Zurich Alumni Orchestra’s Valiant Efforts with Popular Programme

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Sibelius, Ravel and Gershwin: Alumni Orchestra Zurich,   Johannes Schlaefli (conductor), Andreas Janke (violin), Tonhalle, Zurich, 4.4.2016. (JR)

Sibelius: Violin Concerto

Ravel: Daphnis & Chloë, Suite No. 2

Gershwin: An American in Paris

The Tonhalle does not sell out its classical concerts all that often so full credit to members of the Alumni Orchestra Zurich for doing so. The orchestra, formed in 2004, is made up, as its name implies, of alumni from the prestigious ETH (Swiss Technical University) and Zurich’s University and includes current academics. They perform at the Tonhalle twice a year, and at other locations such as, amazingly, at the virtual top of Mount Rigi where there is an event hall.

I attended their accomplished Bruckner’s Eighth last year. This spring-time programme was more main-stream.

The soloist in the Sibelius was Andreas Janke, one of the Leaders (First Concertmaster) of the Tonhalle Orchestra, a winner of numerous international competitions and who has played with the LSO, RPO and Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. He plays on a Carlo Bergonzi instrument dating from 1733 (with the intriguing name of “Hozier, Andrews”) courtesy of Mercedes Benz Switzerland.

The concerto combines dark brooding elements with passages of extreme beauty and is technically not for the faint-hearted. Janke gave us a complete and faultless display of violin gymnastics with double-stops, harmonics, soaring octaves and rapid string-crossing. His rendition of the Adagio was especially tender. Passion may have been on the lighter side, but Janke’s virtuosity can easily match many other better-known international names. Conductor Johannes Schlaefli whipped up his orchestra into the Nordic bleakness when required, occasionally swamping the soloist; I particularly noted however the mellowness of the cello section (trained, I learned, by Tonhalle cello Principal Thomas Grossenbacher – see below). By way of encore, Janke delivered a gentle Largo from a Bach sonata.

After the interval, we were treated to Ravel’s extraordinarily lush harmonies. Daphnis and Chloë was written for the ballet but Ravel extracted music to make two orchestral suites, the second being the most popular nowadays. (Apparently the dancers at the ballet’s première were distraught by Daphnis, its challenges would however pale the following year when they had to confront the rhythmic terrors of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). This performance in Zurich was given without a chorus, a version I much prefer. It’s a joyous impressionistic tumult of a work, probably – let’s not beat about the bush – depicting an orgasm. It’s a difficult work to bring off, especially for an amateur orchestra, and they certainly did their best, especially the charming piccolo and impressive team of flautists. There were some minor problems with timing and ensemble.

Schlaefli gave Gershwin’s jazz-influenced symphonic poem An American in Paris a very jaunty start and soon we were being regaled with the sounds of celesta, saxophones and an array of percussion complete with the famous car horns. The principal trumpeter did not have a good night in his exposed passages, but otherwise the orchestra gave a good account of themselves.

The encore perhaps came off best of all, as the orchestra relaxed. Part of Shostakovich’s Suite for Jazz Orchestra, with added saxophones, was a bundle of fun and brought the house down.

Next season the orchestra will perform, amongst other works, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Thomas Grossenbacher as soloist. I look forward to that.

John Rhodes


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