The classical music event of the summer is in Salzburg's shadow

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The classical music event of the summer is in Salzburg's shadow
An undated photo provided by Marco Borrelli shows the screening of videos by the artist Shirin Neshat, who is staging “Aida” during the Salzburg Festival, at the Kollegienkirche, or Collegiate Church. With surprising concerts performed at the highest level, the Ouverture Spirituelle is part of the Salzburg Festival but outshines it, writes the New York Times critic Joshua Barone. Marco Borrelli/Salzburg Festival via The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

SALZBURG.- Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony, a celebration and condemnation of Russian life and cultural memory, was met at the Grosses Festspielhaus here on a recent evening with a standing ovation that lasted more than five minutes.

Preceded by a setting of the Kaddish and opening with an evergreen reproof of antisemitism, the symphony is the kind of music that welcomes reflection. But it was understandably difficult to keep quiet after a performance of a masterly art delivered with mastery.

And that was only the first concert of the night.

Such a lengthy, substantial evening is typical of the Ouverture Spirituelle — a Salzburg Festival series separate from the main slate, and originally designed to ease into it — which started with the “Babi Yar” on July 19 and continued through Thursday, often with at least two programs a day.

Now in its 10th edition, the Ouverture Spirituelle is still in the shadow of the rest of the festival. Not all performances sell out; the audience is visibly less international; and the press coverage doesn’t come close to comparing with, say, the main-stage glamour of a starry new “Il Trittico” at the Grosses Festspielhaus last week.

Night by night, though, the Ouverture Spirituelle is the superior event this year — it is also the finest I have attended all summer. Each program holds some sort of surprise: unfamiliar repertoire, illuminating juxtapositions of music old and new, opportunities to hear works that are typically reserved for concert halls but shine in spaces like the airy Kollegienkirche, or Collegiate Church. Above all, its artists are as top-tier as those at the main festival. And some, like pianist Igor Levit, appear at both but break new ground at the Ouverture Spirituelle.

Alexander Pereira, a former artistic director of the festival, introduced the Ouverture Spirituelle in 2012, with the aim of focusing each edition on the music of one world religion. But that approach had exhausted itself by the time Markus Hinterhäuser took over as artistic director, presenting his first slate in 2017.

“The idea from my predecessor was wonderful,” Hinterhäuser said. “But this is done. I cannot repeat that, and I don’t want to repeat that.”

Instead, he and Florian Wiegand, the director of concerts, have organized the Ouverture Spirituelle around themes, like “Transfiguration,” “Pax” and, this year, “Sacrificium,” meant in both a sacred and secular sense. Intentionally broad, they allow for “the whole geography of music history to be used,” Hinterhäuser said.

Crucially, he and Wiegand have a direct hand in organizing the concerts, which is less the case with the main festival, in which touring artists and orchestras often come with their own traveling repertory. “Of course when you ask Jonas Kaufmann to do a recital,” Wiegand said, “he delivers the program.”

But for the Ouverture Spirituelle, the process works in something like the reverse. Hinterhäuser and Wiegand spend a lot of time listening to music and discussing what could work with the theme. They have some goals, like pairing early and contemporary repertoire to essayistic effect, or giving the quasi-religious themes a political edge. Then they begin to match the programming with artists, sometimes calling them directly instead of going through managers.

This results in concerts that artists — including this year’s guests, like the Tallis Scholars, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and John Eliot Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir — don’t perform anywhere else. “That is what a festival should be,” Wiegand said. “If it’s going to Lucerne or the Proms, why should people come to Salzburg?”

True. As a critic, I’m less inclined to dip into other festivals when I see programs that have already taken place elsewhere or that will make their way to New York. The Ouverture Spirituelle, however, is densely packed with music that I haven’t even heard of, and that I’m not likely to come across again.

That Shostakovich concert — played by the Mahler Youth Orchestra under the baton of Teodor Currentzis — was about as traditional as the Ouverture Spirituelle got this year, aside from Handel’s “Messiah,” which was led by Jordi Savall but with smaller, clearer forces than usual and at the less-than-400-seat Kollegienkirche.

With its pride of place on the Ouverture Spirituelle’s opening night, the “Babi Yar” — nicknamed for its setting of a poem about remembering the massacre of more than 30,000 Jews at the site in Ukraine — might have seemed a response to the war there, where Russian missiles struck the area around the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in the early days of the invasion. But, in an eerily prescient move, it was programmed last year.

Beyond that, the program was conducted by Currentzis, who with his ensemble MusicAeterna is under scrutiny for ties to the Russian state. (Last Tuesday, he announced the formation of a new group, Utopia, with Western backing; tellingly, the news release referred to him as Greek instead of Greek-Russian, as he had been identifying himself, and made no mention of what this development means for the future of MusicAeterna.)

At the “Babi Yar” concert, though, the audience’s focus seemed to be more on the performance itself, given the ecstatic response to the orchestra and Currentzis — not to mention members of the MusicAeterna Choir and the Bachchor Salzburg. The soloist, Dmitry Ulyanov, had a characterful, sonorous bass that was reason enough to forgive indulgences by Currentzis like having the instrumentalists stand at an emotional climax (a gesture that doesn’t trust the music), or interminably holding his arms up to keep the hall silent at the end of the symphony (a gesture that doesn’t trust the listeners).

The evening took a more adventurous turn not long after at the Kollegienkirche, where members of Cantando Admont and Klangforum Wien presented two harrowing and hauntingly resonant works by Luigi Nono, one inspired by horrors in Poland during World War II (“Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatti in Auschwitz”), the other by oppressive Soviet rule (“Quando stanno morendo. Diario polacco n. 2”).

Threading one concert to the other in the same night, or one piece to another within a single program, is part of the planning thrill. “It has to do with knowledge and intuition,” Hinterhäuser said. “There’s always this kind of balance, what Robert Musil would say is between the sense of possibility and reality.”

The possibilities, with the Salzburg Festival’s cachet and budget of nearly 60 million euros ($61.5 million), are extensive. This year, it has meant bringing the Monteverdi Choir to the Kollegienkirche for the brief but exquisite Carissimi oratorio “Jephte”; a pickup ensemble including Kopatchinskaja for Giya Kancheli’s “Exil,” from the 1990s and now unimaginable in a space without that church’s acoustics; and, on that same program, the Tallis Scholars making a cameo appearance in 16th-century music by Orlande de Lassus.

It has meant one-night-only performances of Josef Myslivecek’s “Abraham ed Isacco,” an oratorio with turns of phrase that prefigure Mozart, by Collegium 1704; Honegger’s “Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher,” with a magnetic Irène Jacob as the heroine and a tireless Maxime Pascal on the podium; Levit in Paul Dessau’s tintinnabulary “Guernica” and Hartmann’s doleful, trudging “27. April 1945” sonata (just the first part of a concert that also included the Hagen Quartet in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 and the MusicAeterna Choir in Shnittke’s Requiem for Soloists, Mixed Choir and Instruments).

Some programs were mercifully given two performances, like the “Messiah,” sublimely intimate with agile soloists joined by Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Nacional de Catalunya. Visual artist Shirin Neshat, who is back in Salzburg to restage her “Aida” from 2017, screened four works — on a spectrum from subversive to shallow — at the Kollegienkirche, which attracted an audience not typically seen at concerts there. And, as part of the festival’s homage to the living composer Wolfgang Rihm, his 1979 chamber opera “Jakob Lenz” was given a welcome showing, with terrifying intensity and utter commitment from Le Balcon, under Pascal, and its phenomenal Lenz, Austrian baritone Georg Nigl.

If this sounds a bit overwhelming, it is. (Imagine being Hinterhäuser and Wiegand, who were spotted at every performance.) But for fans of classical music — especially the most curious among them — it doesn’t get much more fulfilling than the Ouverture Spirituelle.

As it heads into its second decade, Wiegand said, the series can promise more of the same — at least through 2026. That is when Hinterhäuser’s contract expires. “The plan until then is to continue with the themes,” Wiegand added. “Then, we see what comes next.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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