Fingertips Dance: the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin Season Six

February 21, 2014
Micha Afkham
Peter Riegelbauer, Micha Afkham, Markus Weidmann, Christophe Horak, Rachel Helleur, Eric Nathan, Marlene Ito, Alexander Bader, Dan Visconti, Stefan de Leval Jezierski
Audiences at the Villa Aurelia
Peter Riegelbauer
Scharoun Ensemble concert
Dan Visconti and Eric Nathan
Majella Stockhausen
Markus Weidmann and Dan Visconti
Eric Nathan and Peter Benson Miller
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Now in its sixth year of residency with the American Academy, the Scharoun Ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates three decades of performance this year. Like the American Academy in Rome, its principal artistic mission is to foster conversations between traditions of the past and innovations of the present. Three magnificent concerts last weekend at the Villa Aurelia featured music by eight composers and covered over two hundred years of musical evolution. Music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, Ernst von Dohnányi, György Kutág, and David Lang, FAAR’91, was played alongside that of Samuel Barber Rome Prize Fellow in Musical Composition Dan Visconti and Frederick A Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize Fellow in Musical Composition Eric Nathan.  

Opening a Valentine’s Day concert on Friday evening was David Lang’s, wed, from memory pieces, inspired by the joy and sadness of a dying friend’s marriage to her longtime partner and performed by pianist Majella Stockhausen. In the spirit of the holiday Fellow Dan Visconti’s performances resonated as a series of musical odes. His paean to the music makers of Tin Pan Alley, Ramshackle Songs (2009), hit witty notes as a reflection on the enduring playfulness and inventiveness of American musical history. Audiences were treated to the world premiere of Visconti’s musical translation of William Carlos Williams poetry as his eponymous Young Sycamore (2013), a spatial piece that mirrored the entropic divisions of a tree trunk as Williams described it, “dividing and waning” into a network of small branches. The Scharoun Ensemble closed with one of Beethoven’s most successful and popular works dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa, the Septet in E-Flat Major, Op. 20, one of the Ensembles signature pieces.

Fellow Eric Nathan sustained the theme of musical homage in his Saturday concert by setting his compositions beside the music of three great composers who have inspired him, György Kutág, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, and by highlighting the intimate connection between Schumann and Brahms. Nathan conducted the world premiere of his piece Missing Words (2014), a series of short musical responses to three specific words from author Ben Schott’s recent dictionary of experimental terms, Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition (2013). In the last of these Nathan toyed with the notion of the “Fingerspitzentaz” or “Fingertips-Dance.” This notion of play underscored accompanying performances of selections from Kutág’s Játékok (Games) and Schumann’s “Fürchtenmachen” from Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). Nathan’s Multitude, Solitude (2013) for string quartet and Three by Three (2009) for piano, picked up on the idea of capturing contemporary life in the opposing rhythms of biological and mechanized life. While the former juxtaposed the noise of urban and rural landscape, the latter contemplated energy and movement. The concert ended with Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann, Op. 9, a work that underscores the complex personal relationship that Brahms had with Robert and Clara Schumann.

A final concert brought the work of the two Musical Fellows into conversation with Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and the series ended on the jaunty notes of Ernst von Dohnányi, Sextet in C Major, Op. 37. While Visconti’s Black Bend (2005) was inspired by a ghostly summer landscape, Nathan’s Four to One (2011) emerged out of an autumnal experience of blazing color. Markus Wiedermann’s solo rendition of his piece Ramble and Groove (2009) moved Visconti to dedicate it to the bassoonist who brings it so fully to life.

The Scharoun Ensemble is composed of a flexible entourage of supremely gifted musicians who champion the work of new composers while asserting the continuity of musical history. Its annual visit is a musical meditation on the larger mission of the American Academy in Rome. Blending the sounds of the past with those of the present, music by German, Hungarian and American composers, the 2014 concert series reiterated the American Academy’s commitment to be an interdisciplinary, inter-textual and international seat of dialogue for the art and humanities.