John Cage's unusual approach to composition is somewhat infamous. Thanks to his piano work 4'33" he's been firmly placed on the musical map as something of an oddball, and while that particular work may take his eccentric style to the extreme, the methods underlying his other works are equally intriguing. Radio Music for several wireless radios plays on the elements of chance, with the performers tuning and retuning them based on predetermined frequencies and time durations. In Atlas Eclipticalis, which can be heard as part of this year's BBC Proms, he transcribed a map of the stars onto manuscript paper, and the resulting work somehow resembles a constellation of sounds.

Münchener Kammerorchester © Marek Vogel
Münchener Kammerorchester
© Marek Vogel

Ryoanji, is also in many ways composed by chance, but somewhat less so than many of Cage's other works. The original Ryoanji is a Zen rock garden in Japan, containing fifteen carefully arranged stones surrounded by raked gravel. To turn the garden into a musical work Cage traced the outlines of 15 stones, placing sections of the results onto manuscript paper with instructions to play them as a continuous glissando. These parts are taken by four solo players, an oboist, a flautist, a bassist and a bass-trombonist, while the garden's raked gravel is portrayed by an orchestra of assorted strings and percussion, playing short chords in “Korean Unison”, almost, but not perfectly, together. The work seems to play with the idea of musical time and climax. While the work is full of short silences, some are achingly long, becoming climaxes in themselves, and what first appears as monotony soon gives way to subtlety, with small changes becoming important musical events. The four soloists of the Münchener Kammerorchester played with poise and control over their difficult parts, while conductor Nicholas Collon and the orchestra executed the simple accompaniment with utmost stillness, allowing the work to pause time.

As the soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.4 in D, Alina Ibragimova played with technical mastery, and more character than one could ever ask for from a soloist. Her colourful sound in the second movement was helped by the small orchestra, who allowed her to play captivating pianissimos. The orchestra played with a fantastic chamber sound, with little vibrato, and always sensitive to Ibragimova. There were times when I wished for a little more sound from the orchestra, particularly in the tutti sections, but their pianos were beautifully hushed, and their sense of ensemble and interplay, first rate. As an encore Ibragimova played the Gavotte/Rondeau J.S. Bach’s Partita No.3 in E major for Solo Violin. She brought out this music’s emotional side, but still playing it with composure and style, making this one of the finest performances of this work I’ve heard.

After the interval came the European premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Grasping for string ensemble. Fujikura plays with the concept of sectional and solo string sounds in this work. Each of the 20 players has their own part, and they rarely play in perfect unison (as the first violins would in a Beethoven symphony). However, there is still a sense of togetherness within sections, and the overall sound is that of a string ensemble and not of a series of unison players. The way Fujikura throws sounds up and down through the orchestra, playing with texture and the spatial elements of the ensemble make it a very theatrical work, and a truly interesting and enjoyable experience. The MKO played it with passion and understanding, and an ease of ensemble that few orchestras could accomplish in such difficult music.

The final piece of the programme was Franz Schreker’s Kammersymphonie, a wonderfully evocative early modernist work for 15 players. Schreker was a contemporary of Mahler, and similarly was well known as a conductor. Like Mahler, Schreker faded into obscurity for several decades after his death, but as Schreker’s main works are operas and not symphonies financial constraints delayed the revival of his music until the 21st century. Now most years see a production of one or more of his operas somewhere in Germany, and additionally this Kammersymphonie is regularly performed. The work is something like a Mahler symphony, compacted both in terms of orchestral size and length, though at times the musical language evokes the music of Debussy and Ravel with its vague tonality and magical swirling textures. The MKO brought out all of this enchantment and more, the textures rippled and gleamed while the solos from both strings and wind soared. The lush sound and mind-blowing fortes produced by the 15 players could scarcely be believed, while the playful pastoral interludes were full of gypsy characters. Unfortunately I felt that Collon failed to see the broader picture of the work, focusing on the intricacies of the individual textures and colours, but missing the longer narrative. This was a performance that lived a little too much for moment, but the impressive attention to detail and flawless orchestral playing made it a joy to listen to from first note to last.

The MKO differs greatly from the other orchestras in Munich, not only in size, but also by performing contemporary and rarely performed works. This concert was a beacon of inventive programming, played with care and more importantly a love of the music, be it Mozart or John Cage.

****1