Frohe Weihnachten at the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerlandDeanna Breiwick (soprano) , Brass and percussion sections of the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zürich, Allan Withington (conductor)   14.12.13 (JR)

Handel:        “Zadok the Priest”
Bach:             Concerto D-minor BWV 972
Scarlatti:      “Si suoni la tromba”  Aria con tromba sola
Monteverdi:  “Et Exultavit” from “Magnificat” of the Marian Vespers
Scarlatti:      “Mio tesoro per te moro” Aria con tromba sola
Balbastre:    “Il est un petit ange” for organ
Brun:             Mazurka
Handel:        “Let the bright seraphim” Aria from “Samson”
M. Franck:    Intrada
Gabrieli:       Canzon XVI à 12
Takemitsu:   “Day Signal : Joyfully” from “Signals from Heaven”
Gershwin:      “An American in Paris”
Trad.:            American Christmas


This concert of festive musical titbits gave the Tonhalle Orchestra members of the brass section (and percussion) – who normally have to sit and wait, often seemingly interminably, for their brief contribution(s) to a symphony – the chance to display their skills and bask in some glory.

The conductor for the evening was Allan Withington who grew up amongst the renowned brass band community of Northern England. He has in the past been musical director to the Brighouse and Rastrick band from Yorkshire, the Williams Fairey band in Manchester and has frequently conducted the Grimethorpe Colliery band.

Jollities commenced with “Zadok the priest”; the audience however looked aghast when the conductor turned to them; was this supposed to be a sing-a-long? Some people who appeared to know the words (which weren’t in the programme) sang insipidly from the back of the balcony. Then it transpired that the Tonhalle had applied to Rent-a-crowd for this vocal contribution, or as Withington put it “this must be the first time this piece has been done as a flash-mob”. Withington’s other verbal contributions would have been more at home in a Yorkshire Working Mens’ Club than in the refinement of the Tonhalle (I cringed at “You’ve been a really great audience – and I really mean that”); his baton-less conducting was limp at best and hardly helped ensemble.

Then followed a rather non-descript Bach concerto which when played only by brass was rather heavy-going. One could not fault the musicians’ technique but not all pieces work when re-arranged for brass band, and particularly the Larghetto became turgid.

American soprano Deanna Breiwick was a 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finalist. This season Ms. Breiwick has joined the Zurich Opera (International Opera Studio). Miss Breiwick sang a couple of Scarlatti arias. She has a clean, bright voice but not yet the technique with the leaps to the highest notes which went awry. Some graceful Monteverdi from the Marian Vespers provided a brief interlude.

Peter Solomon is the Tonhalle’s keyboard player and in this concert he was kept busy. The baroque piece he chose for his solo “Il est un petit ange” by Balbastre showed off his considerable skills and blew the dust out of the Tonhalle’s little-used organ.

In “Let the bright seraphim” principal trumpeter Heinz Saurer’s trumpet simply sparkled. Then on came the percussion dressed in traditional Alpine garb to perform an “Engadine Mazurka” complete with cowbells, accordion and an Alphorn, amusingly not played by a Swiss, but expertly by one of the horn section, Paulo Muňoz-Toledo, who hails from Chile!  A short jazzy piece by Albin Brun entitled “Mazurkatastrophe” brought the first half of the concert to a close. In the German language, for ease of comprehension, one has to learn where to split up very long words: I completely misread the title of this piece and took it as breaking news to signal that Kurt Masur had been taken seriously ill.

After the interval, the brass came on playing their instruments, a forgettable piece entitled “Intrada” by Melchior Franck (not César). Then another short piece by Gabrieli in which the brass were split up into three sections and spread around the front of the hall. The most interesting and beguiling music of the evening was provided by Takemitsu, “Signal from Heaven”, composed some fifteen years ago for Scotland’s Contemporary Music Festival.

The concert’s main work was Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” which worked well arranged for brass; particularly impressive was trumpeter Philippe Litzler and the four-man percussion section, who added some welcome light comedic touches to the proceedings.

And then Allan Withington reminded us, as if we hadn’t noticed, that it would soon be Christmas. So the evening finished off with “Little drummer boy” to the tune and drumbeat of Ravel’s “Bolero”, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” (a dream which usually comes true in Switzerland), “Sleigh Ride” (as an encore) and “Jingle Bells” in which the audience finally were allowed to participate. Deanna Breiwick with microphone was more relaxed than in the Scarlatti and entered into the festive and generally entertaining spirit of the evening.  Frohe Weihnachten!

  John Rhodes

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