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Music

Dresden's Church of Our Lady celebration defies xenophobia with music

Destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II, Dresden's iconic Church of Our Lady was restored 10 years ago. In a city now marked by xenophobic tendencies, the anniversary is celebrated with music that evokes community.

At Neumarkt Square in downtown Dresden, much to the delight of the children on hand, a street performer is generating huge soap bubbles. One of them glides upwards in front of the Church of Our Lady until it look like it's about to be punctured by the church tower.

This sunny October day in what some call Germany's most beautiful city center could hardly stand in greater contrast to the images from Dresden that are currently troubling the nation: mass demonstrations against refugees and foreigners.

The protests even overshadow the Church of Our Lady festivities. The house of worship is a unique symbol of peace and reconciliation, says the pastor at a noontime organ concert, but he adds, "As in wartime, we are experiencing a dangerous moment in the city. We are at a crossroads."

Jan Vogler, Wolfgang Rihm and Mira Wang. Photo: Rick Fulker

Jan Vogler, Wolfgang Rihm and Mira Wang go over the score

A church reborn out of ashes

Destroyed during the Allied fire-bombing on February 13, 1945, the church was largely neglected under the communist East German regime. Starting in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall fell, an initiative to restore the Dresden icon began.

It's been 10 years since the rebuilt Church of Our Lady was dedicated on October 31, 2005. Now, the city is hosting a 10-day festival to mark the anniversary, recalling the 1990 citizens' initiative, volunteers and the many foreign donors who made the restoration of the church possible.

Symbolizing that international achievement, an orchestra from the US has come to give the first European performance of a work by Wolfgang Rihm, Germany's best-known living composer. The guest performance by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has a program with references to Dresden's music history.

On the afternoon before the concert, the composer listens to the rehearsal, bent over his score. "It's a swimming match," he remarks afterward, counting seven seconds of reverberation in the bright acoustic within the stone interior under the 12,000-ton church tower. He hopes that the evening attire of the concert guests will later absorb some of the wayward sound waves.

Music about 'common effort'

Did he insert a message into the composition tailor-made for cellist Jan Vogler and his wife, violinist Mira Wang? "No," says Rihm, "this is not a symphonic poem about the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), its architecture or its history."

And yet: "One writes something in which two voices gradually come together. It stands for the will to achieve something by common effort. And maybe that sense of community will help to disentangle the confusion now spreading around this edifice in the form of certain public demonstrations."

Pegida demonstration in Dresden. Photo: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

These demonstrators probably cannot be reached by musical messages

Jan Vogler, who organized the concert on three continents, sees a social relevance to events like this nonetheless. "Cultural activity is what makes us human," he said. "I'm totally impressed when Wolfgang Rihm, one of the greatest composers of the day, sits down and thinks up a piece out of sheer fantasy. It's an instant masterpiece. Things like these are miracles of humanity."

A cohesive sound

At the evening's concert, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is in position in the altar space, facing the who's-who of Dresden and German and American diplomats. But despite the many dignitaries on hand, there are no speeches, no platitudes - just music.

Frauenkirche Dresden, altar space. Photo: Rick Fulker

The figures come to life

Jan Vogler and Mira Wang make a double appearance as soloists: in Wolfgang Rihm's "Duo Concerto" and in Saint Saëns' "The Muse and the Poet." The playbill also includes Schumann and Mendelssohn.

Rihm's concerns about the acoustic are soon dispelled; Orpheus plays with a delicate yet dynamic touch and turbo-rhythmic concision - even in that terrifyingly bright acoustic, where individual tones tend to go wayward.

A complex dialogue between violin and cello unfolds in his work, sometimes harmonic and sedate, sometimes effervescent and conflicted, before soloists and orchestra come together in an orgiastic sound just before the end.

A living backdrop: 'Heaven is here'

Frauenkirche Dresden, outside. Photo: Rick Fulker

Music is as ephemeral as a soap bubble

The altar space in the Church of Our Lady does its part to enchant the concert-goers. The sculptures of Jesus at the Mount of Olives, of Moses and Aaron, Paul and Philipp and a golden triangle symbolizing the eye of God all seem to come to life. This church contains 40 percent of the original material salvaged from ruins, yet it is completely without patina, as though it were finished only yesterday. Pastel blue, green and red are the predominant interior colors, symbolizing faith, hope and charity.

The concert is followed by long ovations, yet even they soon fade into memory. Two women, having heard and seen the spectacle, pause on their way out and turn towards the altar one last time. One of them remarks, "All this has nothing to do with space or time. Heaven is here."

Wolfgang Rihm's "Duo Concerto" for violin, cello and orchestra premiered in Carnegie Hall in New York on October 15 and had its European premiere in Dresden's Church of Our Lady on October 24. A further performance is scheduled for November 14 at the Esplanade Concert Hall in Singapore. The complete performance can be heard for 90 days as video on demand at medici.tv.

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