Running from 29 May until 30 June, 2013, ManiFeste festival and academy can be seen as a reincarnation of IRCAM‘s Festival Agora combined with Centre Acanthes, the iconic contemporary music summer school and festival. While those who attended Acanthes in the more intimate settings of Villeneuve-lez-Avignon or Metz might agree that it would be difficult to replicate the close community spirit of these unforgettable gatherings amidst the distractions of Paris, the delectable display of concerts on offer provided a perfect excuse to visit the metropolis for a sampler.
On Friday, June 21, the music of Fausto Romitelli (1963-2004) took centre stage at the chic stripped-down Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. While the opening performance of Trash TV Trance for solo electric guitar came across as slightly understated, the monumental Professor Bad Trip cycle (Lessons I, II and III, 1998-2000) conquered in a delicious and nightmarish onslaught of shimmering harmonics, asymmetrical loops, distorted bass frequencies, kazoos and hypnotic solos by the outstanding young electric cellist in a whirling and irresistible vortex of energy that consumed both the audience and the performers. Although conductor Maxime Pascal and his musicians appeared quite tense and not always on the same wavelength in terms of ensemble playing, Le Balcon are to be commended for their virtuosity, commitment and drive in putting this difficult piece together.
The premiere on the programme was an IRCAM commission of Laurent Durupt’s (b. 1978) P-Server. The piece explored relationships between music and theatre and hinted at gaming aesthetics in a lavish production featuring an enormous hanging brass foil screen and conductive sensors on the floor that musicians would walk on. Ensemble members were interspersed on stage, some facing screens that flickered with mysterious instruction code, in-ear monitors presumably aiding synchronisation. The video projection of rotating geometric shapes did not indicate clear relationships to the music. Somewhat random piano and drum kit cameos provided some variety to the otherwise uniform electro-glitch soundtrack. One moment of note was the contrabass bassoon solo, which would have been a successful ending point for the otherwise structurally drawn-out presentation had the composer (or perhaps the rules of the “game”) not decreed otherwise.
The next installment on Saturday, June 22 took us to the Centquatre, an enormous multi-media art complex also located in the north of Paris. The talented Ensemble de percussions du Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris, conducted by Michel Cerutti and comprising on that occasion of several young men and one young woman, opened the programme with Yan Maresz’s (b. 1966) Festin from 1999. Written for twelve percussionists (including three vibraphones and two marimbas), this scintillating piece teased the ear with an interplay of timbres and rhythmic cells. Xenakis’ Persephassa (1969) was an aural feast of events rotating in space between the six percussionists placed around the audience. The concluding Tutuguri VI (Kreuze) by Wolfgang Rihm (1981) was like a painting in broad strokes in contrast to the fine detail of the Maresz, heavy and ritualistic with unison speech-like incantations, vocalisation and theatrical gestures.
On Monday, June 24, we were back at the Bouffes du Nord for Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan and the Diotima string quartet. Djamila Boupacha, Nono’s powerful work for soprano solo referencing an Algerian revolutionary tortured by the French armed forces, was sung from memory by Hannigan. The singer’s flexible voice, range of expression and subtleness of inflection were crowned by electrifying poise and stage presence, stark like a luminous apparition in the spotlight.
Following a surprisingly long interlude while the technical team connected microphones and the MIDI trigger pedal, Hannigan was joined by the immaculately-attired members of Diotima for the new version of Operspective Hölderin by Philippe Schoeller with the assistance of Gilbert Nouno. The potentially intricate spatialisation of what appeared to be prerecorded instrumental and vocal samples was partially lost in the theatre’s complicated layout of balconies and columns. The voice, quartet and electronics seemed to operate independently on three separate planes (mirrored by the placement of the quartet towards the back of the stage). Despite interesting suspended moments, pre-echo effects and colourful vocal writing, the potential of the electronic soundscape remained underexploited by the composer, harking back to the early ideas of musique concrète.
The second half concluded the evening with a cycle of five sumptuous string quartets by Spanish composer Alberto Posadas (b. 1967), Liturgia Fractal (2003-2007). Posadas’ masterful string writing showcased the magnificent coherence and technical brilliance of the ensemble. Sensitive, sparkling, subtle and extravagant in turn, the four musicians communicated as if by telepathy as they passed spatial events and gestures to each other in an interplay of dense polyphony.
With sold-out performances of works by important French and European composers rarely programmed in North America or the UK, ManiFeste is quickly becoming a leading international festival of contemporary music. My advice? Start planning your next European summer trip.