Arturo Fuentes’ Snowstorm takes a bow in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 12.02.2015

The world premiere of Snowstorm, a 20-minute feast of orchestral colors and clashing dynamics, was brought to life in Bordeaux Wednesday night (11 February) by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Paris-based experimental group created by Pierre Boulez. The piece shows every promise of becoming an integral part of the avant-garde repertoire.

Composer Arturo Fuentes, a mop-haired Mexican now working in Vienna, was present at the concert in Bordeaux’s new Auditorium and climbed onstage at the end to take prolonged applause and several bows. The composition was co-dedicated to Boulez, who turns 90 next month, and to conductor Matthias Pintscher.

Fuentes says he was inspired by the 1842 Turner painting ‘Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’. He captured its essence by creating a “somber and vague” mood –- “qualities I sometimes like to produce in my compositions”, he wrote in his program notes. 

The score evoked the feeling of an elemental storm through the chaotic and dissonant orchestral uproar, set against a kind of duel of the flutes throughout the development. Cluster chords, some at full-forearm – throbbed from the piano. Pintscher held it together with some muscular conducting.

I spoke to Fuentes at intermission and found him euphoric over the 20-minute performance. He pronounced himself happy with the interpretation.

One of his innovations was his decision to place the two flutes, played by Sophie Cherrier and Emmanuelle Ophèle, at opposite sides of the stage in front of other players to give listeners a feel for – and look at -- the complex and twittering flute parts. The effect was stormy by any measure. 

Fuentes told me the orchestra rehearsed the piece in Paris for two weeks. “I employed extreme dynamics, pianissimo to fortissimo and back again. The orchestra had to get it just right because this Bordeaux hall offers such perfect acoustics. Nothing is lost.”

The next performance was scheduled for Paris at the newly inaugurated Philharmonie de Paris concert hall Friday night (February 13), and other venues are in the works. 

The Fuentes piece eclipsed the other offerings in what was a marvelously varied program of orchestral, chamber and piano pieces. The hall was only half full but to all evidence the audience was predisposed to the freshness of contemporary sounds. Only a few listeners slipped away early.

The headliner of the program might have been assumed to be Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Five Pieces for Orchestra’, composed in 1909, and indeed conductor Pintscher gave it a sensitive reading. It was one of Schoenberg’s first forays into free atonality, his courageous split with European harmonic traditions. In these brief pieces he can be heard searching for a new musical language and greater expressive power. 

Schoenberg grouped these five pieces together without any musical thread. Some last only a minute or two.  Schoenberg himself described the work as “lacking all architecture or structure”.  He said he had simply wanted to create “a succession of shimmering, uninterrupted colors, rhythms and atmospheres”.

The atmospheres, under Pintscher’s baton, ranged from moments of reflection to cello-bass thrills to energetic outbursts. As for colors, they seemed to me to be mostly browns and purples, but then I am no synesthesiast.

Pintscher opened the program with his own A Twilight’s Song’ based on an E.E. Cummings poem. The first few bars are barely audible, inviting the audience to tune up for a new sound world. The pianist spent most of the piece under the lid plucking and strumming as the South Korean soprano, Yeree Suh, traded passages with the reeds and strings. Part of her score was plain speech, part coloratura, and she converged with the strings at the end to give the piece a whispered frisson

The program also featured a fascinating four-hand piano plus soprano piece, Nacht Raüme (Nocturnal Spaces) by German composer Aribert Reiman, a somewhat minimalist work reminiscent in parts of Helmut Lachenmann’s piano works.

And the program closed with German composer Hans Werner Henze’s charming Being Beauteous for soprano, harp and four cellos. The soprano part was taken from passages of Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’.

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From YouTube: Arturo Fuentes, L'Instant Donné, Dunkelkammermusik

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