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Culture

Distinguished German composer Henze is honored at home

In its Culture Capital year, Germany's Ruhr region is honoring its most distinguished musical son - composer Hans Werner Henze - with a plethora of concerts and events known collectively as "The Henze Project."

scene from the opera Gisela!

'Gisela!' pits gritty Germany against explosive Italy

Born in the German town of Guetersloh in 1926, Hans Werner Henze is one of Germany's greatest living composers and one of the most significant figures of 20th century classical music. He's also been the initiator of numerous projects designed to encourage and nurture young musical talent. Most notably, in 1976, he founded the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte summer academy in Montepulciano, which remains a benchmark for progressive music teaching the world over.

Now, the Ruhr Valley is honoring Henze with a plethora of concerts and events, known collectively as "The Henze Project." In keeping with the composer's long-standing commitment to encouraging young talent, the jewel in the project's crown is a new work devised for and with young people.

A new composition

Composed in collaboration with the writers Michael Kerstan and Christian Lehnert, "Gisela! - Or, the Strange and Memorable Paths of Happiness," is performed by a colorful mix of up-and-coming talent and established professional innovators. Several parts are taken by students of Essen's Folkswang University, the choir is a youth group from Dortmund, and the regional youth ensemble has worked together with cutting-edge contemporary music outfit MusikFabrik to create its own distinctive sound.

Asked by Deutsche Welle why his work with young people was so important to him, Henze answered rather enigmatically: "People are like cats. When a cat has a litter, all of the kittens are different. Each one has a different design, although they come from the same father and mother. The same goes for [young] musicians...."

He said he sees himself not as a teacher, but as an "ally," Henze added.

From Che Guevara to Gisela from Oberhausen

One noticeable difference between the octogenarian maestro and the up-and-coming generation of composers is that whereas Henze's career has been likened to a seismograph through which the great political and social upheavals of the twentieth century can be read, critics often bemoan the lack of political engagement among contemporary musicians and artists.

Portrait of Hans Werner Henze

Henze is a national treasure - and an expatriot

For his part, Henze theorized that political engagement has waned along with certain cultural heroes.

"I think there's been a sort of withdrawal," Henze said. "In a funny way, I think it has a lot to do with the death of figures like Ernesto [Che] Guevara and Rudi Dutschke. Somehow, these deaths were followed by a feeling of helplessness, a powerlessness to rebel, however necessary rebellion may be."

Henze, who knew both the Argentinean revolutionary and the leader of the 1968 German student movement personally, said the political content of his work has never been intentional, but has rather stemmed from his interest in people and his sensitivity to the world around him.

Music should not be written for an elite, Henze insists. Instead, "it should try to reach as wide, and as deep as it can."

From sunny Naples to grey Oberhausen

Set in the heartland of Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley, "Gisela!" looks set to succeed in reaching out to a wider audience by tapping into discourse of regional identity, brought about by Essen's European Capital of Culture status.

"Gisela!" is the story of the eponymous protagonist, a young woman from Oberhausen who visits Naples with her boyfriend Hanspeter, only to fall in love with Gennaro, a charismatic Italian with a penchant for Commedia dell'Arte-style mischief. Determined to prove that her hometown is not the grim and grimy industrial landscape of Genarro's prejudice, but rather part of a sparkling new European Capital of Culture, Gisela takes her new lover home with her.

The basic story line could have been drafted by the local tourist board, but the conclusion is a bit more enigmatic. The inevitable confrontation between the rival lovers is interrupted by the joyful explosion of Vesuvius in approbation of Gisela's union with Gennaro. Germany's brand new Culture Capital seems to have won the blessing of Italy's noble cultural tradition. However, as the curtain falls, the volcano begins to rain dark ash.

Although, in the words of his long-term collaborator Michael Kerstan, he's "still very much a German personality," Hans Werner Henze left Germany in 1956, making Italy his permanent home. Unlike Gisela, Henze has no intentions of returning permanently.

Author: Kate Laycock
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

Gisela! premieres in the Machinenhalle Zeche Zweckel in Gladbeck on 25. September as part of the Ruhrtriennale, which has taken "Migration" as its theme for 2010.

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