It’s Spring! Con Brio and Beethoven with the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Widmann, Beethoven: Tonhalle Orchestra, Hazel Brugger (slam poet), Ran Jia (piano), Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 17.03.2016. (RP)

Jörg Widmann (c) Marco Borggreve

Widmann: Con brio – Concert Overture for Orchestra

Beethoven: Piano Concert No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58

This was the third and final concert this season in the Zurich Tonhalle that featured one major musical work, slam poet Hazel Brugger and the opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine and meet the artists after the concert. By my estimation, it was the most successful by far. Perhaps it was the beautiful spring weather in Zurich and the graceful, elegant playing of pianist Ran Jia, or that audience and performers alike have relaxed into the format, but whatever the reason, you could feel the difference.

The concert opened with Con brio, a brief overture by Jörg Widmann, the Tonhalle’s Creative Chair for the 2015/16 season. Widmann, a German clarinetist and composer, has garnered international acclaim and major commissions, including a joint one from the Boston Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra slated to be premiered in 2017. Con brio was commissioned by Mariss Jansons and first performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony under his baton in 2008. Widmann was one of six composers asked by Jansons to create short pieces that would allude to a specific Beethoven symphony in conjunction with a complete cycle he had programmed with the orchestra. In Con brio, Widmann references Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8 in the orchestration, and inserts short snippets of Beethoven that pop in and out of the soundscape. But it is no ordinary soundscape, with the timpani prominent throughout the 12-minute piece; short, piercing chord bursts; and wind players blowing into their instruments to create whooshing sounds.

Lionel Bringuier and the Tonhalle took delight in the short work, as did the audience. The loud, slicing chords yielded seamlessly to the lyrical passages, which were just a few beats of music at most. The latter did evoke the classical style, although they passed by like quicksilver. Intended as a curtain raiser, in this instance the piece served as a bridge between Brugger and the Beethoven by mixing things up a bit. Young and cool comes in various permutations, as evidenced by poet, conductor, composer and, especially, the pianist.

Ran Jia was a last-minute replacement for Yefim Bronfman, the commanding and brilliant pianist, who traverses the world’s concert stages. Brugger quipped in her opening monologue that when a performer cancels nowadays, you can find two replacements in China who are as good or better than anyone, put one of them on a plane and voilà, he or she is on stage. Not quite that simple perhaps, but there is a ring of truth in what she said, as the depth of Chinese musical talent on the international scene is impressive and ever growing. Jia, however, may not have had to travel that far: she is presently enrolled at the Lake Como International Piano Academy in Italy, having previously attended the Curtis Institute of Music in the USA. And although still a student, she performs regularly in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Beethoven’s Piano Concert No. 4 is the most lyrical, gentle and poetic of all his piano concertos. It begins with a soft G-major chord, and from those opening notes Jia charmed all with her grace and elegance. In the first movement, the strings played the reoccurring theme with such beauty and sensitivity; the piano in the soft passages seemed to emerge as if from a gentle cloud. The middle movement, in which loud, staccato chords in the orchestra alternate with soft, lyrical passages for the piano, was one of the most beautiful things that I have heard in quite a while. Trumpets and drums appear for the first time in the third movement, and did indeed prompt an association with passages in Widmann’s Con brio. Bringuier seemed both bemused and slightly in awe of Jia, who looking disarmingly young in her black Tonhalle tee shirt and miniskirt. There were smiles too on the faces of orchestra members, who played with exceptional sensitivity throughout the concerto.

It might have been the youth factor, or maybe just that spring is in the air, but this concert was as welcome as the flowers starting to burst forth everywhere in Zurich.

Rick Perdian