IIt may not grab the headlines like its visual art and film brethren regularly do, but the International Festival of Contemporary Music has been part of the Venice Biennale family of cultural events since 1930. It now takes place every year for a fortnight at the beginning of autumn. , and the composer Lucie Ronchetti is its current artistic director.
Musical theater is high on Ronchetti’s list of works, and it’s no surprise that she made it the theme of this year’s program. It was also an appropriate theme for a festival in Venice, because while the city was not actually the birthplace of opera, it played a huge role in the early development of the form.
As usual with Biennale Musica, the focus was on brand new compositions, but it began and ended with covers of 1980s works by this year’s recipient of the Golden Lion for all of his work, Giorgio Battistelli – his “instrumental theatre” Jules Verne, and the widely performed musical theater play Experimentum Mundi; later programs included classic works by Mauricio Kagel and Georges Apergis. My visit during the second week took in two of the big firsts.
Michel van der Aa’s Book of Water is the latest in the Dutch composer’s series of works combining video images, live performance and electronics. It is based on Man in the Holocene, a short story by the Swiss writer Max Frischwhich tells the story of Geiser, a 73-year-old widower who lives alone in fear of losing his memory and trying to put order in what he knows, while his daughter tries desperately to contact him by telephone, and that the rain is falling regularly around his house.
Timothy West plays Geiser on the pre-recorded video, while Samuel West was the live narrator, with a string quartet from Ensemble Modern providing the musical backdrop; the only song comes from the soprano Marie Bevan onscreen as Geiser’s daughter, Corinne. As in Van der Aa’s earlier plays such as Blank Out and The Book of Disquiet (both concerned with memory as well), the integration of live and recording is flawless, the cinematography coldly elegant. , the dramatic treatment always slightly detached. Although there is relatively little singing, the quartet’s insistent, hyperactive songwriting is still present, becoming a more obvious part of the dramatic scheme than before, although the interplay of visual and narrative elements still seems more prominent.
Visions, by Estonian Helena Tulve, barely qualifying as dramatic in the conventional sense. But it was still an intensely theatrical experience, thanks to the space in which the premiere took place: beneath the dazzling mosaics and gold leaf of St. Mark’s Basilica. The text is based on a manuscript of a “sacred representation” (one of the precursors of the opera revival) found in the archives of the Venetian church of Santa Maria della Fava, which Tulve expanded with liturgical music from the same archive and excerpts from the non-canonical Gospel of Mary, set in the original Sahidic Coptic.
The texts were mainly attributed to a chamber choir (the superb Estonian Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve) with other singers (members of the Choir of Saint Mark, Cappella Marciana) arranged around the galleries of the basilica. It is a piece of serious beauty, whose severe austerity (but never its musical language) sometimes recalls another work created at the Biennale, Stravinsky’s Threni. Much of the vocal writing is accompanied sparingly, either by an organ or by a small ensemble of Baroque instruments including two nyckelharpa (string instruments with Swedish keys) and an Estonian instrument. channel (rather like a zither or a psaltery), creating delicate and fragile textures, while the minimally choreographed movements of the singers evoke a mysterious and timeless ritual.
As with any new music festival, there were bound to be disappointments as well as successes, and I also encountered two. A concert given by students from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia was devoted to the choral music of Native American composers; nations represented included Mohawk, Mohican, St’at’imc, Cherokee and Oneida, and coins included one specially commissioned by Brent Michael Davids. Despite the accomplished performances, which were given a rather naively contrived “theatrical” staging, the program quite oddly rubbed shoulders with the rest of the festival. However Yvette Janine Jackson the “radio opera” Left Behind seemed simply poorly designed. Performed in the mainland town of Mestre, across the lagoon from Venice, by Jackson’s own Radio Opera Workshop Ensemble, it was allegedly concerned with “the socio-economic impact of space tourism on local communities nearby launch sites,” but the mundane snippets of text that emerged from the mush of electronics and seemingly improvised instrumental solos over the hour-long piece offered no further enlightenment.