Broadening the Base: A Slam Poet and Tchaikovsky in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Tchaikovsky: Tonhalle Orchestra, Hazel Brugger (slam poet), Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 10.12.2015. (RP)

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Poetry slam, a competition where poets recite their works and are then judged by members of the audience, has been around since the 1980s. Hazel Brugger, the 2013 Swiss champion in poetry slam, appears regularly on stage, radio and television here and in Germany. The concert’s title, “Unerhört Schön, Unerhört Kurz,” was a play on words: “unerhört,” which here modifies the words for beautiful and short, can be translated as either outrageous or uncommon. Clearly the Tonhalle Zurich is seeking to attract a broader audience by mixing it up  ̶  a performance by an artist with a completely different fan base, a major symphonic work and a free drink  ̶  all for the relatively modest price of Swiss franc 45, which Brugger worked into her spiel. That equates to a franc per minute of music.

Her short monologue drew laughs, but for a performer with a reputation for being cutting edge, Brugger was surprising tame. Clearly bemused and a bit in awe to be on stage at the Tonhalle, she quipped that for her fans this was a rare, mobile-free zone (except for mothers who were permitted to keep theirs on vibrate). Her wit extended to the observation that she had previously assumed violoncello was the purple equivalent of Limoncello, the yellow Italian liqueur; and to word play on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza. She lighted upon topics currently making the rounds in Zurich but just mentioned them, rather than skewering anyone. Her thoughts upon whether art is nature or nurture would have been interesting to hear, but she did not go there. For those like Brugger, who self-admittedly enter the Tonhalle with a bit of trepidation, she eased them into the concert-going experience. Lionel Bringuier and the Tonhalle Orchestra took over from there.

There was nothing tame about the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that followed. The first movement opens with a theme played by the clarinet that recurs throughout the work. Tchaikovsky places great demands on the woodwinds in this symphony, and the solo playing here, as it was throughout in the various solos, duets and ensembles was superb. Superlatives are tossed about with abandon these days, but they are called for in describing the performance of the second movement. It was not that wonderful melody so beautifully introduced by the solo horn that was so remarkable, but rather the elegance and control that Bringuier exerted over the orchestra. The perfectly scaled buildup to the timpani roll introducing the main theme created a tension so intense that there was utter stillness when the playing stopped. No one even breathed. The dance-like third movement afforded a few minutes to relax before the exuberant finale. It was a completely different conductor on the podium, with Bringuier energized and slicing the air with forceful beats. The momentum called for a release, and a yelp pierced the brief pause before the reentry of the opening theme. Some have called this movement bombastic; here it was glorious.

Those melodies from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony have worked their way into movie music, popular song, theme music for television shows and even advertising jingles. That bright line between classical music and popular culture is not and never was as sharp as Brugger and others might think, but I am all for anything that breaks down the barriers, and that cuts both ways. Great art is not a citadel of the past, restricted to museums and grand concert halls. Artists need to take risks, the public and critics be damned. The next time Brugger appears at the Tonhalle, I hope that she does just that, and she need look no further than Tchaikovsky for moral support. Just read what the critics had to say about his Fifth Symphony (especially the American ones).

Rick Perdian