Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich Season Opens with a Clash

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Tan Dun, Respighi: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Martin Grubinger (percussion) / David Zinman (conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich  31.8.2013 (JR)

Tan Dun: The Tears of Nature
Respighi: Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome

Not a clash of personalities I should quickly add, but cymbals. Commissioned by a group of orchestras (the Norddeutsche Rundfunk, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bergen Philharmonic and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich). Tan Dun has written a percussion concerto especially for young Austrian multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger entitled “The Tears of Nature”. In this three-movement piece Grubinger is given the opportunity to show off his considerable prowess on a range of percussion, starting with pebbles knocked or brushed together, then on to marimba, Chinese cymbals, vibraphone, glockenspiel, Chinese pai-gu, tom-toms, cowbells, woodblocks and various other amusing miscellanea.  All three movements are entitled “Misterioso”, a mystery indeed as the outer movements are vibrant, to say the least. Tan Dun was sent to pick rice during the Cultural Revolution and he says this concerto reproduces some of the sounds he heard during this difficult time and also the “beautiful sadness of nature’s predicament today”. I heard little which enabled me to conjure those images but plenty of percussion skills were on display to admire. Both Iannis Xenakis and Friedrich Cerha have written works for this talented percussionist, who is also “Star Artist” at the Lucerne Festival.

The orchestra’s percussion players also played a prominent role in the piece and were clearly thrilled to be in the forefront of a concert, for once. Grubinger went from instrument to instrument, thwacking, jangling, brushing, stroking, shaking, drumming (he can allegedly hit the drum 1,000 times in one minute though I lost count); wondrous sounds were conjured up.  The piece has some delightful jazzy syncopations and oriental folk melodies but at the end of the day the piece lacks depth though it has the makings of the elements of a soundtrack for a new Kung Fu Panda sequel.

One problem was that many in the audience simply could not see Grubinger for much of the time. Having such an array of armaments at his disposal meant having to place him on most of the right-hand side of the stage so that those in the gallery on the right (other than the front row) had to try to peer over the railing; placing him centre stage, perhaps at the back, might have been a cleverer option.

Grubinger’s choice of encore was a triumph: joined by his father and the percussion section, they delivered a fast samba which brought the house down. The other members of the orchestra watched on, beaming and tapping their feet.

This is David Zinman’s last (18th) season at the helm of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and they start this final season fresh from their triumphs  at the Edinburgh Festival.  The second half of this evening’s concert was dedicated to Respighi, his “Fountains of Rome” and the “Pines of Rome”.  Respighi’s mastery of orchestration, evoking the sights and sounds of Italy, quickly put Tan Dun into the shade; Zinman enjoyed highlighting the colouration, from the lugubrious catacombs, the (electronic) nightingale in the trees to the relentless march of the Roman Army in the “Appian Way” which brought the work to a shattering climax. How many in the audience spotted Martin Grubinger on triangle, I wonder?

A generous après-concert drinks reception, sponsored by the Friends of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, for the entire audience helped get this season off to a very enjoyable start.

John Rhodes