SIRIUS at the Stockhausen Courses in the year 2000 in Kürten, Germany, had been an unforgettable experience. It was the first time that I had heard the work, and it would become and remain a favorite (link to my essay on the work). While I always had enjoyed the stereo version from CD, I could never get out of my mind the live experience in full spatial projection. Therefore when, after more than 20 years had gone by, live performances of SIRIUS were again announced for the Courses 2022 in the same location I decided to attend. This was too good an opportunity to let pass by. Since I would make the trip from overseas, I also decided to again attend the Stockhausen Courses for their entire duration, which proved to be worthwhile and immensely enjoyable.
I knew that it would be great to experience SIRIUS again in full transparency of sound due to the eight-channel reproduction of the electronic music and due to the four soloists (bass, trumpet, soprano, bass clarinet) being spatially separated, surrounding the audience in the four directions of the compass. Yet my expectations were exceeded, in particular with respect to the four soloists.
SIRIUS on Friday, July 8: Dress rehearsal
The electronic opening with the four visitors arriving in their space ships seemed very loud, but it was appropriate. The sensation of apparent loudness was enhanced by the sheer spatial size of sounds in the eight-channel projection; a check with an SPL meter in the next day's performance showed much less dB then expected, and it was perfectly reasonable (approx. 100 dB). The subsequent electronic music and the soloists were heard at a somewhat lower yet still immersing level, approximately the volume that I listen to at home (still quite loud). I could not believe how much detail in the electronic music could be heard in that opening, and the 'hovering' bass sounds of the mothership were really impressive. The rotation of sounds of course was a special treat in the eight-channel reproduction. Far better than in two-channel stereo.
When the bass voice (Damien Pass) entered, with rich tone, wonderful phrasing and musical expression, I knew I would be in for a treat. Indeed, all the four soloists - bass, trumpet, soprano, bass clarinet - performed at an astounding level. They were all young, in their early to mid thirties, part of a new generation able to enthusiastically perform Stockhausen's music at a very high level.
Suzanne told me afterwards that they were lucky to have had so much time for rehearsal, given that due to Covid the performers had no other obligations, which freed them up. It was also hard to find such an excellent soprano, Sophia Körber, with a range in the high notes that Annette Merriweather had, but eventually they were able to. This was the first time that I heard Johanna Stephens-Janning play, and I was very impressed with the combination of fluidity and great articulation of playing, at a level of synthesis of these two aspects that was special. The trumpeter, Paul Hübner, had already been sensational in DONNERSTAG aus LICHT in Basel in 2016, an opera where, as Michael, he was a main protagonist, and his playing here was superb as well.
I could not believe how well all the soloists navigated the fiendishly complex polyphony, creating an impressive whole in the process. Suzanne told me afterwards that they had no click tracks for timing (as there are, for example, in the HELICOPTER STRING QUARTET); instead they timed everything from just hearing over headphones the electronic tape, which they must know extremely well. Over their headphones they also could hear each other, which was necessary because otherwise they would have to deal with delay through the hall over the considerable distances that they are standing apart from one another.
The sound of the electronic music was amazing, at the level I had come to expect with this kind of equipment in this venue, the Sülztalhalle. In the first 8 minutes of very intense polyphony in Cancer I noticed that the electronic music was at a slightly lower volume level than I am used to on Stockhausen's own recording. The polyphonic contribution of the electronic music was still audible, but there was less intense clash with the four soloists. On the other hand, this allowed for more easily hearing the complex polyphony of just the four soloists. I liked that somewhat different presentation, but afterwards asked Kathinka, who did the sound projection, about it. She confirmed that she chose this sound balance to make more easily audible the polyphony of the four live performers, which I thought was a nice artistic decision. There was also some situational element in it. If they could have hung the speakers 2 meters higher, she said she could have projected the electronic music at this beginning of Cancer more loudly because there would have been more spatial separation from the polyphony of the soloists. Now the speakers were positioned on very tall stands which did not put them quite as high.
On the other hand, I noticed that in the beginning of the bass clarinet cadenza leading into the Libra section the bell-like electronic band played very loudly against the lone bass clarinet, the playing of which was still clearly distinct and audible. I really liked that choice by Kathinka.
There was a technical mishap in the bass clarinet cadenza. At once there was a crackle which then became more continuous, and the music had to be stopped. It took 10 - 15 minutes to solve the problem. It turned out that it had to do with the wireless transmitter of the bass voice, and how it was attached to the singer. It was good that this had happened during rehearsal, and not during the public performances. The technical issue was now known and fixed once and for all.
After the problem was solved, the performance continued without further mishap, and at the superb artistic level it had started with. It was riveting throughout.
After the performance Suzanne immediately said that this was wonderful; it was agreed that they could skip the general rehearsal the next morning, and with that the soloists would feel fresh for the evening's performance. This had been the first time that all soloists had played together through the entire work in this particular hall, the relatively large Sülztalhalle. All previous rehearsals had been in smaller practice venues.
Talking with Suzanne after the performance I told her that I thought at first there was not enough momentum and intensity through the build-up from the end of Aries and the Bridge after Aries, but that then I thought it was very satisfying. She said she was certain that during the concert the next evening the musicians would be even more confident in this passage. It would turn out that she was right.
The costumes were much simpler than the old original ones, and very nice. Suzanne also liked the new costumes very much and found them just more modern; she said the old costumes by Mary Bauermeister that were exhibited on the sides of the hall were "history".
Suzanne said that they had been lucky in 1976 in that they first performed each season separately in different venues (Summer at the bicentennial in Washington DC, and she mentioned Japan as the Winter location) before they performed the entire work in France 1977; thus they had ample time in this manner to get to know the music very well. Now the young musicians had to learn the work all at once. Suzanne also mentioned that Johanna now was playing her instrument that she had used for all performances of Sirius until 2000.
In my conversation with Kathinka afterwards I also mentioned that I thought that SIRIUS was one of Stockhausen's greatest works, and she agreed.
Suzanne mentioned that they have planned concerts throughout the world and named a few potential locations that were under consideration. There is interest from organizers, but they would have to meet the demand of three days of rehearsal time at each location. One of the essential things is also being able to adjust the performance to the acoustics of each venue.
Concerts of SIRIUS: Saturday, Sunday (July 9 and 10)
The Saturday performance was top notch and went off without a technical glitch. I chose my seat on the side of the bass clarinetist, such that I was able to observe and enjoy the dramatic gestures and facial expressions by both bass and soprano.
Upon speaking with them after the performance, both Suzanne and Kathinka felt that the confidence level was even higher. We agreed that the large build-up at the end was even more sweeping than before. Kathinka said all soloists were 5 dB louder, and she had to adjust amplification. They were all rested because there had been no morning rehearsal since, as mentioned, the assessment had been made that this was not needed.
Audience applause was enthusiastic; seating was almost to capacity.
I met Markus Stockhausen who had been in the audience, and he said he had liked the performance, and thought the soloists were outstanding ("hervorragend"). He was impressed with the bass sounds from the space mothership at beginning and end, and said they were stronger than when his father did the sound projection. I told him that his group's performance in 2000, in which he played the trumpet, was so inspiring that it was key to my decision to attend this year.
It was decided that again there would be no rehearsal needed the next day (Sunday morning) as originally planned, since the performance had gone so well.
For the Sunday evening performance I sat on the side of the trumpet, which I had not heard as clearly the night before, and now it was great. I could still easily hear the bass clarinet on the other side, and again had a good view on the two vocalists. The performance was even more liberated and with abandon than the one on Saturday, and simply sublime.
Applause was even more enthusiastic and extended than the night before; seating was again almost to capacity.
This performance was judged by all to be the best. Suzanne even went so far to say that it was better than their best performances as a group at the time, from the mid-Seventies to 2000. She had thought that SIRIUS had been dead after the last performance in 2000, but with these new performances with the young group it was like Phoenix had risen from the ashes. They had had rehearsals in the year preceding these perfomances for one, two, three performers, and then all of them. The extensive rehearsals had been for all like a healing experience through Covid. All the performers are friends and love each other, and you can feel it in the performances.
Suzanne was excited that they wanted to go on tour with the work. In our conversation we agreed that this performance had been humankind at its finest and she said the world once more, and now even more urgently, needs the message of SIRIUS, us being Earth, not nations.