Adieu Donaueschingen

One of Germany’s great orchestras begins its farewell season

Last Friday 16 October the South West German Radio Orchestra took to the stage of the Sports Hall in Donaueschingen, for the opening concert of the town’s music festival. Nothing new there, except in the music on the menu: the festival has promoted music of its time since its foundation in 1921; so has the orchestra, created in 1946 as part of the postwar reorganisation of Germany’s cultural life. You can read about the three-day festival here.

The qualities that made this concert remarkable are also what make it unrepeatable. It featured no ‘repertoire’ work but four premieres, of music by Johannes Kreidler, Richard Ayres, Yoav Pasowski and Johannes Boris Borowski. Each presented technical challenges, well met thanks to the orchestra’s skill, unrivalled experience in tackling new scores, extensive preparation, and direction by Peter Eötvös. All were commissions or co-commissions, paid for by South West German radio. Such a concert will never happen again, not with this orchestra, because within the next 12 months it will be merged with its sister ensemble in Stuttgart. A distinctive piece of Europe’s cultural jigsaw will be gone, probably forever.

Members of the South West German Radio Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg at the Donaueschingen Musiktage, October 2015, in protest at their imminent closure/merger. Photo: Ralf Döring

Members of the South West German Radio Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg at the Donaueschingen Musiktage, October 2015, in protest at their imminent closure/merger. Photo: Ralf Döring

This loss was remarked upon when the orchestra made its first appearance at the BBC Proms, earlier this year. ‘More than sentiment lay behind the warmth of their reception and the bitter regret of their departure. They will be missed, most of all by the composers who will not now gain a hearing, or an expert reading, and the rest of us will be poorer for it.’ You can read the rest of my review of that astonishingly accomplished concert, one of the highlights of the season, on The Arts Desk. How much keener is that loss now that the orchestra is at home, playing not old men of modernism but the music that has to be given a chance in life.

No.48 by Richard Ayres had been given its first performance in London a few weeks ago – I reviewed the concert for The Arts Desk. Listening again – to the German broadcast – it felt more compact, but also more dangerous, both good signs. Listening with me, my 10-year-old son was initially baffled, as I had been, and maybe we should be – ‘This is the most messed-up piece ever. Why is that door opening and closing?’ – but won round, I think, by the unabashed, fairground exuberance of a soundworld structured like a comic book: bright, violent, concise, abrupt.

Hungarian conductor Peter Eötvös, last Friday: a master at work. Photo courtesy of SWR

Hungarian conductor Peter Eötvös, last Friday: a master at work. Photo courtesy of SWR

Ayres’s programme note, available here, was a great deal more helpful than the mischievously elliptical contribution in the Barbican programme. After purging the idea of music as artistic sacrament,’ writes Ayres, ‘I began to explore a very wide field of music, and also rediscover and value my own musical background and experiences. Negation and purity has its beauty and place, just not for me right now.’ Something of that post-everything aesthetic was reflected in the gentle, out-of-phase chords of another piece on the Donaueschingen programme, Pulsus alternans by Yoav Pasovsky,

Ayres was the establishment figure of the concert, relatively speaking; Pasovsky and Kreidler were both born in 1980, while Borowski is a year younger. His Sérac, on a first and second listening, is a big, ambitious work that makes me want to hear more. As with the other composers on the programme, there’s a sense of careless abandon to the ‘found material’ – a jazz-club riff, a Webern chord, a big Romantic pile-up – that insists on vitality and exuberance as expressive key-signatures. When Helmut Lachenmann, Matthias Spahlinger and others hollowed out the log of old German music from the 1960s onwards, chopped and compacted time-honoured gestures till they were sawdust, it turns out they left behind them not bare earth but fruitful ground. Kreidler, Borowski and their colleagues will have to hope that another orchestra will help them cultivate it. On Sunday, the orchestra’s chief conductor, François-Xavier Roth, gave an emotional speech at the festival’s last concert, as he had done at the Proms. ‘I will not come to the festival again,’ he said. ‘For me, the festival is this orchestra.’