In 1980 some virtuoso members of the National Youth Orchestra of Germany decided to dedicate themselves to 20th-century masterpieces. Their starting point, which determined both their aesthetic outlook and instrumental makeup, was Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9. As the Ensemble Modern, these musicians have devoted themselves ever since to not only performing, but coaxing into existence, some of the most compelling music of our time. Although based in Frankfurt, Germany, the Ensemble Modern is, in fact, an international ensemble, with an Indian violinist, a Japanese percussionist, a North American trumpet player, and so on. The proactive 18-member group has been integral in the creation and performance of contemporary works, from Wolfgang Rihm's Hunts and Forms and Helmut Lachenmann's Zwei Gefühle to George Benjamin's Three Inventions and Steve Reich's video opera Three Tales.
For the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival, Ensemble Modern presents the North American premieres of Heiner Goebbels' Eislermaterial on July 13 at LaGuardia Concert Hall, and Salvatore Sciarrino's Macbeth, July 9 through 12 at John Jay College Theater.
"With Ensemble Modern, I feel the openness, the curiosity, the engagement, and motivation of the players," says Goebbels, a Frankfurt-based composer who has been working with the group since the early 1980s. "The self-confidence is much higher in a self-governing musical body, which they are. So I want them to play an important part in the creation of my pieces."
Ensemble Modern's first collaboration with Goebbels was Black on White (presented at Lincoln Center Festival 2001), where the ensemble's musicians are not relegated to the pit, but also sing, speak, and move; they are part of the stage images that define this work. "This was for them a huge step, which they did with such bravura," says Goebbels, who went on to create an opera, Landscape with Distant Relatives, which premiered last year in Geneva. That two-and-a-half hour piece calls for 300 costumes, into and out of which the musicians constantly change, shuttling back and forth between the pit and the stage. "Their biographies and individual capacities are very much developed in these theater pieces," notes the composer. In Landscape, for example, Jagdish Mistry, the Indian-born violinist in the group, had to sing a Bollywood film song with a chamber music group while dressed in an 18th-century ball costume. "We've continuously developed our confidence and trust in each other," Goebbels says, "because I've always done things with them which they probably haven't done before."
The new piece, Eislermaterial, is an homage to German composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962). One of Arnold Schoenberg's star students, Eisler became a Communist and left Germany in 1933. As these proclivities were not so appreciated in the United States (where he worked with Charles Chaplin in Hollywood), he moved to East Berlin, eventually becoming the composer of the East German national anthem. He wrote complex orchestral and chamber works, on the one hand, and tuneful songs, many with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, on the other. It was Goebbels' study of these songs, with their political flavor, that led him to choose a career in music. (In fact, Goebbels' first record was called Four Fists for Hanns Eisler.)
Eislermaterial is no diluted meditation on its namesake, however. "I hate composers who write homage pieces that just quote a bit here or there," says Goebbels. "It would mean I thought myself more important than Eisler. But my respect is too high for his work, and so I offer his 'material.' I didn't compose a lot, but rather arranged his work from very simple songs to complex orchestral works, and even included the radio interviews with his voice in an audio collage. Maybe you can consider it in the tradition of the Brecht Lehrstück."
Goebbels wanted Ensemble Modern to incorporate this material into their collective nervous system, so he had them actively participate in the arranging of the songs (many of which will be sung by Josef Bierbichler); there are improvisatory stretches as well, possible only if the music is second nature. Furthermore, they are conductorless.
"When you are conductorless, you need to know the material very well," explains Goebbels, "and Eisler hated conductors anyway, so it was a good decision. I tried to stage it in a way that we as an audience could see, hear, and feel the communication." The musicians are spread along the periphery of an empty proscenium, except for a small yet intensely animated statue of Eisler. Violinist Mistry explains the dynamic: "Even though there is a great distance between myself and the other musicians‹with no conductor to sew us together‹we must by necessity be plugged into one another, reaching out to one another across the space. It's a bit dangerous, but the effect is thrilling."
In the opera Macbeth, by Sicilian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (whose Luci mie traditrici was presented at Lincoln Center Festival 2001) the theatrical and dramatic participation of the ensemble is just as intense and integral as it is in Eislermaterial‹perhaps even more so, as this musical drama stabs deeply into the dark heart of Shakespeare's play.
"Today, the idea of tragedy, which is too often repressed, is indispensable in knocking us out of our indifference," Sciarrino has written. "Horror is continually mixed with daily life, and we must awaken our social consciences." The darkly timbred canvas contains mostly male voices, with a Lady Macbeth who scrapes the bottom of her lowest register, in barely audible yet savage utterances. As for the Ensemble, it is not merely buttress or background for the action, but a mirror.
"The instrumental music reflects the drama," explains Macbeth dramaturg Klaus-Peter Kehr. "The ensemble is divided into two groups, one in the pit and one on the stage. Certain instruments are connected with characters. The two oscillating orchestras create the nocturnal atmosphere, enveloping the characters. The music sometimes replaces the text, or it is a text unto itself."
No doubt Sciarrino's blood drama is in good hands, as the Ensemble Modern toils and troubles to spectacular and unparalleled effect.
Robert Hilferty's articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal Europe, The New York Times, Opera News, Opernwelt, New York magazine.