[For you, Jeffery Kwok Ka Yong, for all that was, is and will be, and may the time zones converge before you know it.]
When and where: Paris, February 2023.
What and how: Festivals inevitably vary in content, purpose and reliability, and this one, Présences, has an unfortunate tendency to put a spotlight on composers past their prime, and beyond the point when the machinations of the industry can be of any real use to them. It may be likened to a posthumous tribute to the formerly good, and on a lucky occasion the formerly great, in their own lifetimes. No wonder Pascal Dusapin turned up.
This year’s celebrant was Unsuk Chin, about whom there is nothing negative to share: her work is consistently fine, on occasion imaginative, if utterly lacking in emotion and warmth. The balance between clockwork and sentiment is not an easy one to settle, Aldo Clementi standing as a rare example of an artist who can achieve both. The publicity around her here, signaling her as a Korean in a European landscape, panders to the habitual occidental obsession that one is never European even in their midst, in this case ignoring her 40 years in the west, years that have made her rich, and the fact that her music is more European, both in its substance and via its intellectual heritage, than that of many Europeans (and not only those with Asian spouses). The cult of exoticism lives on, a theme extended in the programming of other Korean composers and performers all thoroughly engaged in the standard modern and postmodern byways yet draped in Paris in the garments, sometimes literally, of ages past.
Far from being a devotee, several concerts were skipped and several of those attended could also be safely ignored. There was, for instance, a rickety organ recital by Dong-Ill Shin that began with faltering Bach before the manuals and pedals alike were beset with bustles and burbles.
Later the same night brought Ensemble TIMF and its conductor Soo-Yeoul Choi, whose lack of a basic pulse lends an unintentional rubato to everything he conducts. Despite many accomplished soloists, including flutist Yubeen Kim, who began the proceedings with an étude by Isang Yun, the ensemble often fails to congeal, the wayward conductor surely not helping matters. The choice of repertory was also not to the ensemble’s advantage, a young composer (Soobin Lee) with blatant and clichéd writing for percussion and strings (and other instrumental groups, at times), a concertante work by Sun-Young Pahg in which the daegeum would have fared better sans accompaniment, Yun’s classic Teile Dich Nacht, needlessly made more dramatic than it inherently is, an indistinct if innocuous work by Florent Caron Darras (though its ending was precipitous and planned well), and Chin’s Gougalōn, tricks and treats aplenty. The over-long concert ended at almost 11:30 PM.
The night before, Bertrand Chamayou had played six Études by Chin and a new sonata, No. 4, by York Höller, as succinct as late Scriabin and with a thematic cogency that left a diffuse if welcomed impression. On a purely personal level, the sight of Höller, now completely blind, sitting enrapt throughout the concert, would not soon be forgotten. After the interval, Chamayou joined students for Vortex temporum by Gérard Grisey, a work that makes much more sense live, its peaks and troughs sustained despite ensemble shakiness.
Though the concert of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France began with a new orchestration of the six-part ricercare of J.S. Bach by Thomas Lacôte, not destined to supplant that of Webern, continued with the second violin concerto of Chin, largely lacking any character after its opening solo cantilena, veering toward Hollywood at times, and resumed with choral Bach, the work that deserves attention here, for all the wrong reasons, is the Requiem Æternam – Monumenta II by Yann Robin, a reminder, if one were ever needed, of the dangers of ego, narcissism and vanity in the performing arts — or indeed life in general. With not a single contribution to make to the questions of consolation, grief, repentance, sorrow, or transcendence, the work is a monument not to eternity but to the vagaries of pride and vanity. Ambition in a young composer can be acknowledged, perhaps accepted, but for a composer who will turn 50 next year, what is the excuse for this mess of pointless assaults and dead ends? What is the justification for the string-players waving their bows (has synchronized bow-arms become an Olympic sport?), or the choristers chest-thumping à la Céline Dion, or the solo singers applauding (themselves? Laughing in the face of their imposed misery?), or the two virtuoso pianists and one organist drowned out by cascades of bravado upon bravado (and, more often than not, contributing to the layers of din), or the solo singer who steps forward in a trembling, sometimes shattered, voice? Enough already. Noise has its place, but it is precisely the juxtaposition of quiet and tumult that lend a work tension, not the broader assumption that noise itself is intrinsically of value (q.v. Messiaen). The work, possibly the cheesiest this side of Bernstein’s Mass, begins with the syllables of the word “requiem” taken apart, and one simply knows that this motif will be back. Sure enough, before the work is done — and it was done, mercifully, at some point, enough to make an atheist at least doubt his godless certainty — there it is again, the composer not content with giving listeners unsatisfying material only once. Though the reception was warm, there was also a fair amount of tittering nearby during the performance, and mental reinforcements were needed to stunt compulsions to chuckle: after all, this requiem is not a requiem for the dead, but for the waste of time, energy and resources involved in the performance, and genuine sympathy for the hundred-plus people on stage would be warranted. There is no shortage of composers, young or old, who could benefit from this exposure, and therein lies the truest of tragedies, that the mediocre can be given laurels while the worthy go unnoticed (a theme noted in the Bach that preceded this Requiem, unintentionally so).
As a strike prevented the next day’s main concert from happening, and its piano concerto, Mare Marginis, by Ramon Lazkano was to be the redemption, not only of the bloated yesternight, but of all that had been present, or otherwise, this brief and partial immersion in the tide of Présences ended drenched in the tears of Icarus. By the time of the cello concerto by Francesco Filidei, a brilliant composer when he checks in (getting rarer, alas), the tides had already washed away.
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