Widmann: Con brio: Concert Overture for Orchestra
BORN: June 19, 1973, in Munich, Germany. Currently residing in Berlin and Munich
COMPOSED: 2008, on commission from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
WORLD PREMIERE: September 25, 2008, at the Gasteig in Munich, with Mariss Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—At these concerts
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (doubling piccolos), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 12 mins
THE BACKSTORY Jörg Widmann, among the most acclaimed of today’s German composers, has also excelled as a performer on the clarinet, which he studied at Munich’s Hochschule für Musik and the Juilliard School. He appears frequently as clarinet soloist with leading orchestras (including the Vienna Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and Orchestre National de France) and has premiered concerted works featuring clarinet by Wolfgang Rihm, Aribert Reimann, and Mark Andre. Chamber music figures prominently in his calendar, with regular collaborators including the Hagen Quartet, violists Tabea Zimmermann and Kim Kashkashian, and pianists András Schiff, Dénes Várjon, Daniel Barenboim, and Mitsuko Uchida. From 2001 through 2015, he taught clarinet at the Freiburg Staatliche Hochschule für Musik (succeeding the legendary Dieter Klöcker), also serving as professor of composition there from 2009. He currently holds a chair at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin. Widmann is also an active conductor, with recent engagements leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Budapest Festival Orchestra. He serves as principal conductor of the Irish Chamber Orchestra
It is as a composer that we meet him in this concert, and particularly as a composer whose voice, though entirely modern, emanates from the great German symphonic tradition, although other genres have also figured prominently in his output. During the 1990s, Widmann studied composition with such eminent figures as Rihm, Hans Werner Henze, and Heiner Goebbels. From 1997 to 2005, he composed a remarkable series of five string quartets that can be programmed as discrete pieces (each focusing on a specific technical or aesthetic idea) or as a large-scale cycle. These works were specifically cited when he was awarded the Elise L. Stoeger Prize in 2009 by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Widmann’s three works of music theater have also proved compelling. His opera Das Gesicht im Spiegel (The Face in the Mirror) was applauded by the German magazine Opernwelt as the most significant operatic premiere of the 2003–04 season. In 2009 he unveiled Am Anfang (In the Beginning); Widmann—in the roles of composer, clarinetist, and conductor—created it jointly with the artist Anselm Kiefer for the 20th anniversary of the Opéra Bastille in Paris. His Babylon, premiered in 2012 by Bavarian State Opera, was re-introduced in a new version last March by Berlin State Opera.
In the orchestral realm, he has written a triptych of works that are realizations for large orchestra of musical genres associated with vocal music: his Lied (2003, rev. 2007), Chor (2004), and Messe (2005). A second trilogy followed from 2005 through 2014: Labyrinth, Zweites Labyrinth, and Drittes Labyrinth, which, according to his publisher, deal “with experiences of losing and seeking orientation in musical spaces.” (This past June the set expanded with the premiere of Labyrinth IV.) In 2007, Christian Tetzlaff was the soloist in Widmann’s Violin Concerto and Pierre Boulez led the Vienna Philharmonic in the first performance of his Armonica, in which the ethereal tones of a glass harmonica combine with the symphony orchestra. There followed further concerted works for flute (2011, introduced by Joshua Smith and the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welzer-Möst conducting), piano (2015, entrusted to Yefim Bonfman and the Berlin Philharminic, Simon Rattle conducting), and viola (2018, with soloist Antoine Tamestit and the Orchestre de Paris, Paavo Järvi conducting), as well as a Violin Concerto No. 2 (written in 2018 and premiered by Carolin Widmann, the composer’s sister, who is particularly known for her devotion to contemporary music).
He has served as composer-in-residence of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Cleveland Orchestra, Salzburg Festival, Lucerne Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Cologne Philharmonic, and Vienna Konzerthaus. He has been much honored for his work, having received such awards as the Arnold Schoenberg Prize, the Composition Prize of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, and the Claudio Abbado Composition Prize of the Orchestra Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He is a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, the Free Academy of the Arts in Hamburg, the German Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the Mainz Academy of Sciences and Literature.
Con brio is Widmann’s most performed orchestral work, having been directed by more than sixty conductors since its 2008 premiere. This season alone it is receiving sixty-three performances by twenty-eight orchestras in Europe, North America, and Asia. It is a work of homage to Ludwig van Beethoven, but it is not a parody nor does it quote or imitate Beethoven except through momentary allusions. Indeed, the score is filled with sounds that Beethoven never asked an orchestra to produce. In fact, the first five-and-a-half pages of Widmann’s score are given over to a measure-by-measure elaboration of instrumental nuances that the players will need to convey in the course of the piece, including flutter-tonguing, unusual bowing effects, and breathing in or out of an instrument without sounding a pitch, with Beethovenesque chords interspersed.
THE MUSIC The piece was commissioned to open a concert in which the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra would then proceed to Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 7 and No. 8. (These concerts, of course, include the Seventh but not the Eighth.) Con brio calls for precisely the same instrumentation as those works, although Widmann has both his flutists double on piccolo, an instrument Beethoven did not use in those symphonies. The late Mariss Jansons, who conducted the world premiere, suggested the idea that Widmann should refer to musical characteristics in those two classic symphonies. The work’s publisher explains: “Using Widmann’s unique style of ‘block-composition,’ the work showcases the composer’s tonally idiomatic language while interacting with 19th-century musical forms and traditions.…Melodies and phrases in Con brio avoid smooth transitions in favor of bold, precise cuts and sudden changes.” Widmann has said that his goal was to create a sense of “fury and insistence” reminiscent of Beethoven, using the same instrumental forces as the earlier composer. (In 2016, Widmann made an alternative “chamber orchestra” scoring that requires fewer string players and recasts some of the string parts. These performances, however, uses the original forces.)
The marking con brio (meaning “with vigor”) appears in the headings of the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and the first movement of the Eighth. Here, writes the publisher, the term con brio “is interpreted not only as a tempo notation but also an intimation of Widmann’s concepts of musical deconstructionism.” That may imply a postmodern attitude; and yet this composition would seem atypical of the postmodern stance in that Widmann’s goal seems to be organic growth from his model rather than ironic commentary on it. Widmann has said that Con brio contains no literal quotations from Beethoven. His allusions are nonetheless unmistakable. Time and again, a single sound or chord emerges from the surrounding texture, as if momentarily illuminated by lightning, voiced in a way that cries out “Beethoven!” The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are often the subjects of these references (even their tonalities—A major and F major—hold sway), but Widmann gives occasional shout-outs to other Beethoven masterworks, too. At moments our minds may veer toward the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 (both of which open with Allegro con brio movements), the Leonore Overtures, and the Ninth Symphony, thanks to chords, rhythmic gestures, and melodic contours that pervade this phantasmagoria of Beethovenian memories.—James M. Keller
LISTEN AGAIN: Mariss Jansons leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BR Klassik)