If Percussion were an Olympic Sport Grubinger Wins Gold for Austria

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Dorman, Stravinsky: Martin Grubinger (percussion), Tonhalle Orchester/Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich, 15.09.16. (JR)

Dorman Frozen in time: Concerto for percussion and orchestra
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring

This was the opening concert of the season. Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger has been a regular and welcome guest of the Tonhalle over previous seasons and draws in a much younger crowd than usual, which presumably was very much in the orchestra management’s mind when selecting the candidate as this season’s ‘Artist in Residence’. From watching a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming last year, Grubinger always looks very much at ease in the Tonhalle and gels well with the orchestra’s genial percussion section. That said, there are only so many performances of percussion concertos that I think I can take. To my ears, they all sound (virtually) the same. My admiration for them stems therefore not from the actual music, but from the physical gyrations the soloist is asked to make to rush from one ‘station’ or instrument to another and their extraordinary memory for what seems fairly unmemorable. They have no time to look at scores whilst performing. So was the Dorman concerto going to be any different?

Avner Dorman is Israel’s best-known young contemporary composer; I have managed to miss his other compositions. Whilst the Dorman is certainly full of interesting and entertaining sounds, it is short on substance and memorable tunes. The concerto is split into three distinct movements: the first is devoted to Indochina (with Gamelan and Indian sounds), the quiet central section depicts Nordic wastes with eerie passages on the metallic instruments (Grubinger excelling here with delicate playing of the xylophone), and the third movement brings Broadway to mind with shades of Gershwin and Bernstein. It all lacks depth but brings plenty of applause for Grubinger’s astounding skills. There were whoops of delight after the encore, in which Grubinger was joined by five members of the percussion section for some more rhythmic drumming. He struck the drums with such vehemence, that part of his stick flew off dramatically.

The Rite of Spring, or Sacre du printemps as it is known on the continental mainland, needs no introduction. Lionel Bringuier continues the Ballet Russe (predominantly Stravinsky) series which he started to good notices last season. Bringuier is not my first choice for this particular savage piece, so I was interested to see whether he could muster sufficient venom.

During the summer break it was announced that Bringuier’s term as Principal Conductor will end, by mutual consent with the orchestra, in two years’ time. After the honeymoon period was over, some performances became somewhat perfunctory and some in the orchestra (rather than, I believe, the audiences) lost heart.  Many were concerned that Bringuier, whose spoken German never much progressed past Guten Abend, meine Damen und Herren, could not communicate with the townsfolk (the orchestra all speak good English, that wasn’t a problem) and was not very visible in Zurich’s cultural life. He probably felt that was a challenge given his linguistic weakness. Anyhow, he will continue for a couple of seasons to allow the Tonhalle Orchestra to find a new Chief Conductor and for him to find a new orchestral home.

The concern now in Zurich is that Bringuier becomes something of a lame duck conductor, but certainly the second half of this concert dispelled such anxieties, for the time being.  In a year’s time the Tonhalle building itself will close for refurbishment, for three seasons, and a new concert hall is being constructed inside an old factory building in the light industrial area of Zurich, some distance behind the main railway station; it will be a challenge to draw the traditional audience out there, so the city has agreed to construct a new tram line to it and a shuttle bus will, at the beginning, take concert-goers to the new site – until they realise where it is and how to get there. The hope is youngsters will feel more comfortable going to a modern hall, in a ‘funky’ district where many of the clubs have their home.

Back to the Rite of Spring. Bassoonist Matthias Rafz impressed with his soulful opening, as did the rest of the orchestra as the piece progressed, although there were some fluffs.

Whilst the work can hardly fail to be exhilarating, I did not detect an overall interpretational concept by Bringuier, though he was in full command of the complex score. The percussion section was once again given their chance to shine, which they duly did.

This was an excellent pairing of works with which to start the season. It certainly got off with a bang.

John Rhodes

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