Reviewed: The Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre

A cacophonous Century.

The Southbank Centre in London, which is hosting the Rest is Noise festival.
The Southbank Centre in London, which is hosting the Rest is Noise festival.

The Rest is Noise festival
Southbank Centre, London SE1

The evening of Wednesday 31 March 1913 began like any other in Vienna. It had been snowy, so businessmen might have pulled their hat brims a little further down as they made their way to the Musikverein concert hall; society ladies might have taken extra care as they walked from their gilded apartments on the Ringstraße. But civilisation was poised on the brink, and hours later its foot slipped and a riot broke out. The cause? It wasn’t politics that set Austria’s bourgeoisie at each other that night; it was music.

Published in 2008, the New Yorker critic Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise won every prize going, gaining an audience nobody thought existed for a 600-page history of 20th-century classical music. The works of Berg and Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Xenakis were no longer cultural white noise, they were the howl of an age of violence and upheaval. Politics, history, economics and culture came together in a single narrative with music at the fore – a touchstone of an era. Now transformed into a year-long festival of over 250 events that Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, has called “probably our most ambitious music project to date”, The Rest Is Noise has arrived in London, promising to sweep even the most sceptical listeners into the eclectic embrace of its programming.

“I’m aware that there are many people who are culturally interested – who would rush to see a Klimt exhibition or a Haneke film – that never go to classical concerts,” Kelly explains. “Where do you start with a problem like that? I read Alex’s book and thought that it was precisely the narrative that classical music needed, a story not just of music in relation to other music but also of music in history. It makes clear why the sounds of the 20th century took such a dramatic turn, why they became complex in such a different way.”

Ross’s book is a bravura romp through 100 years of history, incorporating a vast cast of supporting figures, including Hitler (who claimed that as a 17-year-old he attended the notorious Graz premiere of Strauss’s Salome), McCarthy, Freud, the CIA (who had an unlikely stake in promoting avant-garde music) and even the Velvet Underground. But how will this translate into a festival?

Moving chronologically through the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise will develop its narrative through a series of concerts, including the entire 2013 season by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as performances from most of the UK’s major regional ensembles and music colleges. But it’s the interdisciplinary weekends that form the hub of the festival, the entry point for the musically timid. Each will offer a snapshot of a historical moment – Paris in the Twenties, Berlin in the Thirties, Stalin’s Russia and Hollywood’s America – as seen through the eyes of scientists, poets, historians and philosophers. If anything, lectures, films and readings outnumber concerts, refracting Ross’s themes.

The festival launched earlier this month with “The Big Bang” – a weekend centred on the 1906 Salome premiere and the shockwaves of change that began to shudder through turn-of-the-century Europe. In one highlight, the famous Skandalkonzert of 1913 Vienna was recreated (minus the riot) by the Aurora Orchestra and the artist Edmund de Waal, enacting the sonic shift from a world of Johann Strauss waltzes and kuchen to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1 and social unrest. Turning the Royal Festival Hall quite literally back-to-front, the space became an intimate chamber venue, with the violinist Thomas Gould luring us in with brittle and brilliant Kreisler before Nicholas Collon released the artillery of the Schoenberg.

It was an acerbic foil to the fug of fin-de-siècle decadence the night before, courtesy of Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO. Joined by Karita Mattila – the Salome of her generation – we heard the final, terrible scene of the opera, prefaced by a sprawling Also sprach Zarathustra and the orchestral songs of Notturno. Together with lectures from Lisa Appignanesi on Freud, the playwright Neil Bartlett on Wilde’s Salome and Marcus du Sautoy on Einstein, a staggeringly good performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire from students of the Royal Northern College of Music and a screening of the BBC’s new documentary on 20th-century music, The Sound and the Fury, it gave a sense of the riches to come.

Among so many artists, events and concerts, which are worth getting in the diary? The second half of the season won’t be announced for a few weeks but for now we can enjoy the prospect of Kurt Weill’s sardonic The Threepenny Opera – that classic reworking of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera – performed by the LPO and an invitation to the Berlin cabaret from members of the Berlin Philharmonic. John Gray will be lecturing on terror and nationality in Weimar Germany, Julian Joseph will be introducing us to le jazz, and Jane Pritchard will explore the colourful world of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The Aurora Orchestra will return for a fascinating programme of Benjamin Britten’s film music and the Southbank Sinfonia will take us into the period’s darkest places in a concert of music from Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Classical music may be the last socially acceptable artistic taboo, but The Rest Is Noise is doing its damnedest to change that. In an era of austerity, it is its biggest soapbox yet.