Friday, June 13, 2014

LOOPS AND DRONES, or keeping one’s Pekka up at Radialsystem


Each time I return to Berlin for the season, my first stop on the concert-planning schedule is Radialsystem. Normal: my two favourite concerts of the last couple of years have been there. Especially the first one, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Sasha Waltz. So, this year, when I saw the same combination advertised again, I didn’t even look further. Even to see what they were doing. I just booked tickets eagerly.

Last night was the event. And a disappointment.

The evening was not fairly billed. It was nothing like the earlier concert. It should have been billed as Pekka Kuusisto (violin, etc) with a handful of members of the MCO and a fragment by two of the Waltz dancers. I would have still gone, but I would not have been disappointed.

The grand system of having items going on in several venues was repeated, but that too fell into difficulties. Naturally: they were working with reduced forces and a very reduced repertoire. And in one case (the juggler) the space was wholly inapposite: the ceiling was too low and his prime number had to be cut.
From my point of view, there was another difficulty. I’d queued for hours in the morning (with walking stick) at the Ausländerbehörde. Tonight I’d come without the stick. WHY do the audience have to stand in line for every room until one minute before (or after) starting time. I spent over 30 minutes in lines. Why can’t we go in and sit down? It’s unfriendly, and sets up a horrid atmosphere. Last night was worse than usual. The priority of the evening seemed to be getting the thing filmed, and little boys with filmic toys and little girls with walky-talkies swarmed in and out, barring all entrance, while we … waited. Did someone say there was music tonight?

So, we read the programme. Hmm. Maybe this should be called Kuusisto plays Steve Reich. Four works by one composer in one evening? Odd. But I’ll try anything. Once. Maybe twice.
Once we had got over the ghastly German ‘management talks its head off’ bit that seems to precede every concert here, Reich number one started. Kuusisto et an al doing ‘Clapping Music’. Well, clapping anyhow. I thought the definition of ‘music’ was rhythm plus melody. It was a harmless little display, but it really sounded like nothing more to me than new 42nd Street chorus girls rehearsing their taps, and I soon lost concentration. Then Reich number two. A violin duet (Kuusito et an al). Again, rhythm seemed to be favoured above all, and any kind of melody absent. I felt it was ‘amn’t I clever’ music. And it DRONED. Like the bass note on a bagpipe. I think I preferred the clapping. At the end, Paul ventured ‘nice little piece’. I could only think: boring bagpipes.

Then we had relief. The musical highlight of the night. A lovely version of the Brandenburg Concerto no3, Mr Kuusisto at its head. It sounded really splendid, but I’m afraid the Reichs had put me in an irritable mood. I couldn’t watch the star with his cheesy smirk. Cool it down, man. So I watched an enchanting viola player instead and had a grand time.

End of chapter one. Rush (!) to the next queue, for the fifth floor (lift provided) studio. There you can lie on mattresses on the floor. Super. And we were to have a violin quartet. By, oh dear, Reich. Well, I thought, he can’t drone for fifteen minutes. Wanna bet? I resisted the temptation to put my head down on the mattress and …

My revivfying breather of Bach being cancelled, we moved next to the juggler, Jay Gilligan, who was to have accompanied the Chaconne. I know much more about juggling that I do about 20th century music, and him I liked a lot. Tall, slim, graceful and above all extremely adept and even original. In spite of being handicapped by the ceiling he gave us a really enjoyable turn and we descended to the next queue in a cheery frame of mind. Which evaporated as we queued and queued.

Happily, they had played the fourth Reich piece while we were upstairs, and we were to have the dancers – hurrah! – performing to something called ‘Hautfelder’ by Ruth Wiesenfeld. But ... only two dancers?  I’m not going to linger here. This was the nadir of the night. Utterly nondescript music, the most un-Waltzian meaningless choreography ... it reminded me of Eulalie Shinn teaching her Ladies Antique Greek Dancing …

It ended (no one knew it had ended, it just stopped) and I got up to go … but I’d forgotten: one more item. Violin improvisation (Kuusisto) with juggler. Ah! the juggler. And videos by Lillevan. Well, at least this time we had a bit of colour and movement: the images of Gilligan performing in front of the jolly and pretty backdrops of coloured light were delightful. The music? One loop after another. Which really wasn’t what was needed after a whole evening which had sounded like loops.

Gilligan ended on a delicious trick with flashlights and once again I went out feeling OK. Which wasn’t the case with one nice, tall, motherly lady. As Paul stood in one more queue for a needy post-Pekka beer, she burst sadly into chatter on the subject of the Wiesenfeld piece. ‘Is this what music has become? Can this still be called music? Those splendid players playing that … nothing. I am going home..’. She wasn’t angry or strident, just puzzled, sad and rather hurt. We could only agree with her.
And we went home too.

Next time I go to hear the MCO, I will check that it is the whole orchestra. I will check the programme carefully to be sure it isn’t loaded too heavily towards one composer. With no Reich. And I will check that if Ms Waltz is billed, its kosher Waltz with a decent sized troupe.

Next time I go to Radialsystem, it will be for something that doesn’t require queueing. And that includes the food and drink department which needs a huge kick up its operation.

Heigh ho. Not my favourite Radialsystem or MCO evening. Maybe even my least favourite. But if you don’t take risks, life and concert-going will never deliver you the unexpected …

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