Karajan Academy / Enno Poppe

On the 22nd of September 2020, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Grand Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic and witnessing the performance of the Karajan Academy in their first home event this season. The event, part of the Musikfest and the Month of Contemporary Music2020 in Berlin, featured compositions by Rebecca Saunders, Enno Poppe and the winner of the Claudio Abbado Composition Prize 2020 – Milica Djordjević. I was happy to see the Karajan-Academy perform after a long pause caused by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The Berlin Philharmonic succeeded in applying the social distancing measures perfectly and ensured artists’ and listeners’ safety.

The performance started with a brief introduction, providing an insightful overview of the evening. The first piece of the program was »Fury« for double bass solo, by Rebecca Saunders. The composition, written in 2005, is a brilliant example of the contemporary use of a string instrument in classical music. Even at its length of just six minutes, the composer provided sufficient space for her musical idea to unfold. It allowed the musicians to present their expertise without overwhelming the audience – instead creating curiosity for more. The rhythmical structure of the piece, together with extreme tuning of the instrument, required the performer to present an unparalleled set of skills and technical brilliance – values met perfectly by the soloist Alexander Arai-Swale.

»Fury« is a remarkable composition, and all the more so when performed this convincingly. I feared that the rest of the repertoire would be overshadowed, but the members of the Karajan-Academy did not disappoint and the performance continued at this high level, drawing the audience into the music of Milica Djordjević. The Abbado Prize recipient has composed two brand new pieces for the ensemble. »Transfixed« and »Transfixed’« present a hypnotizing, outside-the-box vision of ensemble music. Djordjević charmed the audience by creating an atmosphere of darkness and fear in the first composition, followed by an almost visual experience in »Transfixed’«: the experimental use of strings, cracking noises and instrumental whispers took the listeners outside the concert hall into the set of nature, carefully guided by the musicians, who took individual responsibility of the performance, communicating with conductor Enno Poppe with full engagement. This was also the case in »Rdja« for chamber ensemble, which translates to »Rust«; staying true to the name, the composer created a sound illustration of metal corrosion with convincingly composed wheezes and squeaks that added to the entire sonic experience.

»Cinnabar« – Double Concerto for Solo Violin, and Solo Trumpet, Ensemble and 11 Music Boxes led the audience further into the visual sound experience, this time in a well-composed concertante form, with individual instruments constantly in dialogue against the ensemble whole. Impressive performances by Ania Filochowska and Markus Mayr supported and added to the thrilling atmosphere of the composition. Worth mentioning, too, were the amazing communication of both percussion players and the mindful conducting of Enno Poppe, who kept a solid presence far into the demanding ***piece. The composition structure kept the audience in moving tension through the ending, when out of a consensus of sound, the voices of 11 music boxes emerged – at first as an unrecognizable noise, and then over time slowly unfolding into familiar melodies of classical music compositions – one of them being the famous Brahms Lullaby. This effect created a melancholic atmosphere which resulted in a thundering ovation from the audience after a longer silence.

The final composition presented – »Koffer« (“Suitcase”) for large ensemble by Enno Poppe – was an equally interesting and complex performance. The composer led his work perfectly, communicating with the orchestra members with clarity and confidence. The musicians stood up to the challenges of the composition, which combines multiple styles and musical directions, and performed the technically challenging passages and figures flawlessly. I noticed with surprise that the ensemble members were not listed in the concert booklet by name, which seems unfortunate, as they all had an individual influence on the final outcome of this unique composition.

The evening performance of Karajan-Academy was impressive as always, with continual intensity and convincing interpretation throughout the program. The soloists and the conductor Enno Poppe delivered a strong performance of a challenging and long repertoire. Perhaps the only aspect one could be critical of was the duration of the program. It felt as if the performance was planned well ahead of the newly-enforced coronavirus restrictions, and was meant to be performed with a pause, which was removed in accordance with pandemic performance rules. However, the length of the program remained the same, making it difficult to stay focused throughout the concert, with the final composition »Koffer« suffering the most – it was a challenge to follow it with equal attention, without disconnecting from the musical ‘here and now’. »Cinnabar« by Saunders had such a strong and emotional ending, that it was almost odd to have it followed up by yet another piece.

Despite that, I recommend listening to this program in either Digital Concert Hall, or in the upcoming performance in Elbphilharmonie, as it is truly extraordinary. It is a very well delivered treat for contemporary music lovers as myself. Karajan-Academy only adds to that with the brilliance and uniqueness that both stand as signature values of this ensemble.