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MUSIC REVIEW

A rousing tribute to Stockhausen

June 21, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

AMSTERDAM -- The Holland Festival -- a complex array of music, opera and theater along with unclassifiable ultra-hip events that began May 31 and runs through Sunday -- has had several interlocking themes this year. One has been the music of the German visionary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who had a long association with Dutch music and this 61-year-old event.

As part of celebrations planned for Stockhausen's 80th birthday in August, the festival commissioned a new work. And although the composer died unexpectedly in December, he had finished the score. It had its premiere here Thursday night in a memorial concert that spanned his extraordinary career.

The concert was held in Amsterdam's newest venue, the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ -- a striking, 700-seat, flexible hall that juts out over the River IJ and provides fabulous harbor views.

The program began with "Punkte," Stockhausen's first orchestral score, written in 1952 while he was a student in Paris of the late Olivier Messiaen, whose 100th birthday the festival is also celebrating.

In the middle of the concert was "Litanei 97," a 1997 a cappella work from the composer's late weirdo period. Finally, after a second intermission, came the premiere of "Glanz," one in a series of chamber pieces called "Klang" (Sound) that Stockhausen was working on at the end of his life.

There was to have been one piece for every hour of the day. "Glanz" is Hour 10. Collectively, "Klang" was meant as music for "knocking on heaven's door" as the composer prepared for the next stage of his cosmic career.

If this all seems a bit much, to some extent it was. The concert was overseen by Kathinka Pasveer, one of Stockhausen's companions, so it included the hokey ritualism that the composer wanted for his later mystical pieces.

The Netherlands Chamber Choir members were dressed in cultish unisex white robes and moved in concentric circles as they sang, now and then adding silly choreographed hops.

The three main players onstage for "Glanz" were positioned around a cheesy 4-foot pyramid that began to glow as the piece progressed. They too were made to look preposterous. The men wore white suits. The violist had on a chiffon gown, with petticoats and big bow, perfect for a high school prom in 1960. Colored lights created the mood for each piece.

And yet all the music proved amazing. "Punkte" (Points) was Stockhausen's first experiment in creating what he called "point music," for which he found mathematical correlations between pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timbre. He was unhappy with the stiffness of the initial results, and he reworked the score several times over the next 40 years.

The final version is an extravagant orchestral score that maintains a youthful experimental exuberance but with the addition of the sheer sensuality of sound that became one of Stockhausen's hallmarks.

One thing "Punkte" retains from its original concept is its uncompromising difficulty for performers, and it has been little heard. But musicians are finally meeting its demands. There is a very good recent recording from Cologne conducted by Peter Eotvos, and the work will be given at the London Proms this summer. For Thursday's Radio Philharmonic Orchestra performance, the German conductor Wolfgang Lischke, a Stockhausen specialist, revealed a series of intricately made, lavishly colored, unconnected gestures occurring one after another for 27 minutes.

"Litanei 97" uses a text in which Stockhausen compares himself to a radio receiving vibrations from a higher plane. He offers his music as a way for the rest of us to tune in as well. What my built-in receiver got was pretty much static, the sound of choral hissing and crackling, notes swelling and falling, similar to the effect of stations being tuned in and out on old analog sets.

Again the performance -- led by James Wood, who conducted in the center of the circle, opened each section of the piece with a solo intonation and ended each section hitting Japanese bowls -- was riveting.

"Glanz" means, in German, "brilliance" or "shine." That is something that has always characterized Stockhausen's sound. Whether he asked a musician to play a single note or to master an acrobatically virtuosic phrase, whether he worked with acoustic music or electronic, he always managed to get a little more resonance than anyone else, which is, I think, the key to his mysticism.

"Glanz," also given a brilliant performance, this time by members of the Dutch new music group Asko, lacks some of Stockhausen's earlier flamboyance. But he never distilled out the mesmerizing sonority he could achieve from the simplest trills or held notes.

Although he intended the work for a clarinet, bassoon and viola trio, the festival persuaded the composer to make the piece a little bigger.

About midway through on Thursday, an oboe piped in unexpectedly from the top balcony, in dialogue with the trio. Next, a trumpet and trombone, on either side of the middle balcony, had a short interaction with the stage players. Finally, a tuba player walked across the stage, honking.

I can't explain why this all felt as consequential as it did, other than by noting that as a student of sound, Stockhausen had mastered by the end of his life a seemingly supernatural sonic power capable of casting a spell. The Dutch are as sophisticated and skeptical an audience as you will find anywhere. A standing ovation here is rare and special. They stood Thursday. So did I.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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