Gubaidulina Fails to Introduce Bayan as Worthy Concert Instrument

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Haydn, Gubaidulina and Brahms: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Omer Meir Wellber (conductor), Vadim Gluzman (violin), Johannes Moser (cello), Elsbeth Moser (bajan) Tonhalle Maag, Zurich 28.10.2017. (JR)

Omer Meir Wellber © Felix Broede L1003215
Omer Meir Wellber © Felix Broede

Haydn– Symphony No.49 “La passione”

Gubaidulina – Triple Concerto for violin, cello and bayan

Brahms – Symphony No.1 Op.68

Omer Meir Wellber is a young Israeli conductor (an assistant to Barenboim in the past) who is clearly a rising star. He is thus far better known perhaps for his opera, particularly Verdi, gracing opera houses such as the Semperoper, La Fenice and the Israeli Opera. He has however also conducted the London Philharmonic, Gewandhaus Leipzig, the Pittsburghers and the Orchestre de Lyon. In Israel, he assists Bedouins with their early musical education (Sarab) and assists new Jewish immigrants with their musical integration (Raanana Symphonette Orchestra). His Brahms has attracted critical acclaim; based on this concert performance, I can confirm that this is entirely justified.

First, though, Wellber gave us his view of middle-period Haydn, his 49th Symphony nicknamed (though not by Haydn) “La passione”. Attempts to find passion in the work go unrewarded, the nickname refers to the fact that the symphony was performed in Schwerin in 1790 during Holy Week. Wellber had his 25 players, bar the cellos, stand for the performance, which gave the piece fluidity and immediacy. The piece is dark-hued, even pessimistic, with all movements in F minor – only the brief Trio goes into F major. The two fast movements were driven forward by Wellber with relentless energy.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and bayan followed, given its Swiss première. “What’s a bayan?” I hear you ask. Wikipedia tells you, first, that it is anything emanating from Barbados. It is, however, also a type of chromatic button (rather than keyboard) accordion developed in Russia in the early 20th century with a much greater right-hand range than accordions with a piano keyboard. There are other differences which I won’t bore you with, suffice it to say they all combine to give the bayan a different tone colour from Western instruments, the bass in particular having a fuller sound. Gubaidulina’s concerto starts gloomily, evoking Fafner’s cave, juxtaposing high notes on the violin’s E string with the sound of a swarm of bees from the remaining strings, haphazard brass outbursts (leitmotives), and militaristic drumming from the two side and bass drums. The piece certainly has interest but I failed to detect its direction of travel. Surprisingly, the bayanist (that might not be the right word) does not have all that much to do in the piece, and little in the way of virtuosity, barring a few slides. Swiss bayanist Elsbeth Moser (a close friend of the composer, helping her back in 1991 to flee Russia for Germany) is trying to establish the accordion/bayan as a concert instrument, but this performance and this concerto failed– in my view – to assist that aim. The problem may lie in the fact that one does not quite know what to expect from the instrument, evoking in many minds the cheesy sounds in a Parisian bistro. Moser’s bayan was completely overshadowed by Vadim Gluzman’s superb violin playing and Johannes Moser’s fine cello and was occasionally also drowned out by the orchestra. An apocalyptic middle section gave the orchestra something to do, but it was all a mite turgid.

Wellber’s Brahms is not “old school”; it will appeal to the next generation of concertgoers. It certainly blew away the cobwebs, was fast and muscular from the outset, with some violent and exciting opening bars. Wellber explained in the post-concert talk that he was seeking to expose the darker sides and nuances of the work, and interestingly buys a brand new score for each set of performances. Next time, he said, he would explore more of the work’s structure. Wellber conducted from memory and the orchestra responded to his every gesture. The Andante was impassioned, Wellber wringing out the pathos. Soloists Klaidi Sahatci (concertmaster), Ivo Gass /horn), Mike Reid (clarinet), Sabine Poyé-Morel (flute) and Isaac Duarte (oboe) stood out. Wellber controlled the pizzicato opening of the Finale to perfection; the remainder of the movement displayed great nobility. Wellber’s aerobic conducting style and the orchestra’s response made this by far the most enjoyable Brahms I have heard for a long while. Wellber received an ecstatic reception from the audience and will surely be back here soon.

It turned out to be the conductor’s birthday, so we were treated after the concert had finished to a jam session in the Foyer. Wellber, in a black T-shirt emblazoned with the orchestra’s logo, showed us he is a dab hand at the (Western) accordion himself, whilst about 8 members of the orchestra let their hair down. Klaidi Sahatci took centre stage for the second number and stole the show.

Although the acoustics experts seem to have tinkered (successfully) with the sound of the new hall (too reverberant at the opening a few weeks ago), sight lines are a virtually insoluble problem. Too many seats have their view of large parts of the stage cut off, or one has to lean forward (to the justified annoyance of neighbours) to see much of the stage, or – in the front – stalls, you see the outer desks of the violins, the timpanist but not much else. Do architects ever attend concerts? It makes one wonder.

John Rhodes

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