LEIPZIG CALLING: When Germany is in the news, history is often humming in the periphery. While in Berlin this month for the wunderbar and challenging Berlin Jazz Festival, an extracurricular sound and vision was of Robert Schumann, whose 200th birthday this year brings his music to the classical programming forefront.
Primed in part by recent Schumann-stocked CAMA concerts in Santa Barbara—the grand Dresden Staatskapelle and Christopher O’Riley’s all-Schumann recital—I felt compelled to trek to the Schumann-Haus in Leipzig. The composer lived there with then-new wife, Clara, and a growing passel of children, from 1840-44, hosting gatherings with Wagner, Liszt, and even Hans Christian Andersen. The second-floor apartment sits on a quiet, lovely street, then just on the outskirts of town. Schumann wrote Spring Symphony and other important works there before his mental angels and demons started wearing him down. This Leipzig locale, a calm before his storm, is a magical little flat and a piece of history. Standing in the salon elicits dreamy enchantment for music lovers and nerds, especially those of us (ahem) only recently lured into Schumann-ophilia.
Of course, Leipzig buzzes with musical-historical allure as home of J.S. Bach and the hallowed musical haven the Thomaskirche, where Bach labored and worshipped for 27 years. (Schumann and Leipzig legend Felix Mendelssohn were central in the 19th-century Bach revival, insuring the master’s lofty place).
HITLERMANIA: Speaking of demons, Adolf Hitler is again haunting Unter den Linden, via the buzzed-about current German History Museum exhibition Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime. Down in the basement in the back building is an exhibition of fact, speculation, and artifact, examining Hitler’s rise and fall, with Germany in willing and unwilling lockstep.
Sixty-five years later, that horrific period, 1933-45, lives on in the war machinery central of Berlin. The stigma and the specter can irradiate the city, especially after steeping in Hitler-era materials: Suddenly, we gaze at an innocent, looming Santa Claus figure set up on Ku’Damm, close to the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and see in his holiday wave a spooky resemblance to a Nazi salute.
One of the more tranquil and meditative spots in Berlin, nearby on Unter den Linden, is the Neue Wache (“New Guard House”), a cavernous, dark space, empty except for a replica of Käthe Kollwitz’s anguished sculpture “Mother and Her Dead Son.” Soft illumination comes from a dim skylight, a ray of mourning, and of hope.
BERLIN JAZZ FEST NOTES: On more peaceable terms, though not without necessary artistic tensions, the Jazz Fest heeded the theme “Made in Europe, Mostly.” As usual, here, we heard left-tilting variations on the big-band tradition: the bold Jazz Bigband Graz (including hurdy gurdy, and theremin virtuoso Barbara Buchholz); an effectively moody and also beautifully noisy meeting of the new music group zeitkratzer (“time crasher”) and vet guitarist Terje Rypdal and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg; and German piano master Joachim Kühn’s “Out of the Desert” with the hr-Bigband.
Among the Americans was the glorious Kate McGarry, with the three-vocalist project MOSS, delivering a stunning take on Neil Young’s “Old Man.” A late-night set at Quasimodo found trombonist Ray Anderson sounding typically funny, hip, and ever-adventurous in a nimble band featuring saxist Paul van Kemenade and the loopy, cool, and inimitable drummer Han Bennink, playing just a snare and soloing with two sticks and his foot.
Sunday’s best (and some of the fest’s best) came from sundry Euro-corners. An ecstatic Roma-meets-Balkan blending of Macedonia’s Kočani orkestar with Municipale Balcanica and Robert Ottaviano was pure bliss in a very different way from the introspective muscle of the Finnish ECM pianist/harpist Iro Haarla’s sextet or the deconstructionist Charlie Parker tribute by wily piano virtuoso Django Bates, a Brit in Copenhagen. (Rumor has it that Bates’s upcoming U.S. tour may stop in Santa Barbara. You heard it here first. … I mean, you didn’t hear it from me.) Berlin’s 2010 fest reminded us that some of jazz’s most enticing sounds are happening across the drink.