Switzerland Eötvös, Shostakovich: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Lionel Bringuier, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 29.9.16. (JR)
Eötvös – ‘The gliding of the Eagle in the Skies’
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 6
Orchestras need to fill their coffers. They also need to continue to find ingenious ways to tempt youngsters (of all ages) across the threshold of hallowed concert halls, to become their future audience, not to mention subscribers and patrons. They also need to keep their army of silver-haired retirees happy, and what better to put on a concert on a weekday, at lunchtime, and offer a reduced-priced buffet lunch. It almost works: the hall was 60% full, mostly over 70s. Children are at school, workers in the office (few can spare an hour out of the office and then the time to eat). The members of the orchestra were in civvies (the men should note that few look good in T-shirts after the age of 35).
The concert itself was only 45 minutes long, though the encore stretched it to nearly an hour. This was however not an ideal programme for senior citizens.
Peter Eötvös is Creative Chair this season and I doubt many in the hall knew of him or his work. ‘The gliding of the Eagle in the Skies’ is only twelve minutes long, but it’s a fairly long twelve minutes. The piece was a 2012 commission for a Basque orchestra with a long complex name. Eötvös researched some Basque melodies and found one he liked which brought to his mind an eagle soaring high in the sky. I was surprised therefore when the piece started with two percussionists, front stage, drumming with their hands: were we in for some Steve Reich perhaps? No such luck. First we heard bells, timpani, harp, loud brass, but no sign of an eagle. They must be elusive birds. Suddenly shimmering strings alluded to the sky, followed by screeching bird noises from three piccolos (or is it piccoli?) and then by fluttering flutes (representing its wings, I suppose) accompanied by a Basque tambourine. I’m unsure whether the orchestra flew in this particular tambourine from San Sebsastian. The piece was quite an aural mishmash, never unpleasant or discordant, with periods of interest. The volume might have caused an issue for anyone with a hearing aid. The work received polite applause.
Sadly, I’m not sure the audience liked the Shostakovich much better. It has been described as a ‘headless torso’ of a symphony, as there is, bafflingly, no first movement, one launches straight into a long slow movement, bleak and depressing; two elderly ladies left within minutes of its start. Shostakovich wrote it in 1939 and Stalin was watching. The Scherzo was too loud, again I saw some sitting close to the stage putting fingers in their ears. The final Presto is one of Shostakovich’s most ebullient and witty movements. The double basses galumphed, the strings scampered – the flautist was particularly impressive, not a Tonhalle member but someone who sprang in. I asked a percussionist for her name but he didn’t know it.
Bringuier told the audience about the encore in his native French, so about a quarter of them understood. (In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, surprisingly few understand more than a smattering of French – and the same applies for German understanding in the ‘Romandie’). It turned out to be Rossini’s sparkling overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers; expectedly, it received more applause than the Eötvös and the Shostakovich put together.
The orchestra is in good shape for its imminent October tour of South America and this concert was a run-through for part of their concerts there. They will give this same programme in Buenos Aires on 10th October, adding Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (with Lisa Batiashvili) and in São Paulo on 16th October with Nelson Freire playing Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. Mahler’s First Symphony can also be heard in Buenos Aires on the 11th, Montevideo on the 13th, Rio on the 15th and São Paulo on the 18th. If you are reading this review in any of those cities, I do commend you to attend.