Turning up next weekend at the Proms is a name that may not mean a lot to British concert-goers but it’s one they need to know. The name is Jorg Widmann. He’s a German composer, very much alive: a youthful 41. And while it’s always a big deal for a living composer to get a major orchestral work played at the Proms, Widmann has two major orchestral works, both UK premieres, featured on consecutive nights, Sunday and Monday. Which must be some kind of record.
Part of the reason is that they’re being toured by the visiting Cleveland Orchestra, which recently had Widmann as composer-in-residence and is now showing off the fruits of that relationship. But it’s also a mark of how prominent Widmann has become on the world circuit. You could fairly call him a Germanic Thomas Ades: ubiquitously in demand, and doubly so because he combines composition with performance – as a clarinettist of international distinction.
As it happens, I’ve just spent a weekend in his company at Grafenegg: a festival that runs on the country estate of the current Prince Metternich (direct descendent of the Metternich who parcelled out the post-Napoleonic fate of Europe back in 1815) in the Lower Austrian Wachau region, more or less and hour’s drive from Vienna.
In existence now for seven years, this festival began as something like an Austrian take on Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony in America. Supposedly informal but actually quite chic (check out the furs and dirndls), it has a resident orchestra, the Tonkunstler of Lower Austria, but pulls in glitzy stars and first-rank bands from far and wide who come to play under the stars in a state-of-the-art open-air amphitheatre – or if it’s raining (which is not uncommon) in a clean-cut indoor auditorium close by.
As time has passed, though, Grafenegg has grown into something more like an Austrian Snape Maltings, with a cluster of converted/brand new buildings rising out of swathes of rural nothingness and functioning as a distinctly out-of-town musical hub. Year-round. And with a focus on developing new talent, which is where Widmann comes into the picture.
Every year the festival invites some composer of substance to curate a project called Ink Still Wet that gives a group of younger composers the chance to workshop brand new pieces with a guinea-pig orchestra (the Tonkunstler), conducting the music themselves and getting feedback from the players.
What makes this so noteworthy is that few young composers these days get the opportunity to hear their writing realised by a serious, symphony-sized band. They’re stuck with chamber groups, which isn’t in itself a bad thing but is obviously limiting, and no real preparation for the possibilities of working on a more ambitious scale.
Wielding the baton is another learning opportunity they don’t get. And there’s no better way to find out if the marks you’ve made on a score communicate meaningfully to the people who have to play them.
For some of the Grafenegg composers this year, it was a real challenge. But they had Widmann on hand to advise on the writing, alongside the specialist contemporary conductor Lothar Zagrosek to help with the practicalities of the rehearsal process. And listening to these ink-wet pieces slowly, sometimes painfully, coming together was an interesting experience – although I’d agree with Widmann’s observation to me after one of the sessions, that most of the pieces were disappointingly conventional in the way they presented.
Widmann himself is not a conventional figure, despite the fact that his music tends to reference the past. He likes to visit old, established forms – sometimes in the specific context of a well-known piece – only to tear them limb from limb: aggressively but lovingly, if you can comprehend that paradox. Being a solo clarinettist steeped in Brahms and Mozart no doubt has a lot to do with it. As a performer his engagement with historic works is unavoidable and generates this useful tension in his parallel creative life.
How it plays out in the two pieces scheduled for the Proms I’ve no idea, I haven’t heard them. But I’m sure that they’ll be worth the hearing. Sunday 7, Monday 8, Royal Albert Hall & Radio 3.