Arena New Music Festival: Hear the Future?

  • 2012-10-17
  • By Jonathan Brown

RIGA - Classical music’s flair for polarizing audiences is notorious. Contemporary music is probably the worst offender. Few organizations poised to promote newer compositions do so with much success; some organizations even manage to ostracize musicians. A little over a year ago Russian violinist Gidon Kremer, one of music’s most respected performers, declined an invitation to the Verbier Festival, pointing to the festival’s loss of artistic integrity; it’s having lost sight of the point. This raises a potent question. Why is classical music today so unsound?

Thankfully, Riga’s Arena New Music Festival is an exception. The Arena Festival’s tag line challenges you to, “Hear the future.” And here you will. But judging by the festival’s program, more than the future, the audience is likely to experience an ambitiously broad assortment of the present.

Here’s why the Arena Festival is an exception to the polarizing rule. A performance from Bang on a Can All-Stars, points to the festival’s aspirations of inclusion. The American based new-music ensemble is celebrating twenty-five years of brilliantly and subtly traversing the boundaries between genres. As accomplished in jazz, classical, and everything in between, Bang on a Can question and void genre distinctions. This is Arena’s goal, too - the presentation of new music without the stigma of genres, etiquette, or justifications. It’s just good, clean music.

The diversity of venues hosting performances is indicative of the festival’s ambitious artistic program. Opening at the Latvian Music Academy, winding through St. John’s Church, Riga Arts Space, Arsenals Exhibition Hall, Spikeri Concert Hall, Arena concludes at the Great Guild Hall. This array of performance spaces points to the aesthetic diversity of each of Arena’s seven performances.

Bang on a Can is the fulcrum of the festival. They boast one of the most impressive and diverse resumes in the business, collaborating with the likes of Pulitzer Prize winning composer, Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman, Tan Dun, and DJ Spooky. Their concert is a crash-course in Minimalism, America’s response to European modernism. Theirs is an eclectic presentation with composers Steve Reich, Brian Eno and Louis Andreissen representing the Netherlands, England and the United States.

Of course it’s the centenary of John Cage’s birth; arguably the most controversial figure in 20th century music history. With hundreds of Cage-based events internationally, it’s difficult to turn a deaf ear to. The American composer credited with the composition of 4’33” will have an evening devoted to his music as part of the Arena Festival. His music is shrouded in controversy, absurdity, and beauty. Although the program hasn’t been revealed for this performance, any audience is guaranteed a visceral, engaging, and provocative evening.

Arena will exhibit Latvian music too. Peteris Vasks might be the most respected Latvian composer at home and abroad. Combining Latvian lore and modern modes of musical expression, Vasks’ Second Symphony will close the festival. Andris Dzenitis is surely still reveling in the success of his opera “Dauka,” which opened the National Opera’s 2012 season. Dzenitis, Vasks’ former student, contributes his “Narrow Path.” “Dreamy Steps to the Electrocardiogram” at Arsenals Exhibition Hall. Vasks and Dzenitis represent two generations of Latvian music, one solidified, and one emerging. This will be a rare opportunity to witness both simultaneously.

As per the festival’s tradition, a special place for electro acoustic music has been whittled into the program. It could prove problematic that the least accessible medium holds the honored place of opening the festival. Riga Sinfonietta’s program is exploratory, offering what should be one of the most exciting performances of the festival; Iannis Xenakis’ “Echange.” Like Cage, Xenakis is a prominent figure in the 20th century. He’s equally remembered for his architectural pursuits and the tank-shell injury, which removed half his face.

The Latvian Radio Choir presents “Shakespeare Dream,” an evening of choral and organ music bringing composers from different eras and aesthetics to St. John’s Church. Christopher Petersons’ “Incessant Jealousy” and Eric Esenvalds’ “O, She Doth Teach the Torches to Burn Bright!” will be performed for the first time.

The Arena Festival promises to be boisterous and engaging, if a little undirected. Many classical festivals are so tightly themed they pursue impossible questions. The best example was the London Philharmonia’s festival: Prokofiev: Man of the People? It’s too easy to answer this question with, “no,” but difficult to arrive at any other satisfactory answer. If this is the curse of the overly mandated, Arena lies on the opposing end of the spectrum. Not much unifies its broad but exciting spectrum of performances.

The Arena New Music Festival begins Oct. 17 and runs until Oct 26. Visit for a full program and further information.