In the old days, radio stations, because of technical limitations, were meant to serve regional audiences. Their resident orchestras too were named accordingly. The South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, based in Baden-Baden, automatically became “my” orchestra, as I was then studying in Tuebingen in South West Germany. Its Chief Conductor was Hans Rosbaud (who unfortunately died young), and he recruited a young Frenchman by the name of Pierre Boulez as Assistant Conductor. Together they championed contemporary music and became world-famous because of that, while maintaining high standard in the traditional repertoire too. The reputation has remained uncontested until today.

The concert they gave in Berlin as part of the annual Music Festival on 7 September 2015 consisted of works that you would not hear elsewhere. This ensemble of distinguished musicians came to Berlin not to impress people with works that other orchestras don’t play (or can’t play), but they wanted to prove that works by composers whom people tend to dismiss as crazy are not to be taken lightly, and that they are playable and worth being played. And some idiotic politicians are going to disband an orchestra like this one!

The first work in the programne was by the Russian composer, Iwan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), who went into exile in France in 1930. It has a rather harmless name, “Arc-en-Ciel” (Rainbow), supposedly because the merging of colours of a rainbow is that of blurring them. He wanted to create a new kind of music that would be much, much more nuanced than the Western scale. Experiments with quarter tones imitated from Eastern music did not satisfy him. His idea was to break into 72 intervals to be played on six pianos. The compisition was destined “for six pianos tuned in twelfth-tone intervals”, op.52a (1956/58) – six times twelve make 72! I am sure the piano tuner(s) used electronic devices to respond to the wish of the composer. The performance was not as exciting as I had expected, although I admired the discipline of the six soloists who showed no sign of confusion and seemed to be enjoying themselves, along with the conductor; they must surely have rehearsed a great deal. The sound could well be called “a forest’s murmur”, and if Wagner had heard this, he might have aporoved of it. I guess the philosophical ambition of the Russian composer was to stage an act of “going back to nature” , as Western music has formalized itself far too much and has departed too far from the world of nature.

The Austrian composer and conductor, Georg Friedrich Hass, (born 1953) conducted the first performance in Graz 30 years after the work was composed, and was fascinated by it. He did not want to leave the six pianists among themselves and decided to offer them the company of an orchestra. So the work “limited approximations” was born in 2010, described as “Concerto for six pianos and orchestra tuned in twelfth-tone intervals”. Of course, the sum total was 72 micro-intervals, using the same pianos as in the previous piece, with the same soloists returning to tackle this even more challenging composition. How does the composer match the orchestra, traditionally tuned, with these six “out-of-tune” pianos? But I am mistaken here. The pianos were not out of tune: they had been retuned according to another system, by design and not by default. After hearing this music for a few minutes, I exclained inwardly to myself, “It works!” How the conductor could keep the orchestra and the six pianists together remained a marvel to me; he had before him a very large score that had to be placed on a very big piece of wood on top of the usual conductor’s music stand. I was ready to be convinced that the younger composer was taking the philosophic project of his predecessor a step further: the music is no longer to function as a mimetic art, that is to say, imitating nature. The sound of music is to assume the character of the sound of nature, as far as it can go, and it can only go as far as being “limited approximations”. I like the composer’s humility, (which one finds in Brahms but not in Wagner.) The micro-tonality does not produce music that is out of tune, but a new tune, nearer to nature. Westerners may have problems with this, especially those trained on the well-tempered mode that are wont to catch colleagues, especially string players, playing out of tune. Being a Thai, I have no difficulty with this music at all. I am used to those heart-rending tunes played on a Thai oboe, known as Pi Nai. Any Western-trained Thai musician would say that the Thai player is out of tune all the time. But he is not. He is playing according to another system which would be readily accepted by the likes of Iwan Wyschnegradsky and Georg Friedrich Haas. As for the first half of the Berlin concert, the audience was won over.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Arnold Schenberg’s “Pelleas and Melisande, Symphonic Poem According to Maurice Maeterlinck”, a more Wagnerian extravaganza to outdo Wagner himself. Under their French conductor, Francois-Xavier Roth, this super-Romantic work of a belated Romantic came off very well indeed. My conclusion is that if a group of musicians can master modern and contemporary music so well, their playing of Romantic music will benefit from that experience. The Romantic will not sound mushy at all, but marked by good taste and sophistication. Strangely enough, Schoenberg was not aware that Debussy was composing an opera on the same theme. Though the playing of the orchestra was excellent throughout, the work appeared, in comparison with the two previous pieces, rather tame, in spite if lavish orchestral resources that the tone poem calls for.

Since the applause went on for so long, the conductor turned to the audience and announced that they would not be able to join the Berlin Festival again next year, as the orchestra will be “fused” with the South German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart. He took leave with an encore of a short movement from Schubert’s Rosamunde, such a simple piece of music that went straight to your heart. There were tears in the eyes of some members of the audience. I could sympathize and empathize with them, having spent those four years listening to this orchestra on the radio and hearing them live once, when they came to perform in the University of Tübingen’s “Festsaal”, almost overflowing the stage not meant for a full-size symphony orchestra. And it must have been a special audience who filled only a quarter of the Philharmonie. The death sentence, of course, came from politicians who control the purse. And this is Germany, mind you, the land of music! If they will use the savings to help refugees, we might forgive them. But who can trust politicians?

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