Tuning up to the unknown: the feast of sounds at Another Space Festival

One of the highlights of the musical year 2020 in Russia was undoubtedly the VII International Contemporary Music Festival Another Space that took place in Moscow at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall (a venue of Moscow Philharmonia) on November 17-21, 2020. The biennial festival (Vladimir Jurowski has been serving as its Artistic Director) is unique, as from its conception it gives an opportunity for audiences to hear contemporary music of 20th and 21st century, as well as to meet international and Russian performers and composers.

Alexander Philippenko reading extracts from Jarry’s Le Roi Ubu

This year the fact that it happened was a special achievement on the part of its organizers, as, according to Jurowski, its programme had to be modified several times in order for it to happen during the pandemic. Not many performers from abroad could come this year, but nevertheless and despite all the difficulties, the Festival was an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime event, and was fully sold-out. With the allowance for attendance in Moscow having been limited to 25 percent from November onwards, chamber concerts of the Festival were almost impossible to get into, but excellent four nights spent at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall gave a lot of memories and impressions.

Philipp Chizhevsky conducting Sergey Nevsky’s 18 episodes for orchestra (2019)

The format of each four nights was the one that I think should be taken up for concerts with more well-known repertoire: each work was presented in detail by musicologists Rauf Farkhadov and Yaroslav Timofeev, giving an extensive, detailed, vivid description of their perception of the work and the history of its creation. Moreover, for most cases a video message of the composer was recorded for us to have a visual link with the author of the music we were about to hear. I was extremely surprised and happy to see the smiling face of contemporary classic John Adams greeting us from his house near San Francisco, and these little videos gave us a chance to feel connected to all those creators scattered around the world and not being able to come to Moscow. With this extraordinary effort to create context for listeners, each piece of music fell on the ripe ground and left the indelible, memorable impression that was concrete and special. If there is a better way to prepare the audience for perception, I would be eager to know about it.

Valentin Uryupin conducting at the opening night

Some words should be said about overall structure of the Festival that united a fantastic batch of artists, orchestras and composers. First of all, there was an extraordinary vision behind the programming of the Festival that in several concerts presented composers ranging from the late Pierre Boulez (who passed away 5 years ago), Iannis Xenakis and Bernd Alois Zimmermann to modern composers in their 30s or 40s: Nina Shenk, Liza Lim, Jörg Widmann, Bruno Mantovani and Russian artists Sergey Nevsky and Alexey Retinsky.

Additionally, the Festival was a true feast of conductors and orchestras, with Valentin Uryupin performing with Russian National Youth Symphony Orchestra at the opening night, Philipp Chizhevsky bringing a powerful programme with Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and maestro Vladimir Jurowski leading his State Academic Symphony Orchestra on the final night of the festival. Last but not least, the greatest achievement of this year’s logistics was to bring internationally renowned Ensemble Intercontemporain from Paris to perform to the astounded and grateful Muscovites.

The opening night (November 17, 2020) had works Con brio (2008) by Jörg Widman, Son of Chamber Symphony (2007) by John Adams (USA), Im Lichte (2007) by Johannes Maria Staud and magnificent and openly theatrical Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1966) by Bernd Alois Zimmerman. Son of Chamber Symphony by Adams played by chamber version of RNYSO made the strongest impression in the first half, while the second was a bombastic extravaganza from Valentin Uryupin, the full orchestra playing Zimmermann’s piece that is fully based on modernistic quotations from other composers (Beethoven, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Hindemith and others), while the actor Alexander Philipenko interspersed the work with witty poetic extracts pertaining to the development of a character from youth to death, and Rauf Farkhadov was reading historical facts about Alfred Jarry’s farce Ubu Roi and its first performance. With additional light play, and appearance of some members of the orchestras in different parts of the hall, the piece led us astray and back, always surprising and making laugh — a truly magnificent evening!

The third night (Nobember 19, 2020) was a highly-anticipated arrival of Ensemble Intercontemporain to Moscow — the chamber ensemble that since its creation in 1976 by composer and conductor Pierre Boulez works only with modern composers, specifically championing them throughout the world. It seems that musicians who arrived to Russia during the second lockdown in Paris, were fully overwhelmed and grateful to Moscow audiences for being able to play live during these times. I briefly met with the cellist Eric-Maria Couturier after their performance and he briefly mentioned all the difficulties that independent ensembles are facing during the pandemic, the Moscow performance being for EIC the only chance during the year to play abroad.

The evening led by young maestro Dylan Corley kept us fully concentrated, with all pieces played being either for a solo (duet) or a chamber ensemble, revealing the unique skills of every member of EIC in interpreting modern composers. works as Wild Winged One (2007) by Liza Lim, Dérive 1 (1984) by Pierre Boulez, Entrelacs (1998) by Yan Maresz, Lo spazio inverso (1985) by Salvatore Sciarrino, Morsima-Amorsima (1962) by Iannis Xenakis, Chamber Concerto No.2 by Bruno Mantovani, Reflections (2013) by Nina Shenk and Soaring Soals by Bernhard Gardner composed exclusively for Ensemble Intercontemporain cellist Eric-Maria Couturier and bassist Nicolas Crosse. The last one resulted in several minutes of ovation from the public, while Entrelacs were also played twice (the second one an encore), the whole programme leaving the audience raving and ecstatic — a rare case indeed for contemporary classical music being performed in a grand Moscow Concert hall.

Aylen Pritchin performing Anthemes 2 (1997) by Pierre Boulez

The third night (November 20, 2020) was a marathon of three concerts (ranging from an hour to an hour and a half) that ended near midnight. The highlight of the first was the performance of 18 episodes for orchestra (2019) by Sergey Nevsky by Moscow State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Philipp Chizhevsky. Nevsky’s piece is an extraordinary attempt to re-create his own perceptions and memories of Moscow and include the real tram and highroad sounds so as, by his intention, to open the hall outwards and let us experience the intrusion of the street. It was a really new experience during a seemingly ‘normal’ piece of contemporary orchestral music.

Another memory that stands out is the piece Anthèmes 2 (1997) for violin and live electronics by Pierre Boulez performed by young violinist Aylen Pritchin and Sergey Poltavsky (electronics). In this uniquely designed piece the electronic sound is generated in real time and it transforms the violin’s sounds, creating complex effects by forming variarions of timbre, length, pitch. The coordination between Pritchin and Poltavsky reached virtuoso levels, while the electronic effects were delivered through about 15 amplifiers located in different parts of the hall, including behind our backs. It was again a full immersion into something unique that is difficult to capture on video, with Aylen and Sergey getting about 7 min of standing applause in the end as a thank you.

The Artistic Director of the Festival Vladimir Jurowski

And the final concert of the day brought its own immersive surprise: Meditation (1972) by Valentyn Silvestrov performed by Moscow chamber orchestra MUSICA VIVA (conducted by Vladimir Jurowski) and cellist Alexander Rudin. Meditation has been very rarely performed, as it requires matches to be switched on (to be switched off in turn, almost like in Haydn’s «Farewell» Symphony). Vladimir Jurowski proposed small lights instead, and masterfully led us through this piece full of suspense and silences and resembling an esoteric voyage inside ourselves. This was yet another immersion experienced during the Festival — such a subtle and nuanced one, that there was long silence for quite a long time after the final sounds receded into nothingness.

Alexander Rudin as soloist in Silvestrov’s Meditation (1972)

The closing concert of the Festival (November 21, 2020) was a programme to be performed by State Academic Symphony Orchestra (GASO, or Svetlanov Orchestra) and conceived by its artistic director Vladimir Jurowski. The Festival finished with celebration of Russian modern composers: young and introvert Alexey Retinsky, Berlin-based Olga Rayeva, Vladimir Tarnopolsky and Alexander Vustin, former Composer-in-Residence with Svetlanov Orchestra who sadly passed away in April 2020. Retinsky’s piece G-Dur for String Orchestra (2020) and Rayeva’s ‘Gentle Wind of Elysium’ that makes the violin produce uncomfortable, unexpected sounds received their world premieres. Vladimir Jurowski can find and extract the inner sense of new pieces like no other, and he resembled a serious magician shaping sound formations and leading them through the ocean of time and uncertainty during the concert. Alexander Vustin’s Dedication to Beethoven (1984), a concerto for percussion and chamber orchestra that felt like a link between modernity and previous centuries of music making, was the finishing touch of the festival, paying hommage both to the deceased Russian composer and to the German classic whom the whole musical world has been celebrating this year. The achievement like no other, the Festival was an event that left a long trace of memories, connections and knowledge, and was a supportive island of joy, inspiration and music-making in the most difficult times for humanity.

Vladimir Jurowski raises Alexander Vustin’s score Dedication to Beethoven (1984)