 2003, Robert Davidson, Realtime
Review (en)

Imagining the city: re-imagining the orchestra

Heiner Goebbels: Surrogate Cities

The Queensland Orchestra and Soloists Conductor: Andrea Molino QPAC Concert Hall, July 18 Commissioned for the 1200th anniversary of the city of Frankfurt, Heiner Goebbels' Surrogate Cities, a 90 minute orchestral collection, celebrates the city as a dominant way of being in the world today, proceeding on the conceit that it is possible to generalise the urban experience to all cities. Whether this is true is not certain-the experience of a city such as Frankfurt, for example, organically growing up around twisting medieval pedestrian lanes, is very different from the 'new world' car-centric cities of Australia and the USA. To approach the urban theme via an orchestral work of Mahlerian proportions seems a particularly European strategy. American composers have had similar ideas (Steve Reich's City Life comes to mind as a less sophisticated but more focused attempt), but the call for such work seems less urgent in the US, where the dominant music is all about the urban experience (try to imagine hip-hop without this theme constantly in the foreground). Many of today's leading art-music composers would have to check an orchestration book to find the range of, say, a bass oboe (an instrument used to great effect by Goebbels, by the way). The orchestra has long since lost its place as a location of the newest ideas. Aside from the general resistance to new music amongst the majority of orchestral players, the complete reliance on notation is frequently at odds with the aims of creative music making. One feels these restraints on Goebbels in this piece, though he does his best to stretch beyond the bounds of notation-at one point, for example, the violin section play a series of sliding notes with great abandon, surprisingly unbuttoned in this context. This is an orchestra that has been re-imagined for the late 20th century-it is informed throughout by lessons from pop music, the most significant impact resulting from the integration of Willi Bop's amplification. This allows a gritty funkiness to often emerge, combining Le Sacre Du Printemps with Prince-like grooves. Heiner Goebbels is best known for his work in the theatre, where he has a gift for creating contexts that bring out the best from extraordinary performers. It is difficult to translate this effectiveness into the orchestral context, but his tactic of bringing highly creative soloists-vocal free-improv gymnast David Moss and the gospel-bluesy Jocelyn B Smith-pays off. Their freedom becomes contagious and inspires the orchestral players to loosen up, egged on by the precise enthusiasm of conductor Andrea Molino. 1994 is starting to feel a very long time ago-zines, manga, "surfing the web" was dropped into conversations, musicians got excited about sampling, postmodernism felt new and fresh. Surrogate Cities, composed in 1994, often shows its age (the sampler's material particularly). The music works best when the postmodern quotation marks are removed and we hear what Goebbels really feels. This is never more profoundly moving than the inspired section featuring 70-year-old recordings of Jewish cantorial singing. The peculiarities of the Rabbis' performances filter out through the whole orchestra with a gorgeous result, but dark thoughts of Kristallnacht are impossible to avoid. However marked by its European specificity and the moment of its making, Surrogate Cities seems likely to take its place in the late-20th-century orchestral repertoire, both creating a miniature city in sound and reflecting how it feels to live now. (Robert Davidson)

on: Surrogate Cities (Composition for Orchestra)