Choirs beat at the Venice Biennale Musica

Concerts 06.10.2021

At the head of the Biennale Musica in Venice for four years, the composer Lucia Ronchetti dedicates her first edition to choirs and vocal ensembles, focusing on the theme of vocal dramaturgy. 

The Franco-Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is the guest of honour to whom the Biennale has awarded the Golden Lion for this 65th edition. She will be featured three times at the festival: at the opening, as is only natural, but also at the Malibran Theatre, where her opera Only the sound remains will be performed in a new Italian production. At the Arsenale (Teatro delle Tese), a world premiere, Reconnaissance, will be performed, commissioned by the French ensemble Accentus and conducted for the occasion by the excellent Marcus Creed. Reconnaissance is a kind of cantata based on poems by the composer's son, Aleksi Barrière. It is about a reconnaissance mission for an illusory migration of mankind to Mars, which ends with a requiem. The text in several languages and in five parts is displayed in white on the brick wall of the theatre, in immediate connection with the choral dramaturgy enhanced by the colours of a double bass, a percussion set and a live electronic part. The work impresses by the efficiency of the means used and the quasi-operatic scope superbly defended by theAccentus singers. Tag des Jahrs (2001), a second piece by Saariaho on poems by Hölderlin, is on the same programme. The conception differs in Sivan Eldar's After Arethusa , the second world premiere of the concert, where the voices, often soloists, evolve on the pre-recorded electronic part. The Israeli composer continues her collaboration with the English poet Cordelia Lynn, making us listen to the inner voices in a very intimate relationship with the writer's words.

The Silver Lion-winning Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, also on the Arsenal stage, included Wölfli Kantata by Georges Aperghis, one of the composer's most impressive works, which takes its textual material from the 25,000 pages of an imagined biography - "The Legend of Saint Adolf" - written by the "raw" artist Adolf Wölfli during his long years in the Waldau mental asylum near Bern: A chaotic world of words and sounds that collide and combine beyond meaning. The literary object could not but capture the attention of Georges Aperghis, who has never ceased to question the relationship between the word and its sound. The work calls for an ensemble of six soloists and a mixed choir (the SWR Vocalensemble Stuttgart conducted by Yuval Weinberg) who alternate during the five parts of this long 70-minute fresco. The challenge is superbly met by the virtuoso performers who have recorded the work on the Cyprès label.
The six soloists of theEVO Ensemble, a young vocal phalanx that was formed recently, were coached by their tutor Andreas Fischer (the bass of the Neue Vocalsolisten) as part of the College Biennale. They took to the stage of the Teatro Piccolo in the Arsenale in a programme looking towards musical theatre (Jennifer Walshe, Peter Ablinger and Claude Vivier), given in one piece and in a mixture of languages and affects. Very convincing vocally and expressively, they also display real stage talent in Jennifer Walshe's A folk song collection (the first Italian in the complete collection), following in the footsteps of their elders with the audacity of youth and the freshness of momentum.     

Also at the Arsenale, Marta Gentilucci creates the event with the world premiere of her "processional itinerary", commissioned by the Biennale Musica and based on texts by three contemporary poets, the Italian Elisa Biagini, the Afro-American Evie Shockley and the French Irène Gayraud: the artistic project includes costumes (rather austere black gowns) and a procession of the choir, outdoors, marking three "stations" up to Teatro delle Tese. The choir's slogans at the beginning of the work immediately target the subject, the violence against women to which each of the poems refers. As in the Songs cycle created at the Manifeste 2020 festival, the composer probes the sound potential of the spoken text ("We are the voice of those who no longer have one"), requiring the singers to declaim rhythmically and in unison, giving the text a singular vibration and grain. In the theatre, the choir was arranged around the perimeter of the hall, with the conductor Catherine Simonpietri officiating in the centre of the circle formed by the audience. In "Recoller", the long text by Irène Gayraud, five soloists lend their voices (spoken always) to Laure, Nora, Julie, Alexandra and Sibilla, victims testifying to their aggression, whose words are echoed by the sung voices of the choir, generating a dramatic and even tragic thickness of the most beautiful effect.

Other genres, other places

The venues are diversified during the evening concerts, which take place in prestigious spaces such as the Basilica of San Marco, with which the Biennale Musica is collaborating for the first time. The German sound artist Christina Kubisch has been commissioned to work with the Cappella Marciana (the mixed choir of San Marco), an eminent phalanx specialising in 16th century Venetian music. Kubisch's Travelling Voices envisages a journey through time and space, with music by Willaert, Zarlino, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Merulo and Claudio Monteverdi, all of whom have exploited the acoustic potential offered by the architecture of the basilica, where two tribunes face each other, giving rise to the first stereophonic effects in history, from one choir to the other: These "cori spezzatti" were recorded by Kubisch and reworked by the artist, who is broadcasting them this evening in the space of the basilica, alternating with the voices of the Cappella Marciana, combining natural sound and its echo, distorted and virtual.

The second evening takes us out of Venice and into Mestre's Teatro del Parco, an alternative venue where Egyptian DJ and singer Zuli has set up his controllers and other electronic machines to mix live. The first few minutes are high-voltage, a somewhat brutal way of making contact with the audience before he adjusts the levels in a more sustainable way: sparing gesture and maximum concentration; Zuli plays virtuosically with the capacities of his digital tools to generate a polymorphic sound source enhanced by a very sophisticated light scenography. From time to time, he approaches his microphone to give voice, behind his mask which he has not bothered to remove. The singing is no less beautiful, with oriental contours that can be heard in the electronic part. The performance was short, barely 50 minutes, with Zuli leaving abruptly, without a greeting or any other sign of sympathy for his somewhat disconcerted audience.

More pleasant and smiling, the barefoot Albanian singer Elina Duni welcomes us in the Sala delle Colonne of the Ca' Giustinian, one of the most beautiful palaces in Venice (1471) bordering the Grand Canal, where the Biennale offices are located. Elena Duni talks about exile (she now lives in Switzerland), accompanying herself on guitar or piano. Her voice is radiant, beautifully timbred and very flexible in the improvised passages where she reaches liminal high notes. The melancholy/nostalgia of certain texts, in English or French, is matched by a more popular inspiration where accents of the Balkan tradition can be heard, punctuated by the tambourine that she sometimes plays with her foot while accompanying herself on the guitar. Her repertoire also looks towards jazz, which she has practised a lot, but the way she does it remains very personal, elegant as well as bewitching, and is appreciated by a totally conquered public. 

Michèle Tosi

Photos © Andrea Avezzu


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