Last semester, the Eastman School of Music’s composition department invited the famous German composer Helmut Lachenmann to come to the school this fall, asking him to present his music during one of the composition symposiums. Lachenmann was scheduled to be in Toronto for another performance, and composition professors felt it would be valuable for students if he could come to Eastman.

Unfortunately, immigration authorities refused Lachenmann the necessary visa, for unknown reasons. As an alternative, Professor of Composition Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez suggested that the students should take a group trip to Toronto to attend the concert there and to have a master class with the composer.

When the idea was initially proposed, the administration was very helpful and supportive of the trip. They offered to cover the expenses that would allow eight composition students to go to Toronto. However, the idea proved to be extremely popular, and, by splitting the costs, students were able to attend the concert and the master class for about $20 each.

The music by Helmut Lachenmann, who won the prestigious Siemens Prize for Music five years ago, was performed by the Ossia New Music group here at Eastman only a couple of weeks ago. Violinists Chris Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist Heather Gardner and cellist Kevin McFarland performed “Gran torso” for string quartet during the Ossia concert at the Rochester Contemporary on Oct. 14. They played the same piece during the master class that took place in Toronto.

Lachenmann seemed impressed with the performance, asking, “Did you learn this just by reading my instructions?”

He was very specific about sounds he wanted and even demonstrated them during the master class, playing both the violin and cello. He talked about the piece as a demonstration of his idea of composition in general, which is “reinventing one’s own concept of music with every composition.”

His lecture and his pre-concert talk on Sunday shared many of these ideas and topics. They were both illuminating and humorous.

“This piece,” Lachenmann said, referring to his quartet, “is a very nice piece, but everybody writes nice pieces. There are so many nice pieces out there. I cannot write a similar piece again – it is like a squeezed lemon, I have to move on.”

Lachenmann also spoke about the difficulties which a contemporary composer faces when having to compose a piece, as all sounds and noises have been tried and explored already. “I don’t like the word interesting,” he stated. “I get very suspicious when someone tells me my piece is interesting. In music nowadays, interesting means boring.”

The concert was presented by “New Music Concerts” group in Toronto and took place in the Glenn Gould studio hall.

The program included “…zwei Gefuhle…” for narrator and chamber orchestra, “Serynade” for piano solo, “Pression” for solo cello, “Ein Kinderspiel” for solo piano and a repeat of “….zwei Gefuhle…”

“I frequently think – what if we could only do this again. Everybody will understand it much better,” conductor and artistic director Robert Aitken said during the lecture. “Now we have the chance to do so.”

“…zwei Gefuhle…,” which translates into English as “Two Feelings,” uses a work by Leonardo da Vinci that tells the story of looking inside a cave and experiencing two different feelings – fear and desire.

Da Vinci’s story is, in many ways, the opposite of Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” from his “Republic,” in which a group of people are in a cave, staring only at a wall. One person eventually escapes and, upon returning the cave, is mocked by those who remained behind. Da Vinci’s character, on the other hand, is afraid to conquer his fears and never re-enters the cave.

The connection was strengthened when, at the most dramatic moment, the composer reversed da Vinci’s words “fear and desire” to “desire and fear.” Following the concert, I approached Lachenmann and asked him about whether or not he had considered da Vinci’s “Desire for Knowledge” as an interpretation of Plato’s metaphor. He said he hadn’t, but it was quite possible.

Lachenmann, who narrated the text in “…zwei Gefuhle…,” also performed “Ein Kinderspiel” on the piano. His wife, pianist Yukiko Sugawara, performed “Serynade” and cellist David Hetherington played “Pressure.” The audience loved the work and it was received with lengthy applause.

The relatively short composition uses mostly sounds and only a couple of pitches, but has the unmistakable feel of being both a virtuosic piece and intellectually challenging music. Lachenmann also received a well-deserved standing ovation after proving Aitkin’s words to be true – the audience was indeed much more attentive and willing to like “…zwei Gefuhle…” at the repeat.

Some students had to return to Rochester that evening, so they left shortly after the concert. However, I opted to travel back with professors Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon and Sanchez-Gutierrez the following day. Again the border was deserted and we passed through quickly, returning to Rochester by noon.

Thanks to the efforts of both the composition faculty and the Eastman admistration, the 20 students who went to Toronto had a unique opportunity to work with a composer at the forefront of today’s music world. All students are encouraged to take advantage of future oppotunities that are bound to come up.

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