Venice Biennale Musica review – things old, new, borrowed and bleurgh

It may not attract headlines the way that its visual art and cinema siblings regularly do, but the International Festival of Contemporary Music has been part of the Venice Biennale family of cultural events since 1930. It now takes place every year across a fortnight in early autumn, and the composer Lucia Ronchetti is its current artistic director.

Music theatre features prominently in Ronchetti’s own list of works, and it was no surprise that she made it the theme of this year’s programme. It was an appropriate theme for a festival in Venice too, for if the city was not actually the birthplace of opera, it played a huge part in the early development of the form.

As usual with the Biennale Musica, the emphasis was on brand new compositions but it began and ended with revivals of works from the 1980s by this year’s recipient of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, Giorgio Battistelli – his “instrumental theatre” Jules Verne, and the widely performed music-theatre piece Experimentum Mundi; later programmes included classic works by Mauricio Kagel and Georges Aperghis. My visit during the second week took in two of the major premieres.

Michel van der Aa’s The Book of Water is the latest in the Dutch composer’s series of works combining video images, live performance and electronics. It is based on Man in the Holocene, a novella by the Swiss writer Max Frisch, which tells the story of Geiser, a 73-year-old widower who lives alone in dread of losing his memory and trying to bring order to what he knows, as his daughter desperately tries to contact him by phone, and the rain falls steadily around his house.

Timothy West plays Geiser on the pre-recorded video, while Samuel West was the live narrator, with a string quartet from Ensemble Modern providing the musical backdrop; the only singing comes from the soprano Mary Bevan on screen as Geiser’s daughter, Corinne. As in Van der Aa’s previous theatre pieces such as Blank Out and The Book of Disquiet (both in their different ways concerned with memory too), the integration of the live and the recorded is immaculate, the cinematography coolly elegant, the dramatic treatment always slightly detached. Though there is relatively little singing, the insistent, hyperactive quartet-writing is ever present, becoming a more obvious element in the dramatic scheme than it has been before, though the interplay of the visual and narrative elements still seems more important.

Visions, by the Estonian Helena Tulve, hardly qualified as dramatic at all in any conventional sense. But it was still an intensely theatrical experience, thanks to the space in which the premiere took place: beneath the dazzling mosaics and gold leaf of the basilica of St Mark’s. The text is based upon a manuscript of a “sacred representation” (one of the renaissance precursors of opera) found in the archives of the Venetian church of Santa Maria della Fava, which Tulve has bulked out with liturgical music from the same archive and extracts from the non-canonical Gospel of Mary, set in the original Sahidic Coptic.

The texts were mainly allotted to a chamber choir (the superb Estonian Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve) with other singers (members of the choir of St Mark’s, Cappella Marciana) arrayed around the galleries of the basilica. It’s a gravely beautiful piece, whose severe austerity (though never its musical language) sometimes recalls another work premiered at the Biennale, Stravinsky’s Threni. Much of the vocal writing is sparingly accompanied, either by an organ or a small ensemble of baroque instruments that includes two nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed string instruments) and an Estonian kannel (rather like a zither or a psaltery), creating textures that are delicate and fragile, while the minimally choreographed movements of the singers hint at some mysterious, timeless ritual.

As in any new-music festival there were bound to be disappointments as well as successes, and I also encountered two of those. A concert given by students of the Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia was devoted to choral music by Native American composers; the nations represented included Mohawk, Mohican, St’at’imc, Cherokee and Oneida, and the pieces included a specially commissioned one by Brent Michael Davids. Despite the accomplished performances, which were given a rather naively contrived “theatrical” setting, the programme sat rather oddly alongside the rest of the festival. However Yvette Janine Jackson’s “radio opera” Left Behind simply seemed ill-conceived. Performed in the mainland town of Mestre, across the Venice lagoon, by Jackson’s own Radio Opera Workshop Ensemble, it was purportedly concerned with the “socioeconomic impact of space tourism on local communities near launch sites”, but the banal fragments of text that emerged from the mush of electronics and seemingly improvised instrumental solos in the course of the hour-long piece offered no more enlightenment.