Daniel Barenboim / West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Strauss / Tchaikovsky

KKL Lucerne, 2017-08-17

4-star rating


2017-08-25 — Original posting

Daniel Barenboim (© Monika Ritterhaus)
Daniel Barenboim (© Monika Ritterhaus)

Introduction

1999, Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (*1942, see also Wikipedia for more information) cooperated with Edward Wadie Said (1935 – 2003), Palestinian American, and professor of literature at Columbia University, in the creation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (see again Wikipedia for additional information). The orchestra is named after “West-östlicher Divan”, an anthology of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832).

This project has received—and is still receiving—a lot of publicity. Yet, I can’t resist adding some general comments here. The project is simply too important. Consequently, it is also very close to its founder’s heart. It’s even the crown of his career as a musician and as a human being, as a man who is deeply concerned about what has happened—and is continuing to happen—in the Near East (and elsewhere on this planet).

Facing the Crisis in the Near and Middle East

Barenboim isn’t a politician, but he certainly has realized that with the currently active political and religious forces, there is no imminent / near-term solution to all the fighting, the suffering, the pain, the destruction—and the hate, even the furor. Quite to the contrary: a human, a humanitarian solution seems infinitely far away, and the mutual accusations, the blame, the paralysis, the insisting on pre-conceived opinions in these countries are going to continue for many years. No protective power, no peace initiative (and even less so any military intervention) will be able to resolve this over the coming years, maybe decades.

With this insight, one could claim that the peace and reconciliation efforts of entire generations of people (governments, politicians, military, NGOs / humanitarian forces) are simply ignored. However, none of these are going to untie this Gordian knot.

The Role of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Daniel Barenboim has realized that the only solution to all these issues is, to indicate to coming generations that there are humans like you and I on either side of the fence (the many fences, actually). In other words: whatever the religion, political orientation, or cultural provenance, there are people—people with fears and anxieties, needs, distress. But these are equally people with hope and potential—the potential to live in a peaceful community, eager also to enjoy life.

And that’s exactly the role of this orchestra: it unites young musicians from all camps in the region (Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Iranian) to form a single orchestra, a community in which the musicians get to know each other, share knowledge and experiences. And to face challenging goals that can only be met when all members of the orchestra work together. We can’t be grateful enough to Barenboim and his late co-founder for this wonderful and promising initiative!

A Look at the Orchestra

The concept and the short, 18-year history (so far) of this ensemble—now an orchestra of respectable size—explains its unusually homogeneous composition in terms of age: all members belong to the same, young generation. It’s not a professional orchestra in the sense of a permanent ensemble with full-time contracts: the musicians meet every summer for a four-week summer school, in Sevilla. After these intense sessions of rehearsals, the ensemble is presenting its programs on an annual, international tour. However, these limited time gatherings are by no means a restriction, as in its performances, the orchestra reaches an astounding quality, at an absolutely professional level, approaching that of top world-class orchestras.

On top of that, I think that the orchestra was able to produce its own sound, create its own character in performances. For sure, one should not expect ice-cold perfection, given the temperament, the liveliness of the young musicians. The orchestra’s sound features warmth, vivacity, and musicality. Barenboim’s focus is on the musical flow, the cantilenas, the big arches, more than on transparency and the ultimate refinement and detail in articulation. I did not note any real mishaps throughout the evening.

Note that with some of the remarks below (especially regarding dynamics and balance) it was not obvious to me whether these related to Barenboim’s disposition and interpretation, or whether this was about characteristics, maybe minor limitations of the orchestra.

The Soloists

Although Strauss’ Tone Poem is not a “proper” concerto, the program listed two soloists:

The Austrian-Persian cellist Kian Soltani (*1992) was born in Bregenz, Austria. At age 12, he was accepted into the lass of Ivan Monighetti (*1948) at the Music Academy in Basel. Further education and master classes, as well as several prizes at competitions followed and led to the start of an international concerting career (debut in the Musikvereinssaal in Vienna at age 19). In Richard Strauss’ Tone Poem, he played in the role of Don Quixote, as soloist at the front of the podium.

The role of Don Quixote’s companion / squire Sancho Panza was performed by the Israeli violist Miriam Manasherov (*1981). Miriam started taking violin lessons at age 8. She graduated from the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. After serving in a quartet as part of the Excellent Musicians Unit in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), she switched to the viola and continued her education at The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv University, then at the Lübeck Academy of Music with Prof. Barbara Westphal. Master classes and competitions, as well as working in various orchestras in Germany and Israel furthered her career as an active chamber musician. Miriam Manasherov now lives in Israel.


 

Strauss: Tone Poem “Don Quixote“, op.35

The Composition

Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) wrote his Tone Poem “Don Quixote“, op.35, a set of “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character”, in Munich, in 1897. The score is for cello, viola and orchestra. It is base on the famous novel “Don Quixote de la Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616).

Structure

The variations describe specific scenes from the novel:

  1. Introduction: Mäßiges Zeitmaß. Thema mäßig. “Don Quichotte verliert über der Lektüre der Ritterromane seinen Verstand und beschließt, selbst fahrender Ritter zu werden
    “Don Quixote loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a knight-errant”
  2. Theme: Mäßig. “Don Quichotte, der Ritter von der traurigen Gestalt
    “Don Quixote, knight of the sorrowful countenance”
  3. Maggiore: “Sancho Panza
  4. Variation I: Gemächlich. “Abenteuer an den Windmühlen
    “Adventure at the Windmills”
  5. Variation II: Kriegerisch. “Der siegreiche Kampf gegen das Heer des großen Kaisers Alifanfaron
    “The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron” [actually, a flock of sheep]
  6. Variation III: Mäßiges Zeitmaß. “Gespräch zwischen Ritter und Knappen
    “Dialogue between Knight and Squire”
  7. Variation IV: Etwas breiter. “Unglückliches Abenteuer mit einer Prozession von Büßern
    “Unhappy adventure with a procession of pilgrims”
  8. Variation V: Sehr langsam. “Die Waffenwache
    “The knight’s vigil”
  9. Variation VI: Schnell. “Begegnung mit Dulzinea
    “The Meeting with Dulcinea”
  10. Variation VII: Ein wenig ruhiger als vorher. “Der Ritt durch die Luft
    “The Ride through the Air”
  11. Variation VIII: Gemächlich. “Die unglückliche Fahrt auf dem venezianischen Nachen
    “The unhappy voyage in the enchanted boat”
  12. Variation IX: Schnell und stürmisch. “Kampf gegen vermeintliche Zauberer
    “Battle with the magicians”
  13. Variation X: Viel breiter. “Zweikampf mit dem Ritter vom blanken Mond
    “Duel with the knight of the bright moon”
  14. Finale: Sehr ruhig. “Wieder zur Besinnung gekommen
    “Coming to his senses again” – Death of Don Quixote

Instrumentation

The instrumentation is fairly rich, requiring a large orchestra with piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor tuba or euphonium, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, wind machine, harp, violins 1 & 2, violas, cellos, double basses. there are two extensive solo parts, for cello (Don Quixote, “knight of the sorrowful countenance”) and viola (Sancho Panza, Don Quixote‘s squire).

The Performance

The Setting

The way it was presented, Richard Strauss’ Tone Poem appeared like a concerto for cello and orchestra: Kian Soltani, the orchestra’s first solo cellist, was playing at the front of the podium, at the left of the conductor. Miriam Manasherov, first violist, and member of the orchestra since its foundation, played the role of Sancho Panza from the orchestra’s first viola desk, partly hidden behind the conductor. It is true that the cello part is more extensive than that of the viola—and it is a demanding part.

However, I still think that this was somewhat unfair towards Miriam Manasherov: in my view, either both artists deserved a front seat, or otherwise, both should have played from within the orchestra. The latter option is preferable, as also the tenor tuba and the bass clarinet take part in the role of Sancho Panza. Another reason for the “internal placement” to me was that Kian Soltani could not really detach himself from the orchestra: despite his exposed position, he remained integrated into the ensemble. He maintained close contact not only with Daniel Barenboim, but also with his colleagues in the orchestra. When pausing, he often was glancing back to the first cello desk (rear left on the podium) to encourage and cheer up his colleague & (normally) desk neighbor.

Kian Soltani appeared cheerful, open, lively, vivid. A clear indication for his provenance from within the orchestra was that despite his exposed position, the sound of Kian’s cello  instantly and effortlessly integrated with the sound of the orchestra.

Tempo, Performance

Barenboim avoided excessive tempo. He was conducting with large gestures, keeping close contact with the musicians in his orchestra. The latter performed really well. Sure, the strings (at least here) did not quite reach the silky tone of top orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonics (where most string players emerged from one and the same school). Yet, the interpretation (e.g., in the violins) was expressive—and impressive at the same time. Barenboim achieves results with a distinct character, fitting his personal approach and style of interpretation.

I felt that he did not try creating the impression of a scenic or semi-scenic setting: he let the music, and Richard Strauss’ master- and colorful instrumentation do its “work”. Maybe, occasionally, the orchestra was a tad loud in its enthusiasm: at times it threatened to cover the warm, mellow tone of the solo cello.

Soltani played with firm intonation. Though, I should say that personally, I occasionally missed some “intonatory tension” with leading-tones: if leading intervals are played a tad too small, this increases the tension towards harmonic resolution. However, I think that this is also a matter of taste.

The Music

Strauss’ Tone Poem is—simply stated—really beautiful and fantastic, both in quality and in character! There is such a rich diversity, starting with the serenity of the beginning, up to both comical / absurd and tragic sceneries of the various adventures, leading into a peaceful last variation. When the music ends, Don Quixote has re-gained a clear mind and dies in peace—an apotheosis in the best sense! Even though there was no scenic aspect here, Strauss’ music is very descriptive / pictorial: joy, pleasure, and even fun!

[ Just in case you might ask: I have not read a huge number of books. But I have indeed read Cervantes’ novel, many years ago, and with great pleasure! ]

Encore 1 — Saint-Saëns: Le Cygne from “Le carnaval des animaux

The applause prior to the intermission was enthusiastic. So, Kian Soltani offered an encore—(once more) the ubiquitous “Swan”, i.e., “Le cygne” from Le carnaval des animaux” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921): calm, peaceful music (fitting the end of Strauss’ Tone Poem in character!), in a subtle interpretation, mellow and flowing.


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5 in E minor, op.64

The Composition

The Symphonies No.4, 5, and 6 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) are all very well-known. So, I’ll just mention that Symphony No.5 in E minor, op.64, premiered in 1888, in the year of its composition. This was at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, with the composer conducting. The symphony features four movements:

  1. Andante — Allegro con anima — Molto più tranquillo
  2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza — Non allegro — Andante maestoso con piano
  3. Valse: Allegro moderato — Trio
  4. Finale: Andante maestoso —Allegro Vivace — Molto vivace — Moderato assai e molto maestoso — Presto

Instrumentation

3 flutes (& piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, strings.

The Performance

Throughout the concert, Daniel Barenboim conducted by heart. In this symphony, he did not give his musicians any break, but performed all four movements attacca, never even lowering his arms. This was certainly quite an endurance challenge for the musicians in the orchestra!

I. Andante — Allegro con anima — Molto più tranquillo

The beginning of this first movement appears simple. However, Tchaikovsky asks for two clarinets playing in unison, and essentially alone: extremely exposed! Often enough, one can hear performances where the clarinets aren’t pure, not properly in unison. No problem here: the intonation was flawless—congrats!

In the symphony, the orchestra’s string sound came to full bearing—more than in Strauss’ Tone Poem. In Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies, the brass instruments typically tends to dominate. Here, however, the strings often appeared to be the dominating part: in the violent outbursts, they were generating an astounding volume in the unified forces of the big build-ups / waves, (almost) filling the large hall. Throughout the symphony, though, Barenboim kept the volume in control, carefully following the composer’s very detailed dynamic annotation. Tchaikovsky uses the full range, from ffff down to pppp!

II. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza — Non allegro — Andante maestoso con piano

The performance of the slow movement had several outstanding aspects: the impressive, dark and intense sound of the violins playing on the G-string. Never, though, the sound turned pasty, thick. Then, there was the solid foundation offered by the 8 double basses, and the careful control of the dynamics, throughout. The coordination was excellent, the precision of the pizzicati impeccable. And I was most impressed by the excellent solos in the woodwinds (clarinet, bassoon, flute, oboe), and with the first horn (apart from a few, minor articulation mishaps, which are nothing short of normal).

III. Valse: Allegro moderato — Trio

I liked the Waltz spirit, and the excellent play with dynamics and agogics, within each bar, and in the area of motifs. For example, the short ritenuti that preceded accents, climaxes, key notes. Barenboim did not try saving the orchestra from challenges: the pace was reaching the orchestra’s limits in the semiquaver spiccato passages in the strings (at least, the articulation and clarity was close to suffering at this tempo).

IV. Finale: Andante maestoso — Allegro Vivace — Molto vivace — Moderato assai e molto maestoso — Presto

In the final movement, the brass section appeared slightly mellow in the articulation. To me, the could have shown more focus and brilliance. Maybe the melodies and the build-ups the phrasing arches were more important to Barenboim? Or were the brass players starting to show first signs of fatigue / exhaustion? In any case, the latter did not apply to the woodwind players, which were excellent throughout! The way I heard it, it’s only in the final, moving and enthralling segment where the brass section appeared to step out of its reserve, either through the conducting, or through the music, or both. For sure, they were fired up by the motoric rhythms from percussion and strings!


Encore 2 — Sibelius: Valse triste, op.44/1

The audience offered a lasting, standing ovation. So, Barenboim had the orchestra play two encores! The exhaustion from the preceding symphony called for a rest, some silence even: consequently, the first of these was the Valse triste“, op.44/1, which Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) composed 1903, for his brother-in-law. The music starts in the faintest of pianissimi, just pizzicato, then sotto voce, gradually building up to an even enthralling waltz, with flourishing melodies, then inevitably (given the title) falling back into sadness and melancholy—and fading away into elegy and silence again.


Encore 3 — Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Polonaise from Act III of the opera “Eugene Onegin”, op.24

The last piece of the evening was the well-known Polonaise from Act III of the opera “Eugene Onegin”, op.24, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893). The opera was first performed in 1879.

That last encore turned out to be a true “last dance” (a Polish dance, actually!). It’s a piece full of joy and momentum in the boisterous outer parts (which made some violinists almost jump off their chairs!). The middle part is more lyrical, with flowery tunes in the flutes and oboes, surrounding a short section where the cellos can show off their singing tone. A really entertaining little showpiece that rounded off the evening.

The way in which Barenboim accepted the final applause, stepping aside and passing it on to the orchestra, made it clear that he did not want himself to be the center of the evening. It’s the orchestra which owned the success, the applause. Or rather, the concept of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the ideals that brought it to life, and the convincing presentation of that idea. And the collective experience of the young musicians, who managed to offer a very impressive, a really moving concert evening!


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.



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