The Zurich New Music Days are steeped in tradition. Up to now, this festival has been held every year. But Zurich’s current cost-cutting measures mean that the New Music Days are taking a gap year, after which they will be held biennially, starting in 2018. However, for René Karlen, Head of the Classical Music Department at the City of Zurich, it was obvious that a music centre like Zurich could not simply forego its hitherto annual, concentrated dose of new music in November 2017. And his vision for ensuring that there was “no break in the annual rhythm of the festival” found eager support from elsewhere.
It hadn’t taken much persuasion to keep the festival’s long-term partners on board, namely the Zurich Tonhalle and the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). They have been joined by the Collegium Novum Zürich (CNZ) and by the city’s own concert series, the Music Podium, both of which specialise in contemporary music. But other institutions, such as the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, “also insisted on joining in”, says Karlen. The result is the festival “Focus Contemporary – Zurich-West”.
A festival with a diverse history
The New Music Days were founded back in 1986 by the composers Gérard Zinsstag and Thomas Kessler. The city’s recent decision to make this contemporary music festival into a biennial event is disappointing, not least because its 30th anniversary in 2016 saw its organisers full of confidence for the future. Furthermore, in its endeavour to preclude any possible stagnation, it underwent a shift in direction in 2012 when it introduced a policy of having new curators every year. Zinsstag and Kessler had run the festival for its first eight years, after which Walter Feldmann took over the reins for a similar length of time. Then the duo of Mats Scheidegger and Nadir Vassena assumed the helm, promising new momentum.
In the ensuing curatorial era, different generations, genders and tastes left their mark on the festival programming. There were many highlights, and the festival began opening up to different formats, new fields and new musical regions. The New Music Days became so varied that people on the Zurich new-music scene even began to complain of a lack of cohesion.
Five partners, five programme concepts
“Focus Contemporary – Zurich-West” will offer seven concerts over six consecutive days. At the festival opener in the ZKO Hall, entitled East meets West & West meets East, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra will perform works by Rudolf Kelterborn, Toshio Hosokawa and others, under the baton of Roland Kluttig.
The Tonhalle Maag was only inaugurated in September 2017, but it will be at the heart of the festival, along with the Toni-Areal. With a guest concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and performances of works by the Australian composer Brett Dean (currently the Creative Chair of the Tonhalle Orchestra), the Tonhalle Maag will give the festival an international touch.
The Collegium Novum Zürich will give the world premiere of a new work by the Polish composer Wojtek Blecharz, who is currently resident in Berlin, and they will also let the Tonhalle Maag resound with Rebecca Saunders’s Stasis. In the Toni-Areal, the ensemble æquatuor and Lémur ensembles will offer world premières of works by the Swiss composers Matthias Arter, Michael Pelzel and Alfred Zimmerlin. Fragments from Germán Toro-Pérez’s multi-media, music-theatre work Journey to Comala will be heard with the composer himself in charge of sound projection, and the ZHdK ensemble Arc-en-Ciel, under the direction of Jonathan Stockhammer, will perform works by Ondřej Adámek and Dmitri Kourliandski.
Zurich-West offers fertile ground for the new
This year’s non-curated festival might seem something of a patchwork. But the individuals and ensembles involved are showing a firm sense of commitment. They’re not just responsible for the content of their own, respective contributions – they’re also assuming the financial responsibility. Back in the “old” Tonhalle, the New Music Days were never quite able to achieve a modern, casual atmosphere that was inclusive rather than exclusive. In the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich’s former industrial district, such an atmosphere will surely emerge of its own accord at the festival. Perhaps “Focus Contemporary – Zurich-West” can become a venue where a broad Zurich audience can come together and exchange opinions on the latest contemporary music. It might even help to bring about a change of mind on the Zurich political scene. Instead of just filling a gap, the festival might well find itself to be the nucleus of something new.