Very Auspicious Start to New Era at the Tonhalle

 SwitzerlandSwitzerland     Salonen, Prokofiev and Berlioz Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Yuja Wang (piano), Lionel Bringuier, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich   11.9.14 (JR)

Salonen:      “Karawane” for Choir and Orchestra
Prokofiev:     Piano concerto No. 2
Berlioz:          Sinfonie Fantastique

The new season opened auspiciously with a new Principal Conductor at the orchestra’s helm, the young Frenchman Lionel Bringuier.  A new Intendantin, Ilona Schmiel, who organised the Beethoven Festival in Bonn for the last decade, takes over as Artistic Director. Expectations therefore ran high – and were not dashed.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has been Bringuier’s mentor in Los Angeles and takes the newly-created post of “Creative Chair”; the orchestra will this season showcase no fewer than nine of his compositions. This concert began with the very first public performance of “Karawane” based on a poem by Hugo Balls who started the Dadaist movement in 1916. The poem has words which are not in any known language and have no meaning, “jolifanto bambla ô falli bambla grossgiga m’pfa habla horem…” (you get the drift).  These “words” are initially whispered then uttered in staccato fashion by the choir. Salonen’s music is approachable, tonal, but hardly modern: “Carmina Burana” came to the mind of many listeners with added dashes of “Turangalila”, no surprise as Salonen, in an explanatory note to the programme, says he was heavily influenced by the Balinese Ramayana Monkey Chant. The piece was overly loud at times and too long but otherwise found general favour with the audience. The percussion section, in particular, had to be admired in their frenzy, and the choir, the excellent Zürcher Sing-Akademie, for their fine preparation of a tricky piece.  Gustavo Dudamel, about to conduct three concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Lucerne Festival, was in the audience and would certainly have liked the piece. The Los Angeles triumvirate was complete.

Yuja Wang, the young “Artist in Residence” stunned the audience first with her sparkling sequined dress (what little there was of it) and then with her spectacular playing. The Prokofiev concerto came over as considerably more avant-garde than the Salonen, full of dissonance and wit. She launched into the work, almost singing along at times, no difficulty appeared to concern her (the piece has defeated many highly-regarded pianists). She has fairly recently recorded the concerto under Dudamel with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon, along with Rachmaminov’s Third Concerto. The Prokofiev was played at break-neck speed and was a captivating tour de force. The cadenza had the audience utterly transfixed. The orchestra played their faultless part although all attention was, rightly, on the soloist.

 After the interval, Bringuier stressed the modernity of the Sinfonie Fantastique in his extremely detailed reading. The Principal of the Tonhalle Society, in his opening address, said we would hear the work as we had never heard it before; I would not have gone that far but there certainly were some new insights. Bringuier occasionally favoured volume over orchestra colour but the orchestra appeared to have found new vigour, even though not all members were in tune with the very fast tempi Bringuier demanded. Bringuier coaxed some wonderful sounds and effects from the orchestra. The opening “Reveries” were somewhat hard-driven and therefore less dreamy but most exciting. “Un bal” had the orchestra almost dancing along; the “Scène aux champs” featured a most beguiling and creamy solo from the cor anglais. “March to the scaffold” had no holds barred, the violins attacked their precious instruments, the cymbals crashed, the brass blared, the timpanists thwacked: quite a spectacle. And, finally, the “Witches Sabbath”, yet again – after a ghoulish start and with offstage bells well placed – played at a furious speed. The standing ovation was a sign to the orchestra that they had made a fine start to the season and all bodes well with their new conductor. They have plenty of time to get used to each other.  Bringuier is clearly going to work the orchestra hard but they seemed to be enjoying the new challenge.

John Rhodes

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