The Remarkable Social Spirit of Spectrum Concerts Berlin
By John Harris Beck (2006)
This fall the leading chamber group from Germany’s capital will debut in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall with two choice concerts: Helps’ Nocturne, Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet and Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night on November 3rd, with Penderecki’s Clarinet Quartet, Schulhoff’s String Sextet and the great Schubert String Quintet in C two nights later.
Artistic director Frank Dodge has created a “space” for some very gifted and mostly rather young musicians, all with major careers apart from Spectrum, who don’t simply “play engagements.” They truly engage each other and the audience, and raise the music to the level of sublime conversations. Janine Jansen, Julia-Maria Kretz, Maxim Rysanov, Antoine Tamestit, Torleif Thedéen and Jens Peter Maintz are the string sextet for the Schoenberg and Schulhoff, with Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer in the Penderecki and Brahms clarinet works.
Reviewers have showered praise on Spectrum Concerts Berlin for years, whether at the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal or in recordings. “One of the finest Konzert-adressen in town.” “Wonderfully sculptured programs...” “Fervently commended.” “Exemplary readings... glorious to hear.” “Technically assured and searchingly elo-quent...” “Terrific ensemble playing...” “A superb disc, brilliantly played and recorded.” “Dedicated to this music as if it were its own.” As the large and devoted home audience knows, “Spectrum manages to be magical every time — as though a special spirit accompanies it.”
There is another dimension to this ensemble, however. As an American cellist arriving on that political island that was West Berlin, Frank Dodge found a city of operas and orchestras but no sustained chamber music. He also found no awareness of the mar-velous American music that had grown to maturity out of the European tradition. And in this peculiar political setting he also had the intuition that great, intimate musical per-formances could deepen the connection of the USA and Germany.
Like any American sensing opportunity, he launched his project with no initial backing but in the best halls, with few famous classics but with dozens of works by American composers mostly unknown in Berlin, and despite the local norm of government ap-provals and subsidies. A few years later the city was capital of a reunified nation, and Spectrum Concerts Berlin was already wondered at and very seriously listened to. Its accomplishment was such that a former US ambassador now leads the support team, and a former president of Germany is honorary chair. And both are devoted fans.
There is a rightness to chamber music as today’s cultural ambassador. Europe’s lost monarchy used splendid masques and dramas for state occasions. Even the poorest bystander could look up at a vision of national power and elegant behavior. Then mer-chants in their free cities took power. Great new forces were released by trade and colonization, by science and technology; landspeople became urban poor and com-modity labor, and refugees made a new life in America. Armaments grew, rivalries be-came hatred, and “the blind led the blind” quite literally “into a ditch.” The trenches, the butchery and the social exhaustion of “the Great War” were altogether an experience so demoralizing, so ignoble, that Ezra Pound would curse it as “an old bitch, gone in the teeth, a botched civilization.”
Yet something else had been happening. In those last few decades before 1914, “a thousand years of European culture” had blossomed in amazing science, astonishing art, and in a musical explosion which by itself could stand with the supreme achieve-ments of any culture of the past. Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Puccini, Scriabin, Stravinsky, — their masterworks were not written for kings, though Europe still had royalty. They were not accessories for the lifestyles of the nouveaux riches. They expressed a higher octave of the European striving, a powerful contrast to the brutality and cultural boorishness of colonialism and materialism. One might say that their music manifested just that breadth of vision and expression that is needed when humanity awakens for the first time as a global reality, beyond nations and empires. And its most transformative form is chamber music, where the audience is not overwhelmed but invited in.
When social leadership emerges from talent and earnestness and interconnectedness, from an unassuming self-reliance and mutual respect, then democracy achieves the true “ensemble” of chamber music. Would any country fail to thrive if even a tenth of its citizens took part in public life in this spirit? What if the politicians and generals and imperialists of 1914 had been inspired to listen, harmonize, cooperate?
Music may be a requirement for our full humanity. As Shakespeare so forcefully put it: “The man that has no music in him is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils. Let no such man be trusted.”
Now Spectrum Concerts Berlin is reaching back across the Atlantic. It will be a joy to musiclovers, and the audience will include diplomats and business leaders, but is it a purely ephemeral bridge between cultures that Spectrum is building?
The notes always fade into silence, the applause rises and finally dies; but the wordless conversations resonate. All present have participated for a couple of hours in a genuine social ideal, and we walk away full of the most intimate music. Perhaps it is not so ephemeral.
John Harris Beck, 2006
By John Harris Beck
How does it come about – and to what end? – that artists of very different means de-cide to collaborate? Two promising events in New York City’s fall 2006 cultural season involve just such a conjunction. One is the Carnegie-Zankel Hall debut November 3rd and 5th of Spectrum Concerts Berlin, the leading force for chamber music in Germany’s capital, founded and directed by American cellist Frank Dodge. The other is a pair of exhibits of the distinguished Maine-based visual artist Alan Magee, at his home-base Forum Gallery and at the Goethe-Institut New York gallery with Trauerarbeit, a collec-tion of black and white monotypes.
Each venture will be appreciated by its own audiences and critics, and no association is expected between solitarily created visual-spatial objects and the socially-recreated sound-and-time experience of chamber music. Yet there is a trans-genre duet here, now ten years old, which stems from a mutual recognition of two human beings whose artistic solidarity becomes a third event, unscheduled and unannounced, an off-stage Beuysian happening in the medium of social art.
The cellist and the painter both feel the presence of an abyss, and reach out for “a community of artists who,” as Magee says, “strengthen my resolve and my faith in people rather than eroding it. I think Frank and I recognize that we share this wish to see more humanity, more decency really, in the arts.”
Theirs is not a fixation on past horrors but a recognition about our present and future. It sees that even ordinary human actions no longer automatically produce human results. Without active good will in the creative process, something destructive results. Those are the new terms; that is the further truth that some have penetrated, perceiving a vast devastation unfolding out of ignorance and indifference even though its elements are casual, finely-ground, unacknowledged, routine even. Whatever we value and hope to bring into the world – let’s call it the truly human – will come in future only because, wide awake, we insist on it. And so, for example, when we mourn, we are holding on to our own foundations.
Being itself a balancing act – between the freedom in vision and the limitations of mat-erials and means, – art can energize the multi-layered balancing act of human being. “The world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life,” said Virginia Woolf of the effect of great novels. How the artist’s power can best be applied? – that calls up the word “caring” in all its directions of meaning: the receptive attention, the weight of knowing and serving, the jolt of unselfinterested love.
Caring can lead an artist from one “wrong” career move to the next, with unpredictable gains or losses at each step. Frank Dodge cared enough how music is made to leave the USA in the mid 1980s. In Berlin’s world of opera and orchestras he cared enough about that musical essence called “chamber music” to organize and sustain, without the usual government support, the program series that was needed. In what was still the walled-off island of West Berlin, he cared enough about real cultural connection that he loaded his concerts with American compositions unknown to his audience.
In this way he evoked in the cultural field what Emerson had admired a century and a half before in the mind of the nation of Goethe:
The German intellect wants the French sprightliness, the fine practical understanding of the English, and the American adventure; but it has a certain probity, which never rests in a superficial performance, but asks steadily, To what end? A German public asks for a controlling sincerity.Here is activity of thought; but what is it for? What does the man mean? Whence, whence all these thoughts?
So Berliners embraced his project and all these notes; and Spectrum Concerts Berlin became a space where often very young musicians could feel a committed attention on their creative act, and so bring forth consistently inspiring musical experiences.
Genuine engagement came from students and pensioners, diplomats and business leaders. A well-loved former president of Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker, publicly described this enterprising Amerikaner as a Menschenfreund, which is something more than our dollar-bound “philanthropist,” a friend of the human being.
Alan Magee had also done the intense, collaborative New York thing as a top-level editorial and book illustrator. He too stepped away at the top of the game to concentrate productively on his own painting, and to live in Maine. “I wanted to stand on a clear open road,” he says, “so my thoughts could move down it without distraction.” The two men met there at a dinner of friends, Dodge played Bach Cello Suites and improvised, Magee thanked him at parting with a catalog of his own work. That led to a studio visit the next day and a viewing of the monotypes which will be seen now at the Goethe-Institut New York as Trauerarbeit – “grief work” which Magee has enlarged into the sphere of South Africa’s “truth and reconciliation.”
This series of faces achieves a fantastic realism (Dostoevsky’s term), with images not anywhere to be seen on the street, yet truer than “objective” truth. Mute and undefend-ed, damaged yet somehow humanly irreducible, they are anonymous but more than personal; transcendent; shameful to look at, and redeeming. “Seeing the monotypes ripped a thick layer of skin off of me,” says Dodge. “I could see for the first time in front of me, a wound, silence, a memory, an archive, and more; there are many. I began associating them with my own life experiences.”
Spectrum arranged for the monotypes to be part of its American Music Week 2000 in Berlin, exhibited at the Philharmonie. “Two decades of living in Europe have created a deep yearning for that quality in visual art, in music, in all communication, which speaks immediately and undeniably to our world’s shared story,” Dodge wrote in the exhibit book. And Magee heard more of the ensemble, including composer and pianist Robert Helps in one of his last performances, and works like the Schulhoff Sextet for strings, a vessel of prevision by one who would die in the camps. “I was both stilled and shaken by that music”, said Magee, “and I kept wondering how those musicians could have communicated these infinite subtleties to each other – so much air around and in the music, yet such a density of feeling. It seemed also that much of the coming grief of that time and place was in it.”
Spectrum’s latest CD on Naxos, appearing in tandem with these concerts and exhibi-tions, with a cover image by Alan Magee, is also a wound, silence, a memory, an archive. It presents two major works of the brilliant self-taught composer Ernst Toch, an Austrianborn Jew who fled Berlin in 1933 first to London, then New York and finally southern California. He is known as a major film composer, but these recordings demonstrate how he worked in the early 1920s on a path of recovery and renewal in German music, a middle way, both smart and felt, between the lost horizons of romanticism and the enforced radicalism of the emerging orthodoxy. For a dozen years Toch was acclaimed, and then the thread was broken. Like the Schulhoff, this dance suite and cello concerto need to be heard even now. To understand the choices we are accepting today too passively, we have to know what might have been, what wanted to be.
“I have had to rewrite art history for my own purposes,” says Magee. “Maybe we all have to do that. I have to disregard the hierarchies of the art world to make space for artists in all fields who give me something authentic and who occasionally change my life. Some of these artists are well-known, others are like secrets completely invisible to those we call ‘art professionals.’ Among my ‘working history of art’ are the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, the Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu, the Russian painter Yuri Kuper, the Spanish painters Antonio Lopez Garcia and Antoni Tapies, and the French sculptor/collagist Louis Pons. Then there are Menzel, Corinth, Dix, Hannah Höch, and especially Kollwitz. I try to spread the word about these people rather than speaking about the enormous mass of well-funded contemporary art that doesn’t help.”
Does it help us to labor with art history and aesthetics in our pressed, post-modern world? Can they relate to our issues, our terrorism, empire, clash of civilizations, intelligence in the cosmos, or the headlong re-engineering of both nature and the human being? They do if we can see that all humanity’s issues resolve to the single question of what we are each individually becoming. “It’s the human being, stupid.” And what we do counts only to the extent we stand behind it.
But you can test this on Friday, November 3rd. Pack a simple dinner for later and go to Goethe-Institut New York around 3pm. Do whatever you do to open yourself, and spend a couple of hours with Magee’s faces. At 5pm cross Fifth into Central Park and have your water or wine and bread and cheese. In the deepening post-Halloween shadows you can take in the traffic as you stroll down to 57th and Seventh, to Carnegie’s new Zankel Hall, a warm and elegant space for chamber music. Let the echoes of the street dissolve in the murmuring anticipation. And at 7:30pm submit yourself again: the Nocturne of Robert Helps, from 1960 (oh, how long ago that was!). The Clarinet Quintet of Brahms, 1891. A pause, and Schönberg’s Sextet, Verklärte Nacht – “night made transparent, filled with light.” From 1899 – what impossible world was that?
Of the Helps, says Dodge, “few pieces can in such a short time fine-tune so many ears.” The Brahms is “the most beautiful music… relentlessly demanding of our attention from beginning to end.” Schönberg – “fascinating, a powerful statement about memory, juxtaposing two epic periods as though sunset upon sunset.”
An evening of music extracted from many autumns and many thousands of lost nights, but saturated with the power of Memory, the Greeks’ mother of the arts. And somewhere behind are those pale faces lingering, as you are released once again to find your way home.
John Harris Beck, 2006
Alan Magee’s Trauerarbeit has its opening October 31st, 2006 at 7pm at the Goethe-Institut (1014 Fifth Avenue at
83rd Street) co-sponsored by Spectrum Concerts Berlin and the Friends of the Freie Universität Berlin, and continues on display through December 15th. His Time Pieces opens October 26th at
Forum Gallery New York (745 Fifth Avenue) and runs through December 9th.
Spectrum Concerts Berlin performs at Zankel Hall at Carnegie, (57th Street & Seventh Avenue) with Janine Jansen, Julia-Maria Kretz,
Violin; Antoine Tamestit, Maxim Rysanov, Viola; Torleif Thedéen, Jens Peter Maintz, ‘Cello; and Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer, Clarinet.
Friday, November 3rd, 2006 – 7:30 PM
Robert Helps Nocturne for String Quartet, 1960
Johannes Brahms Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet in b Minor Op. 115, 1891
Arnold Schönberg Verklärte Nacht Transfigured Night for String Sextet Op. 4, 1899
Sunday, November 5th, 2006 – 7:30 PM
Krzysztof Penderecki Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Viola and ‘Cello, 1993
Erwin Schulhoff String Sextet, 1920-1924
Franz Schubert Quintet for two Violins, Viola and two ‘Cellos in C Major Op. 163, 1828