Conductor Designate Seen and Heard. Bienvenue Lionel Bringuier!

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Berlioz, Ravel and Roussel: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Hélène Grimaud (piano), Lionel Bringuier, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich 29.11.2012 (JR)

Berlioz: Overture, Roman carnival
Ravel: Piano Concerto
Roussel: Symphony No. 3
Ravel: La Valse

Lionel Bringuier Photo – Jonathan Grimbert Barre

In advance of this series of concerts, giant posters in the hall’s Foyer proclaimed (in French) a welcome to the new Conductor Designate of the Tonhalle, Lionel Bringuier. His rise in France – and elsewhere – has been stellar and now, as from the start of the season in 2014, he has his own top-class orchestra to look forward to. So it was with a particularly keen interest that Zurich’s concertgoers attended this concert to see and hear their new man. He has conducted the Tonhalle twice before, those concerts serving to convince the orchestra that they had, at last, found a worthy successor to David Zinman.

Opening the concert was Berlioz’s rumbustious Roman Carnival Overture (from an opera which was a flop); this immediately drew attention to Bringuier’s clear almost militaristic baton technique. From the fine cor anglais player onwards, the orchestra seemed like a young school class eager to impress their new teacher. The players followed his every instruction and the audience took him to their heart instantly.

The hall was packed to the gunwales not only out of curiosity to see and hear Bringuier, but also for Helène Grimaud. The Ravel piano concerto (this was the one for two hands) is audibly inspired by Ravel’s having met Gershwin and the work’s syncopated rhythms and jazzy outbursts were enjoyed by all. There was an evident rapport between pianist and the conductor and balance was perfect throughout. Grimaud jumped around the keyboard with abandon and as an encore played the final pages of the final helter-skelter Presto. Smiles all round.

Few in the audience, I suspect, knew what to expect from Roussel’s Third Symphony, one of a number of works commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its fiftieth anniversary season; it’s a musical mishmash. This is the only symphony by Roussel to have retained its place in the repertoire, but only just. Symphonies were never a French speciality, and while Roussel’s Third was championed by conductors like Charles Munch and Leonard Bernstein, even in France the remaining works are neglected. The symphony is tuneful and easy listening, but that’s about as much one can say for it. I could detect no distinct style in the work. Roussel’s first career was an officer in the Marines, so at times the brass were prominent Sousa-style, but I thought I heard threads of Mahler, Walton, Bartok and Scriabin. The orchestra put in effort and the audience received the work politely if not enthusiastically. I think if Bringuier had known in advance when this programme was conceived that this would be such an important occasion, he might have chosen to showcase a more meaningful work.

To round off the evening, La Valse, a work Ravel wrote after the First World War to celebrate the Viennese waltz. Ravel described it as like a mist, dissipating gradually to reveal a magnificent crowded ballroom with their Viennese burghers in all their finery. Bringuier was at first gracious and elegant, and then, more frenzied as the work hurtled to its final and terrible cataclysm.

Bringuier is a fireball in the mould of and from the school of Salonen and Dudamel and will, I’m sure, together with the new Intendantin Ilona Schmiel, do much to sweep away some of the Tonhalle’s cobwebs. To start the ball rolling, the Tonhalle have just announced a promising new venture – in an attempt to rejuvenate its audience – called “Tozzukunft” (Tonhalle-Future/Tonhalle Young) advertising its events on Facebook, with invitations to hear rehearsals free of charge, to meet members of the orchestra and to special dedicated events.
John Rhodes