The value of variety

The Bayerisches Staatsorchester is remarkable for its fascinatingly varied reper-tory, its multifarious forms of artistic expression and its multiple activities.

Ruth Renée Reif

“Fear! … a deep-seated sense of fear and, time and again, the question as to how the various orchestral departments will survive and what effect it will have on their nerves when the timpani launch an assault on the violas and double basses?” This was Gerd Albrecht’s anxious question when conducting Aribert Reimann’s Lear. But then came the surprising answer: the Bayerisches Staatsorchester accepted this music in a characteristic spirit of professionalism and impassioned commit-ment. It knows how to deal with the problem that arises when the flutes are asked to negotiate keenly strident intervals while accompanying a shimmering pianissi-mo in the violins and violas and a tintinnabulation of jingles, cymbals and a triangle and trumpets add their fanfares not only in the orchestra pit but also in the audi-torium. Always willing to confront the unfamiliar and the new, the orchestra casts its spell on its audiences with its mystical sounds and ecstatic highs, while also captivating them with ist subtle delicacy and lyric enchantment. It revels in Ro-mantic melodies but retains the ability to explore a world of rhythmic brutality and austerity, indulging in beautiful sounds, paying tribute to the spirit of virtuosity and to a universe of noise and inviting audiences to immerse themselves in worlds of sound that allow it to function as a psychological sounding board.
The operatic repertory of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is characterized by its variety. Every evening there is a different work from a different period on its schedule. And the orchestra has the ability to bring every composition to life and to transform music that was written only yesterday – or several centuries ago – into joy, sadness and tragedy. It is with openness and inquisitiveness that it rises to the challenge of exchanging its modern instruments for their Baroque equiva-lent and following the conductor not on his or her podium but seated at a harpsi-chord. Its players study old scores and are happy to try out novel performance techniques. It is with sheer bravura that it returns to a period that it helped to shape centuries ago, when the singers onstage fought sea monsters or the enti-re stage, including its performers and dancers, was relocated to a raft on the River Isar so that a spectacular sea battle could be enacted there.
Past experiences live on, leaving their mark on the players and overwriting their history in the manner of a palimpsest, while leaving btraces of earlier layers. Nothing is ever completely forgotten. Just as something is invariably left over from every good relationship, so each experience leaves behind a residue that continues to exist in unseen ways, emerging only when it is required to do so. Their exploration of so many different musical landscapes creates a variety that pushes back the horizon even further. Just as the orchestra’s engagement with Classical and Romantic works makes it easier for its players to understand indivi-dual styles on the cusp of tonality and beyond, so their work on contemporary scores allows them to take a fresh look at the classics.
The variety of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is also reflected in the range and depth of its programmes as well as in the manifold forms that its activities take, activities that it invariably pursues with passion. When Octavian presents a silver rose to Sophie, this scene is accompanied not only by radiant harmonies on a celesta, two harps and a glockenspiel, turning this moment into an event of the highest order, the score’s complex rhythms and kinetic textures extend beyond the performers’ voices and envelop the rose in an aura of elaborate intervals and ingenious turns of phrase. Dance theatre also represents a significant field of activity for the orchestra, and just as its operatic repertory extends from the Baroque to the great Romantic works and the present day, so it accompanies the entire range of choreographic works for the theatre, opening up a vast panorama that extends from dance episodes from the Baroque to the classical ballets of the nineteenth century, the works that were created in the twentieth century and projects involving the contemporary avant-garde.
The prospect of being able to work on projects that no other house can attempt draws international choreographers to Munich’s Nationaltheater. “Here we can play music that demands a great and outstanding orchestra,” says choreographer Jörg Mannes in the context of his adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And so Ariel can chase the stranded seafarers over the stage as dogs, jackals and tigers, while jagged intervals rise up out of the crowded orchestra pit. The fact that the orchestra is an equal partner in ballet performances is underscored by the work of choreographers in which the dancers visualize the music. While the orchestra performs works from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centu-ries, the dancers respond by adopting the appropriate dance idioms. And so the enchantment associated with mystery is cast over the stage when the dancers respond to a musical explosion in the pit with expressive concentration.
Finally, whenever the Bayerisches Staatsorchester invites audiences to its Academy Concerts, the Nationaltheater is transformed into what Wolfgang Sa-wallisch is once called “Munich’s most beautiful concert hall”. On these occasions the orchestra is literally centre-stage. These concerts, which are now a local in-stitution, can be traced back to a time when a major concert was held every Wed-nesday at Nymphenburg. The symphonic repertory that has been performed throughout these years is correspondingly vast and varied. And new works are added each year, in many cases commissions by the Bayerische Staatsoper that are receiving their first performances.
But it is the chamber concerts that cover the greatest historical range, a circum-stance due in part to the fact that the Bayerisches Staatsorchester was originally a chamber ensemble and in part because its members explore the whole spect-rum of music at their chamber concerts, taking a particular interest in the period from the early twentieth century to the present day but also going back in time to the Baroque and the Renaissance. They also engage with remote corners of the repertory and enjoy experimentation. In this way they have sought to establish connections with other arts, including literature, and with other cultures, including Far Eastern sounds and African polyrhythms. Every department of the orchestra takes part in these activities, exploring traditional chamber formations such as the string quartet and the piano trio but also investigating other resources, inclu-ding flute, oboe, english horn, clarinet and bassoon or flute and percussion or oboe, bass clarinet and piano. Nor do they shy away from novel performance techniques, holding their string instruments as they would hold a guitar, for exa-mple.
This range culminates each year in the Munich Opera Festival, when the Bayeri-sches Staatsorchester is challenged in the whole range of its activities from an opera and ballet orchestra to concerts that are a part of its Academy Concert series, specially mounted Festival concerts and chamber recitals.
Yet the most valuable tool in this varied arsenal is the people who over the centu-ries have breathed life into this ensemble and who have allowed it to grow artisti-cally. Evening after evening the individual members of the orchestra contribute to its profile and to ist brilliant success with their own cultural background, their indi-vidual life stories, their abilities and their experience. The creativity, commitment and talents of the musicians in the pit and on the podium have resulted in the strength that has kept this wonderful orchestra alive through wars, political uphe-avals, fires and the repeated loss of its instruments. It is this strength that also guarantees the orchestra’s future.