Swiss Enthralled by New York Philharmonic Orchestra

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Rouse, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Joshua Bell (violin) Tonhalle, Zurich 6.5.2013 (JR)

Rouse: “Prospero’s Rooms” for Orchestra
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for violin, strings, harp and percussion
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”)

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in Bernstein's Serenade with Joshua Bell as soloist at Tonhalle Zürich, 5/6/13. Photo by Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert with  Joshua Bell as soloist at Tonhalle Zürich,. Photo by Chris Lee


There was a palpable buzz in the hall for the arrival of this prestigious orchestra. The New Yorkers are touring Europe and on their way from Turkey to Germany, they stopped off at the Tonhalle in Zurich. My colleague Alain Matalon has already reviewed their concert in Istanbul, a programme they repeated in Zurich.

One day before the concert, the principal brass players (Philip Smith (trumpet), Ethan Bensdorf (trumpet), Philip Myers (horn), Joseph Alessi (trombone) and Alan Baer (tuba)) entertained locals at Zurich’s cavernous main hall of the Hauptbahnhof (Main railway station), a free concert courtesy of Global Sponsor Credit Suisse. A large crowd (many hundred, seated and standing) amassed to hear the illustrious quintet play a varied medley, including Gershwin and Bernstein; this was not foot-stomping style, but five supreme instrumentalists showing off their skills. It was great fun, Phil Smith proved a witty compère, and the audience were rewarded by two encores – in one of them the players moved round, almost letting their hair down.

The brass players were not on stage for the first half of the evening’s concert, very much a concert of two distinct and varied halves.

Christopher Rouse has been composer in residence in New York for the last two years. His short new piece is not based on Prospero from Shakespeare’s “Tempest” but on Edgar Allen Poe’s  „Mask of the Red Death,“ a gruesome story in which all the participants at a party die from the Red Death. Unlike in Istanbul, there were no acoustic problems in the Tonhalle, quite the opposite, and the work impressed throughout, from an eerie string opening, to shrieks which Hitchcock would have proud of, to chilling breathing sounds reminiscent of Bluebeard’s Castle. Throughout the bell tolled.

Bernstein composed his “Serenade” (which is a virtual Violin Concerto, the soloist playing almost throughout the piece) for the violinist Isaac Stern in memory of Serge Koussevitzky. Sadly, it is not often played on this side of the pond and offers the listener the chance to marvel at the soloist’s virtuosity, whilst marvelling at Bernstein’s sound world. The beautiful Adagio brought to mind Barber’s Adagio for Strings and its tenderness left the audience breathless. The older members of the orchestra still clearly harbour a love affair with Lenny and the playing of his music, full of the usual Bernstein ingredients of schmaltz, jazz, blues and wit, showed due reverence to their late Music Director.

Joshua Bell rewarded the audience with a spectacular and thrilling encore, the variations on “Yankee Doodle” (by Belgian violinist/composer Henri Vieuxtemps).

The Tonhalle’s reverberant acoustics suited the big band sound of the orchestra in the Tchaikovsky. Alan Gilbert was vigorous on the podium, played down the histrionics, and brought out details which are often hidden in ordinary performances. A few players stood out, Mark Nuccio’s sublime clarinet and Judith Le Clair’s lugubrious bassoon.

When the brass were unleashed, as in the third movement, a great sound wave swept over the audience; the strings, particularly the plangent cellos in the last movement, also had their chance to impress. Full marks to the audience too: not one clap at the end of the tumultuous third movement.

This was not only a fine showcase for the various sections of the orchestra, it was a fine interpretation of this popular work.

The New Yorkers had worked hard, but had enough stamina to provide two encores, from Bernstein’s “On the Town” and yet more Tchaikovsky to send the audience home to treasure memories of the night they saw and heard the world-class New York Philharmonic.

The orchestra’s tour progresses (until May 17th) to Munich, Essen, Dortmund, Berlin, Dresden and Vienna: do catch them if you can get hold of tickets.

John Rhodes