MUSIC / Henze storms out, but his show goes on

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The Independent Culture
IN THE words of the song, it was Hans Werner Henze's party, so he could cry if he wanted. And by the time I arrived at this year's Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte in Montepulciano he had packed his handkerchief and gone home, walking out of his own festival in protest at cuts in public funding that had left it shorn of big events. Out went a new opera by Detlev Glanert. Out went a new ballet, La Disperazione di Pulcinella, by Henze himself. And into the void (Italian music festivals being what they are) poured other crises: sackings, cancellations, no-shows.

But then, Italian musical life everywhere is in crisis - caused partly by recession, partly by the demise of the old-time left which, whatever else, was a secure source of cultural patronage. Especially when the culture was politically appropriate. Henze set up his cantiere (workshop) in the Tuscan hill-town of Montepulciano 17 years ago, to be a model of classless music-making, with no star- worship, no glittering first nights, but young performers working for their keep on projects that involved the local people. The Communist comune (municipal council) backed it generously. But the comune has been replaced by a centrist regime that guards its money. Henze has imported sponsorship from his faithful supporter BMW, but not enough; and after the debacle of recent days, the future of the cantiere isn't promising.

Ironically, though, the artistic response has probably come closer than ever to the workshop spirit Henze envisaged. Scheduled events have been replaced by improvised ones, assembled with heroic determination (and high standards) by cantiere participants - including an orchestra drawn largely from British students at the Royal Northern College of Music, who delivered an unforgettably impassioned performance of the Tchaikovsky Serenade in zoo-like circumstances.

They were at their most impressive, though, in Henze's Oboe and Harp Concerto, a piece from the Sixties that equivocates between tenderly evocative romanticism (its true goal, as the score turns out, with a francophile ending that takes the oboe up to flute-like sonorities) and a drier crust of more 'developed' language that was probably essential to its credibility at the time of writing but sounds defensive now. Nigel Shore, the oboist, matched an assertive personality with a remarkably defined technique and the full-bodied tone of a young player whose background is British but whose career was built with the Berlin Philharmonic. A name to listen for.

Another one is Markus Stenz, a young German (though London-based) conductor, close to Henze's work, who took over some Montepulciano performances at short notice, with extraordinary results. The Oboe and Harp Concerto was one. A new orchestral score by Giorgio Battistelli, Il y a un firmament, was another: a colour piece of shimmering textural washes, suddenly cut through by Bartok-like glissandi out of Bluebeard's Castle. And in each case his sensitivity, his feeling for shape and line, and his power of communication were impressive. Next season, in Britain, he makes his debut with the London Sinfonietta. A date (15 May) for the diary.

Otherwise it has been a week of music where space-planning is critical to the concept of the piece. Montepulciano's resident exotica were the all-female Prisma Saxophone Quartet, whose programmes included a score by Moritz Eggert, Seraphim, that asked the players literally to encircle their audience with quadrophony, chasing the tensions of prevaricating consonance and dissonance around the room with a sense of organic growth - out of and back to a sustained unison. Conclusion: the cumulative volume of four of these instruments in a 50-foot square room is slightly overpowering.

By contrast, the Incontri in Terra di Siena, another festival a few miles down the road from Montepulciano, has its concerts in the open air - in the courtyards of castelli where the combination of quality chamber music (organised by the cellist Antonio Lysy), gathering dusk, and the smell of rosemary planted in massive aromatic bushes all around, adds up to one of the most potently pleasurable experiences you could hope to enjoy without fear of arrest. I heard some superlative Mozart, some vigorously refined Ravel, and the premiere of Canto di Beatrice by Canadian composer John Rea - which is where space comes in. Scored for two sopranos and two cellos, the Canto sets Dante's double vision of Beatrice, the unrequitable love, and Matelda, the interposing voice of reason, with the voices moving in a layered, vertical relationship, covering each other like a single sound source. The cellos are related laterally, with ideas passing independently between them. And Rea signals these relationships in a cruciform platform arrangement, where the singers stand one behind the other and the cellists to the sides. It works well, in a highly charged, proto- romantic style.

More dramatic space-planning came in Thursday's Prom at the Albert Hall when Paul McCreesh directed (or rather, traffic-policed) an itinerant ensemble of singers and instrumentalists in a period recreation of what might have happened at a late 16th Century Venetian coronation. The music was essentially by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli who, uncle and nephew, presided over the music at St Mark's from 1566 until 1612 - spanning the transition, as history places it, from the Renaissance to the Baroque.

It was prefaced by some of the concertato (ie, choir and mixed instrument) psalm-settings by Giovanni's pupil Heinrich Shutz, an adaptable stylist who mastered his craft in the exuberance of Catholic Italy, and went on to found the musical tradition of Lutheran Germany. The man who made Bach possible.

What Shutz principally took from the Gabrielis was the way they exploited the resonance of large spaces by dividing their performers into units of voices and instruments, placed at some distance from each other so that the listener would discern separate sources of sound, and experience the physical excitement of ideas tossed between them.

These are aural games you can enlarge on at the Albert Hall, and McCreesh allowed himself a degree of licence (quite legitimate in 16th-century repertoire) with the instrumentation, trading up to fair numbers of sackbuts, chitarrones, organs (four), regals, drums, trumpets and strings, and dispersing them not only across the stage but also across the hall - to spectacular effect as processional introits and fanfares passed around the corridor that skirts the auditorium. Yes, Early Music can be fun as well as scholarly; and the results of McCreesh's scholarship seemed to me musically convincing, cleanly executed (by his own Gabrieli Consort, Choir and Players) and an absolute delight. They also played to a full house: proof of how far this once rather recherche repertory has passed into the popular domain.