Venezuelan and Russian Whirlwinds Hit Lake Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Brahms, Shostakovich   Philharmonia Zurich, Anna Vinnitskaya (piano), Rafael Payare (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich. 29.11.15 (JR)

Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 1
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10


I try not to miss a local performance of any of Shostakovich’s major symphonies even on a wet and wild winter’s evening; this concert by our local opera orchestra (given on the extended stage of the opera house itself) also gave me the chance to sample the talents of the young conductor Rafael Payare who, since September 2014, has been Chief Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra and was recently appointed Principal Conductor of the Castleton Festival in Virginia, taking over from the late Lorin Maazel. Payare is a product of the Venezuelan Il Sistema, formerly a principal horn player with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and outwardly (or at least his shaggy hairstyle) a little similar to Gustavo Dudamel.

The concert also gave the citizens of Zurich the chance to see and hear a young Russian rising star, Anna Vinnitskaya, on the keyboard.  Vinnitskaya, the child of two pianist parents (isn’t that always the way?), was the usual child prodigy, giving her first public performance at the age of 8 and now, in her early thirties, already a Professor of Piano at Hamburg’s High School of Music.  Her repertoire appears to encompass Russian composers and Ravel, but Brahms’ First Concerto is also in the list. The Washington Post described her as a “lioness on the keyboard”, I’m sure her red flowing mane helped the critic conjure up the image. It’s not an entirely inappropriate one.

The Brahms started with conviction from the opera orchestra, the soloist finally making her entry in dreamy fashion, and then becoming ever more forceful. Vinnitskaya was always captivating to watch and to hear, impressively hardly ever looking at the keyboard: she usually looked up to the heavens, eyes closed, once or twice at the floor, at key moments she glanced at the conductor. Payare was a sensitive accompanist, eliciting some fine pianissimi from the strings, and the orchestra kept a suitably low profile when the soloist was in the limelight. In the Adagio the orchestra’s fine oboist, Bernhard Heinrichs, was ear-catching (as he also was in the Andante of the Shostakovich after the interval).

The first piano concerto was Brahms’ declaration of love to Clara Schumann, just after Clara’s husband had thrown himself into the Rhine in Düsseldorf; he survived but was carted off to a mental institution. Payare did his utmost to whip up a Latin frenzy (rather inappropriate in Brahms) in the final movement but soon realised he was not dealing with Latin Americans but reserved Swiss (even if the members of the orchestra are clearly a bunch of different nationalities). The work was a veritable tour de force for the soloist. It was untidy at times but given the energy she created, that could be excused. She rewarded us with a contemplative, delicate “Für Elise”.

Payare conducted the second half work, Shostakovich’s mighty Tenth Symphony, without a score. Often considered one of Shostakovich’s finest works, it was written just as the composer heard of Stalin’s death, though his jubilation was tempered by the ironic news of Prokofiev’s death on or around the same day. Payare’s conducting is very much in the style of the Gustavo Dudamel Conducting School, with flamboyant gestures and the occasional grimaces to make the orchestra members smile. He doesn’t relax for a moment. It was good to hear Shostakovich in Zurich after many decades of neglect by the city’s main orchestra, the Tonhalle. I feared the small space of the opera house might lead to ear-drum injury, but volume was tempered – this is not an orchestra used to playing a noisy symphony in a big hall.

Not all the passages in the symphony were entirely successful, some of the slower passages (for example that showcasing the bassoon) were too turgid and hence soporific, but when the outbursts came, the brass was (mainly) secure and the banks of woodwind impressed. Special praise must go to the clarinets led by Rita Karin Meier.

The Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland is very fortunate to have Payare as their Chief Conductor – Lorin Maazel clearly also knew a fine conductor when he heard one. Payare is certain to draw in young audiences with his charming personality and flamboyant style. This performance certainly showed his talent in a major symphonic work.

At the end the orchestra were visibly (and rightly) pleased with themselves and grateful for the clamorous applause (even though some of it was accompanied by indecipherable shouts in Spanish from travelling Venezuelan groupies).

John Rhodes

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