A Feast for the Senses – in Every Sense
The 35th edition of the DAVOS FESTIVAL promises to be especially liberating – after so many weeks spent in collective quarantine. For his inaugural season, Intendant Marco Amherd has designed a multi-sensory program that explores music’s alluring, ever-shifting ambiguity. Using sense perceptions and the sensual reality of sounds that vanish into air, music is as persistent as our most cherished memories.
by Thomas May
How do we sense music? Our ability to hear conveys merely one facet – if the most immediately obvious one – of music’s power to engage us. This is an art that exists, after all, well beyond the confines of what our ears can perceive. The example of Ludwig van Beethoven springs immediately to mind. As his refined auditory sense gradually deteriorated, the deafness that enveloped Beethoven changed his experience of music. It was from this perspective that he pushed his art to its furthest, most visionary reach. The more we try to describe music in words, the harder it becomes not to mix metaphors, not to blend the senses. “Is it the light I hear?” asks the ailing Tristan at the height of his hallucinogenic vision, just before he is finally reunited with his beloved Isolde and dies in her arms. Wagner, in what may be his most extreme opera, breaks down the conventional boundaries between the senses. His intoxicating blur of sound colors, shifting harmonies, poetry, and staging encourages the audience to share in the heightened experience that the characters undergo onstage.
Tristan und Isolde reminds us that music cannot be limited to a single sense – just as little as a composition can be defined by a single meaning. The topic of music as a multi-sensory phenomenon capable of meaning many things at once – the guiding thread to the 2020 DAVOS FESTIVAL – offers a platform to appreciate the rich ambiguity of this art. For his first season as Intendant, Marco Amherd has conceived a stimulating program to touch on the countless ways in which we use music to make sense of – and take delight in – our world. Thus, for example, the Opening Concert (31 July) brings an unusual mixture of contemporary works and rare discoveries, along with a piano trio from the very first opus officially published by Beethoven (when he was still in possession of an exquisite sense of hearing – and still much better known as a spellbinding pianist than composer).
“We have the opportunity to design a festival that veers away from the mainstream,” says Amherd. Instead of the obligatory Beethoven cycles being presented at so many other venues, the juxtaposition of a single work by the composer with what are sure to be new encounters for most listeners can be revelatory on both sides of the equation. Beethoven’s treatment of classical models in his early C minor Piano Trio, for example, and Poulenc’s remarkable Violin Sonata in homage to the murdered poet Federico García Lorca shed light on each other.
The lineage of classical forms and style – and their association with logic and proportion – is furthermore contrasted with the sonic sensuality elicited by the saxophone in works by contemporary composers Thierry Escaich and Daniel Schnyder. The Zurichbased SIBJA Saxophone Quartet performs, whose members include this year’s winner of the prestigious Credit Suisse Young Artist Award, Valentine Michaud. Music’s ancestral relationship to the dance, to the body in movement, is graphically emphasized in Escaich’s piece, Tango Virtuoso, which calls for a special choreography on the part of the SIBJA players – “a moving memento of the tango, this sensual dance,” according to Amherd. And the late Austrian composer and author Georg Kreisler uses the tango in Two Old Aunts Dance the Tango to channel his cabaret-style critique of society. For Amherd, Kreisler’s provocative work from a half-century ago remains just as relevant for today’s unsettled world.
“We have the opportunity to design a festival that veers away from the mainstream.”
Celebrating what Amherd calls “a feast for the senses,” the Opening Concert is a microcosm of what the 2020 DAVOS FESTIVAL is all about – its spirit of unpredictable discovery, youthful talent in top form, and an openness to the possible modes of musical meaning. The German language wonderfully mirrors this last aspect: music’s natural ability to navigate an infinite spectrum of associations. Sinn by itself is just a four-letter word that means “sense” in all its connotations: the physical faculty of perceiving the external world (for example, hearing, sight, etc.) as well as meaning or even purpose. Much as a repeated note is transformed by shifting harmonies around it, Sinn can be modified by word combinations to suggest a vast range of connotations.
Amherd has designed each of the more than two dozen concerts in various Davos venues as a variation on the theme of Sinn. To cite just a selection: Wahnsinn (“Madness”), which traces Baroque representations of insanity and presents a period-instrument ensemble at the Festival for the first time (2 August); Leichtsinn (“Folly”), a showing of Buster Keaton’s slapstick classic The Navigator (1924) in Kirche St. Johann, with live organ improvisation as accompaniment (13 August); and Sinnentleert (“Meaningless”), which showcases this summer’s resident ensemble, the Simply Quartet, in an account of Schubert’s searing Death and the Maiden Quartet that is interspersed with songs and chamber pieces (15 August, the Closing Concert).
The connection between music and language involves more than just wordplay. Amherd has added some special features to the programming to spotlight how language and music can complement one another. Musical sense or “meaning” is not something that can be captured by words, so how do we discuss and share what we get out of a musical experience? That quandary will be addressed in four evenings of “philosophical talks” (titled Sinnieren, or “musing”) that take the place of conventional pre-concert presentations.
Many writers aspire to the condition of music – to make musical sense through their medium of words. Thomas Mann, who began his epochal The Magic Mountain after spending some time at Davos (where his wife was recuperating from a lung ailment), ranks among the most successful at conveying the spirit of music in his prose. For this edition of the Festival, Amherd has organized various readings to illuminate the ground shared between literature and music. Beethoven’s greatest violin sonata, the concerto-like Kreutzer (originally written for the Afro-European virtuoso George Bridgetower) served as the springboard for Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, which in turn inspired Leoš Janáček’s First String Quartet: all of these works meet up in Sinneslust (“Sensual Pleasure”) on 10 August. The 2016 novel by Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time, addresses the dilemma Dmitri Shostakovich faced as a Soviet artist. Excerpts (in German) will be read during the Lebenssinn (“Meaning of Life”) concert featuring both the Delta Piano Trio and the DAVOS FESTIVAL Chamber Choir in a juxtaposition of Bach, Shostakovich, and Frank Martin (4 August). The narrative of musical history, from the self-contained, religiously motivated meaning of Bach’s music to the tormented modern irony of Shostakovich, is summarized by Barnes: “The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism; and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony.”
A book can be picked up and read again at will. But the real musical experience needs to happen live to be complete, to fill our senses to satisfaction (…)
When it comes to sense perception, music is an extraordinarily paradoxical form of art. Its effects linger with incredible persistence inside us and can be triggered, like a Proustian memory, by the merest hint. Yet music’s dimension is finite time, its medium physical sounds that travel through space, resound, and die away. A painting remains there and can be revisited. A book can be picked up and read again at will. But the real musical experience needs to happen live to be complete, to fill our senses to satisfaction – just recall how much the world longed for this during the recent prolonged quarantines for the Corona pandemic, no matter how many streams we watched. Davos is celebrated for offering a platform to gifted young artists on the cusp of their international breakthrough who give the Festival its unique identity.
Take the Simply Quartet, founded in Shanghai in 2008 and now based in Vienna. The ensemble has gone through several changes of personnel before arriving at the current configuration, which consists of violinists Danfeng Shen and Antonia Rankersberger, violist Xiang Lyu, and cellist Ivan Valentin Hollup Roald. “The name was prompted by a restaurant in Shanghai called ‘Simply Thai’ and captures the philosophy of the quartet,” explains Hollup Roald, who came on board in 2016. “It was inspired by Chinese concepts of keeping it simple, of yin and yang that are always balanced. This reflects the way we work with music: we see it not as just black or white but as light and shadow.” He and his companions will perform in a total of four concerts during the two-week Festival. In the concert Sinnbetörend (“Bewitching”), for example (11 August), the cellist finds common ground between the Beethoven and Shostakovich quartets they will perform in terms of their emotionalism and links to classical style: “Both pieces by these ‘serious’ and emotional men have a more optimistic face that perfectly reflects the theme Sinnbetörend: Beethoven in a very neat and playful way, Shostakovich with an alluring, almost threatening and at times ironic heroism.”
For his inaugural season, Amherd is particularly thrilled about the lineup of young artists he has chosen. “The Simply Quartet is for me one of the most exciting and significant quartets of the young generation,” he says. “Their irrepressible joy in playing, which is influenced by the international background of the members, is combined with a profound knowledge of the composers they interpret.” As performers, the musicians transform the sounds into sense, the sensual, tactile materiality of tones into complexes out of which we, as listeners, construct meaning – and make sense of our senses.
Opening concert «Im Rausch der Sinne» (31 July 2020)
Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. The Englishlanguage editor for Lucerne Festival, he also writes for such publications as The New York Times and Musical America.
This text was published in DAVOS FESTIVAL Magazin 02/2020.
Photo: Simply Quartet © Simon Buchou