Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (3) – Montreal orchestra makes a splash

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Tan Dun, Beethoven: Wang Beibei (percussion), Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano (conductor), Usher Hall, 16.8.2011. (SRT)

Debussy: La Mer
Tan Dun:
Water Concerto
Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”

This is a concert that went with a splash, and in more ways than one! Tan Dun’s Water Concerto was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for the millennium, but it sounds so fresh and exciting that I had to keep reminding myself it was already 12 years old. Instead of a tuned instrument the soloist “plays” two large bowls of water by slapping the surface of them. Sound bonkers? It’s actually surprisingly effective.

Wang Beibei, together with two percussionists from the ranks of the orchestra, produced an extraordinary range of sound from the water bowls and from the various other tools she had. Some were conventional Eastern instruments, such as the ghostly waterphones whose other-worldly sound made the beginning of the work so chilling, or the Chinese water gong, which changes pitch as it is lowered into the water. Others included a long tube whose end was thumped at various depths, or an enormous sieve which was saved for the memorable ending. More often than not, however, Wang made her sound simply by slapping, stroking or rippling the surface of the water. Sometimes upturned bowls were beaten, sometimes the water itself was struck. Either way it was thrilling to watch as well as to listen to, though you had to spare a thought for the people in the front row who got more were getting more splashes than they bargained for!

Meanwhile Tan extends the water analogy into the rest of the orchestra, especially in the Prelude where the shimmering strings evoked the rippling surface of the water, and the terse punctuation from the winds suggested drops falling. The oriental strain of melody was really compelling too, especially in the insistent wind-led March of the second movement. Some may scoff, but as a creative essay exploring what music can do today, I found this work utterly convincing. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but in the event I sat riveted for its whole duration, and the whole audience showed their approval at the end.

It would be wrong, however, if the novelty of the Water Concerto detracted from the sheer class of the orchestral playing in the rest of this concert. Right from the outset of this concert it was clear that we were in the presence of musical excellence. The most compelling thing about the Montreal Symphony Orchestra is the luxurious quality of their sound, rich and enveloping in a way that few orchestras can match. They also have a gift for colour which is quite extraordinary, be it the sheen on the brass – especially the horns, which were surprisingly prominent in the texture of the Pastoral – or the shimmering, diaphanous nature of the string sound which was perfect for the waves of La Mer.

Nagano also showed himself to be a master of control and of the long view: each movement of La Mer built steadily with architectural breadth so that the climaxes were thoroughly well prepared for. The quieter moments, too, were built securely into the general structure so that everything served a purpose: for example, the moment in the third movement where the strings fall away and lonely winds evoke the bird calls of the opening movement was thrilling because it seemed to emerge from thin air, but it was nevertheless indispensable in the overall structure.

Nagano’s view of Beethoven was unashamedly old school and muscular, and was all the better for it. He laid on the vibrato and the resonant bass so that the warm bath of the string sound felt like something to wallow in. However, he kept things moving so that there was a genuine sense of rollicking in the peasant dance. Likewise, the storm built up to the entry of the trombones so that this genuine climax unwound gracefully into the Shepherds’ Hymn. This was an evening of marvellous music-making, something to cherish. The orchestra have just released the next instalment of their Beethoven series with Nagano: if tonight is anything to go by then the results should be very exciting.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until 4th September in a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson