Timothy Chooi, Roman Borisov, Anna Nero, Howard Griffiths / Orpheum Supporters Orchestra
Grieg / Bruch / Addinsell / de Falla
Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2021-10-26
2021-11-01 — Original posting
Das Orpheum Supporters Orchestra unter Howard Griffiths, mit drei viel versprechenden Jungtalenten — Zusammenfassung
Im September 2019 fand das letzte Orchesterkonzert der Orpheum Foundation statt, auch damals mit dem Orpheum Supporters Orchestra. Danach ruhten die Konzert-Aktivitäten, bedingt durch die Pandemie. Wie durch glückliche Fügung ist diese mittlerweile so weit unter Kontrolle, dass Konzerte wieder im weitgehend gewohnten Rahmen stattfinden können. 2019 hatte die Stiftung angekündigt, Konzerte mit dem “Stiftungs-eigenen” Klangkörper in zweijährigem Turnus auszuführen. Das Orpheum Supporters Orchestra besteht zu einem ansehnlichen Teil aus Führungskräften aus Management, Verwaltung und Wissenschaft, ehemaligen Orchestermusikerinnen, sowie einigen Berufsmusikern. Diese haben sich unter der kundigen Leitung von Howard Griffiths innerhalb einer Woche intensiver Probenarbeit zu einem respektablen Klangkörper zusammengerauft.
Zweck der Stiftung ist die Förderung junger, viel versprechender MusikerInnen. Nach der orchestralen Peer Gynt-Suite Nr.1, op.46 von Edvard Grieg präsentierte der 1993 geborene, kanadisch-amerikanische Violinist Timothy Chooi das bekannte Violinkonzert Nr.1 in g-moll, op.26 von Max Bruch. Anschließend an die Pause spielte der erst 19-jährige Russe Roman Borisov das Warschauer Konzert von Richard Addinsell. Es ist dies Filmmusik im Stil von Sergei Rachmaninow, erreicht aber gewiss nicht die Qualitäten des Vorbildes. Am Schluss des offiziellen Programms erklangen Auszüge aus “El amor brujo” von Manuel de Falla, mit der Schweizer Mezzosopranistin Anna Nero in zwei kurzen Auftritten. Mit Howard Griffiths auf dem Podium durften natürlich Zugaben nicht fehlen: als erstes der Ungarische Tanz Nr.5 von Johannes Brahms, danach der Ägyptische Marsch von Johann Strauss Sohn. Im Trio sangen die Streicher als Chor lauthals mit: Fun pur!
Table of Contents
- The Soloists
- Concert & Review
- Grieg: “Peer Gynt” Suite No.1, op.46
- Bruch: Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, op.26
- Addinsell: “Warsaw Concerto” for Piano and Orchestra
- de Falla: Excerpts from “El amor brujo” (The Bewitched Love)
- Encore #1 — Brahms: Hungarian Dance No.5 in G minor, WoO 1/5
- Encore #2 — Johann Strauss II: Egyptian March, op.335
|Venue, Date & Time||Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2021-10-26 19:30h|
|Series / Title||Young Soloists On Stage — Orpheum Foundation|
|Organizer||Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists|
Goldmann Public Relations
|Reviews from related events||Earlier Concerts organized by the Orpheum Foundation|
Previous concert with the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra
Recording sessions for the project “Next Generation Mozart Soloists“
As we are regaining control after the pandemic—or at least learn how to arrange life around it—the Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists is resuming its concert activities. That does not imply that for the past 18 months, the foundation has been inactive. Quite to the contrary! About half a year ago, it launched a major project under the title “Next Generation Mozart Soloists”, featuring a series of CD recordings of all (or most) of Mozart’s instrumental concerts. All with young, upcoming soloists. I was invited to attend the first recording sessions (see the link above), and meanwhile, that project is well underway—in “full swing”.
My blog includes numerous reviews on concerts organized by the Orpheum Foundation. I therefore don’t need to duplicate what I have written in these reviews. The most detailed comment on the Foundation is found in the review from one of the events on 2021-03-18. And more information is of course available from the Foundation’s Website.
A look at the names of the artists that the Foundation has supported over the past 30 years since its inception in 1991 feels like a “Who is Who?” among the artists of the younger generation. It’s not that they pick artists that are already famous! Rather, the responsible people at the head of the foundation appear to have an excellent “sensory” for artists with the potential to become top class soloists. This concert featured three such artists:
Timothy Chooi, Violin
The Canadian-American violinist Timothy Chooi (*1993, see also Wikipedia) did his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where one of his teachers was Pamela Frank (*1967 ). After private studies with Pinchas Zukerman (*1948) and Patinka Kopec, he still continues his education as Artist Diploma fellow at Juilliard School, studying with Catherine Cho. He won international attention after winning various competitions in the years 2018 and 2019. Chooi now is a Professional Studies candidate at the Kronberg Academy with Christian Tetzlaff (*1966). He lives in Philadelphia, USA.
Roman Borisov, Piano
Starting in 2010 already, the Russian pianist Roman Borisov (*2002, Novosibirsk) studied at the Novosibirsk Conservatoire Music College, where his teacher was Mary Simkhovna Lebenzon (1931 – 2020). During this education, he won various scholarships, the last one being Denis Matsuev‘s, in 2014. At his young age, Roman Borisov has already won several prizes at regional and national competitions. In 2018, he became a prize-winner at the International Grand Piano Competition for Young Pianists in Moscow. This has launched a career as concert pianist, and since 2019 he is also frequently appearing on concert stages in the West.
Anna Nero, Mezzosoprano
The third soloist in this concert was the Swiss mezzo-soprano Anna Nero (*1990). She completed her vocal studies with a Master’s degree in Performance with the baritone Peter Brechbühler at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. After winning several talent competitions and sponsorships, she launched a career as singer, covering both opera and oratorio. For details on her biography see the artist’s Website.
Orchestra and Conductor
On 2019-09-15, the Orpheum Foundation performed the first concert with the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra (the link points to a review with detailed information on this ensemble). The Foundation announced that they plan on performing concerts with this orchestra every two years. And so it happened! As already two years ago, the orchestra performed under the baton of its founder, the Foundation’s Artistic Director, conductor Howard Griffiths (*1950, see also Wikipedia).
I’m quoting from my 2019 concert review: the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra largely consists of people working in a large variety of professions. Many work in prominent management positions, are entrepreneurs, doctors, directors, lawyers, etc., and they all have had excellent musical education. Some have been professional musicians, but now work in management. And there are maybe a dozen professional musicians, among them the concertmaster, the German violinist Jens Lohmann (*1966).
All in all, Howard Griffiths was able to gather a very respectable group of instrumentalists. The orchestra featured 12 + 10 violins, 9 violas, 6 cellos, 4 double basses (3 women!), 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 x percussion, and a piano.
- Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907): “Peer Gynt” Suite No.1, op.46
- Max Bruch (1838 – 1920): Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, op.26
- Richard Stewart Addinsell (1904 – 1977): “Warsaw Concerto” for Piano and Orchestra
- Manuel de Falla (1876 – 1946): Excerpts from “El amor brujo” (The Bewitched Love)
To me, this was the first concert in the newly renovated Grand Hall of the Tonhalle Zurich, now called “Tonhalle am See” (Tonhalle at the lake), to differentiate it from the intermediate, temporary concert venue, the former Tonhalle Maag. The latter currently serves a new purpose as a Museum for Immersive Arts and is called Lichthalle Maag.
The Grand Hall of the Tonhalle am See is shining again in its original colors. Its formerly already highly reputed acoustics have been further enhanced, and there is a new organ above the podium. And, of course, there’s the new, spectacular view from the foyer onto the Lake of Zurich and the Swiss Alps!
I had a seat in the central block (row 18) in the rear of the hall—ideal acoustics and a good view onto conductor and soloists. The concert sold well (though it was not sold out), despite the requirement for a COVID-19 certificate and mandatory masks in the hall.
Concert & Review
Grieg: “Peer Gynt” Suite No.1, op.46
1875, Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907) wrote the incidental music to the 1867 play “Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906). The play is in five acts, the music featured 26 movements. 1888, Grieg extracted four movements into the “Peer Gynt” Suite No.1, op.46:
- Morgenstemning (Morning Mood)
- Åses død (The Death of Åse)
- Anitras dans (Anitra’s Dance)
- I Dovregubbens hall (In the Hall of the Mountain King)
1893, the composer followed up with a second group of four popular movements, which he published as “Peer Gynt” Suite No.2, op.55.
Howard Griffiths has an excellent reputation as conductor, and the success of the Orpheum Foundation is to no small part due to his engagement, initiative, and enthusiasm. He also has an extraordinary talent as communicator (and could easily pursue a career as entertainer). The Orpheum Supporters Orchestra is his creation—it is not just held together through him, but he knows the musicians / instrumentalists very well and has an excellent feel for what he can expect and ask from the orchestra …
I. Morgenstemning (Morning Mood)
… consequently, Howard Griffiths did not begin the concert with a virtuosic splash, but rather this Suite with its harmonious, subtle, warm and intimate beginning. This not only “draws in” the listener’s attention and focus, it also instantly made the audience feel “at home”, embedded in Grieg’s atmospheric opening movement. A wonderful opening movement!
Already the beginning was an “ear-catcher” with its beautiful flute and oboe solos (played not by professional musicians, but by a lawyer and a cardiologist!). In the highly expressive middle section, the emotions broke out in climactic waves, and the music was flourishing up intensely.
No, this was not a lay orchestra, for sure! It was often hard to tell from the live experience whether this was fully professional orchestra or not. OK, the instrumentalists were paying more attention to sheet music and conductor than many in top class orchestras—but that is merely a visual aspect, and it actually speaks for the earnestness and engagement of every single orchestra member. Yes, there were rare, subtle coordination issues, e.g., between woodwinds and brass instruments. However, every individual was performing well and with high musicality. And the string sound was warm, homogeneous and coherent throughout.
II. Åses død (The Death of Åse)
The closing piece in act III of the original play is a touching funeral music, where all strings down to the cello were playing with mutes. Howard Griffiths was excellent at keeping the string sound coherent, to shape the dynamics, to maintain homogeneity from the ff climax down to the touching ending in softest ppp(p) and beyond. To me, a first highlight in this concert!
III. Anitras dans (Anitra’s Dance)
Also this movement (at the center of act IV in the original play) is with muted strings, though entirely different in character. The musing of the strings of course facilitates a homogeneous string sound—but the challenges here are elsewhere. There were occasional intonation (and maybe also coordination) issues with the highly exposed interjections in the first violins, particularly in the second part. One might expect another challenge with the coordination in the extended pizzicato segments in all strings except for the first violin. However, these were all excellent and indeed left little, if anything to wish for: congrats!
IV. I Dovregubbens hall (In the Hall of the Mountain King)
The closing movement in the suite is at the center of act II in the original play. A theme that is well-known, be it only from the 1931 movie “M” (M — Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder / M — A City Searches for a Murderer) by Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), with Peter Lorre (1904 – 1964) in his role of a lifetime, as a serial killer.
This is certainly the most challenging movement in Grieg’s suite. The piece is almost entirely staccato and/or pizzicato. On top of that, there is a gradual, controlled accelerando, leading into stringendo al fine, with a splashing fff ending. Sure, here, the ensemble did not reach the coordination and coherence of a fully professional orchestra. And there were occasional intonation issues in the wind section. Howard Griffiths did not spare the ensemble from the difficulties of the fff stringendo—he remained in control up to the very end. Even if the last segment occasionally seemed to border on chaos: it’s enthralling music, and the musicians’ enthusiasm clearly prevailed!
Overall Rating: ★★★
Bruch: Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, op.26
The Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, op.26 by Max Bruch (1838 – 1920) has long been one of the most popular romantic violin concertos. It was written and premiered 1866. It may have seen some “over-use” in the last century, but it still remains very popular to this day. The concerto certainly is one of Bruch’s most well-known and loved compositions. The work has three movements—an extensive Prelude and a Finale surround the central, slow movement:
- Prelude: Allegro moderato (in G minor)
- Adagio (in E♭ major)
- Finale: Allegro energico (in G major)
After the initial bars with its highly exposed and critical wind parts, the listener’s attention naturally turned towards the soloist, and so, the initial, slight and momentary intonation issues were soon forgotten. Throughout the concerto, I did occasionally turn my attention back to the orchestra: for all I can tell, the accompaniment left little, if anything to wish for. In particular, Howard Griffiths carefully and successfully avoided overpowering the soloist. And the orchestra’s discipline in dynamics was excellent, indeed!
I. Prelude: Allegro moderato
The concerto opens with short orchestral fragments surrounding two rhythmically free solos, building up tension, until the movement “takes off” ff, with the main theme. Especially the first one of these solos sounds simple, but is highly exposed. A sign for this may have been Timothy Chooi‘s somewhat strong and heavy vibrato, which was in danger of affecting the intonation. This was probably highlighted by the fact that the long, first tone is on the empty g string, hence naturally clean and vibrato-less. However, there may also have been a trace of nervousness involved. This soon vanished, and throughout the remainder of the concerto, I had no further complaints about the vibrato: to me, it was perfectly adequate for this emote, highly romantic concerto.
Timothy Chooi convinced with the very firm, full and warm tone from his well-projecting Stradivarius instrument. He clearly took the lead (e.g., in the stringendo poco a poco up to the orchestra’s Un poco più vivo / con fuoco), while of course interacting with Howard Griffiths. The soloist appeared to play from his heart—not overly sweet, but intense, longing, expressive. Remarkable: the very clean octave parallels and triple-stop chords.
In the purely orchestral, central part leading up to an impressive climax, the orchestra was deploying its full power and potential, of course pulled along by Bruch’s music. And when the solo returned with his initial theme, this now sounded much firmer, really compelling, especially in the short, but virtuosic cadenza.
A dangerous movement, with its all-too known theme that easily turns into an earworm. However, I was very pleased to realize that Timothy Chooi avoided excess sweetness and tear-squeezing. Yet, the music was really warm, touching, and it was amazing to observe how well the instrument projected also in p, pp, and on the g and d strings. Sure, Bruch’s instrumentation helped, but still…
Timothy Chooi carried the movement through the waves of erupting emotions and into the climax in the orchestra. In the long, final solo, the tone remained intense and warm. Interestingly, the vibrato here was conspicuous, but didn’t affect the intonation at all. It seemed limited to pure amplitude modulation. Previously the horn parts had not always been perfect. Here, however, they were exceptionally clean and harmonious!
III. Finale: Allegro energico
Excellent build-up in the orchestral introduction, full of tension, even suspense! Timothy Chooi almost appeared to push the already fluent tempo even further. His playing was full of verve and momentum, masterful, and devoid of the slightest signs of insecurity. Also here, I particularly enjoyed the intensely expressive, singing tone on the low strings in the solo part. Chooi resisted any temptation to broaden the tempo, except of course for the occasional rubato. He resumed the pace anew, with every solo, keeping the lead and even further building up momentum, driving the accelerando up to the furious con fuoco ending.
Overall Rating: ★★★★
There is no doubt in my mind that Timothy Chooi is a promising artist that we should keep watching out for!
Addinsell: “Warsaw Concerto” for Piano and Orchestra
Richard Stewart Addinsell (1904 – 1977) was a prolific composer of film music. He is credited with the music to nearly 50 films. The “Warsaw Concerto” for Piano and Orchestra is a short work of around 10 minutes. Here’s what Wikipedia writes about it:
The Warsaw Concerto was written for the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight, and continues to be a popular concert and recording piece. The film-makers wanted something in the style of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1874 – 1943), but were unable to persuade Rachmaninoff himself to write a piece.
Let me start by writing about the music. I understand that Rachmaninoff was not eager to write film music, irrespective of what the qualities of that film (which I don’t know) may have been. So, Richard Addinsell—essentially being “just” a film composer—set out to write something “in the style of Rachmaninoff”. He sure was used to adjust his style to what was expected of him—and here, he succeeded. Sort of.
Frankly, in my opinion, as a composition, it is a far cry from any Rachmaninoff. There may be some nice ideas—but overall, it remains a collection of snippets, look-alikes. The beginning seems to allude to the Grieg concerto. What follows is dominated by “hopelessly romantic” themes—rather earworms. Some segments / themes have the shallowness of salon music. Yes, there are also nice, elegiac moments, and segments full of virtuosic parades. And indeed, it often sounds like Rachmaninoff, but is overdone at that. The ending is almost abrupt, if not unmotivated.
I can understand that some of this material is interesting for pianists—technically. But then, I also regret that Addinsell was so often drowning the solo part in his hyper-romantic orchestral accompaniment. And with its short duration of less than 9 minutes (in this concert), the Warsaw Concerto doesn’t seem very rewarding for the soloist. Roman Borisov undoubtedly is an artist with excellent technical skills and potential—but he deserves demonstrating these with a more extensive and more gratifying composition. As a listener, I actually found the frequent need to fend off “earworm feelings” rather distracting, making it hard to focus on the artist’s performance.
Maybe I’m too harsh in my criticism? Sure, there must be people who like this / such music? In any case, my rating does not apply to the music, but refers to Roman Borisov’s performance, and that of conductor and orchestra.
de Falla: Excerpts from “El amor brujo” (The Bewitched Love)
In 1914/1915, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876 – 1946) received a commission for a Gypsy piece (gitaneria) by a renowned Flamenco dancer. De Falla scored it for cantaora voice, actors and chamber orchestra. The piece, “El amor brujo” (The Bewitched Love), is written on a libretto by Gregorio Martínez Sierra (1881 – 1947). In this form, the music premiered in 1915—without success.
1916, Manuel de Falla revised the work. He cut its length and enlarged the instrumentation. This orchestral version now featured just three short songs for mezzo-soprano (two of which made it into this program). The 13 movements of the orchestral version have the following titles:
- Introducción y Escena (Introduction and scene)
- En la Cueva (In the cave)
- Canción del amor dolido (Song of suffering love)
- El Aparecido – El Espectro (The apparition)
- Danza del Terror (Dance of terror)
- El Círculo Mágico / Romance del Pescador (The magic circle)
- A Media noche: Los Sortilegios
- Danza ritual del Fuego — Para ahuyentar los malos espíritus (Ritual fire dance, to abhor the bad spirits)
- Escena (Scene)
- Canción del Fuego fatuo (Song of the will-o’-the-wisp)
- Pantomima (Pantomime)
- Danza del Juego de Amor (Dance of the game of love)
- Final – Las Campanas del Amanecer (Finale – the bells of sunrise)
For this concert, a subset of 8 movements was selected, in the following order:
- Introducción y Escena
- En la Cueva
- Canción del amor dolido (with mezzo-soprano)
- Danza del Terror
- El Círculo Mágico
- Canción del Fuego fatuo (with mezzo-soprano)
- Danza ritual del Fuego
1924, de Falla further converted the composition into a single-act ballet-pantomime, under the same title. Finally, 1925, he arranged four movements into a Piano Suite, namely 11 (Pantomima), 5 (Danza del terror), 6 (Romance del pescador), and 8 (Danza ritual del fuego).
For the orchestra, the highlight of the evening definitely was de Falla’s “El amor brujo“: a chance to show off a broad(er) range of techniques, with interesting instrumental solos / interjections in the wind section: enthralling, fascinating music. And the orchestra did very well in this, excellent in the coordination, atmospheric, and always keeping up the tension.
1. Introducción y Escena — 2. En la Cueva — 3. Canción del amor dolido
Movements 1 – 3 form an ensemble, leading up to the “Song of suffering love“, in which Anna Nero made the first of two short appearances. Not only were the range and projection of her mezzo very good, but her ability to transform the sound of her voice to cantaora style were simply stunning! With closed eyes, one might have sworn that this dark-toned, slightly grainy / “smoky” voice (which often approached chanting) was that of a native Spanish singer!
5. Danza del Terror — 6. El Círculo Mágico
The “Dance of terror” is one of the “hit” pieces in “El amor brujo“: full of tension / suspense, but also with a ghastly, spooky atmosphere. I particularly liked the virtuosic exchange of short motifs between (initially muted) trumpets and oboes: right at the limit of what was technically feasible. This strongly contrasted with the serene, peaceful atmosphere of “The magic circle“.
The orchestra offered an excellent performance, especially in the first part of “Pantomime”, with the prominent high woodwinds above the ascending crescendo chords in the other voices. The piano—played by a board member for several major institutions / companies—actually deserved more acoustic presence. It was barely audible. The second part proved somewhat critical with respect to the intonation in the wind (particularly brass) section. However the key here was the atmosphere, dominated by gentle rhythmic swaying!
10. Canción del Fuego fatuo
One might believe that the “Song of the will-o’-the-wisp” meant to allude to the upcoming Halloween. It didn’t, however. Rather, we got to enjoy another short appearance of the mezzo-soprano Anna Nero—with qualities very close to those mentioned above.
8. Danza ritual del Fuego
Howard Griffiths placed a real orchestral challenge at the end of the official program: The “Ritual fire dance” is an enthralling, virtuosic orchestral showpiece. There certainly were the occasional, minor mishaps, the acoustic balance wasn’t always perfect. However, what counted here was the enthusiasm, both on the part of the musicians, as well as the audience.
Overall Rating: ★★★ (orchestra) / ★★★½ (solo)
Encore #1 — Brahms: Hungarian Dance No.5 in G minor, WoO 1/5
Out of his 21 Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 (completed 1879), Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) only arranged Nos. 1, 3, and 10 for orchestra. Other composers did arrangements for different, small subsets. The Hungarian Dance No.5 in G minor, WoO 1/5 exists in orchestral arrangements by Martin Schmeling (1864 – 1943) and by Albert Parlow (1824 – 1888). More recently, Iván Fischer (*1951) has arranged the complete set of 21 dances for orchestra.
Perfection was not asked for in this “last dance”: this was mostly for the fun of both orchestra and audience! However, it definitely was more than just that—quite a respectable performance, given the very limited time of preparation, see below.
Encore #2 — Johann Strauss II: Egyptian March, op.335
In 1869, Johann Strauss II, composed his Egyptischer Marsch (Egyptian March), op.335. The actual premiere happened on 1869-07-06 in Pavlovsk, Saint Petersburg, then under the title “Tscherkessen-Marsch” (March of the Circassians).
Howard Griffiths could not resist announcing a second encore—now definitely for fun! He explained that this march was originally written on the occasion of the inauguration of the Suez Canal—he now re-purposed it on the occasion of the re-opening of the Grand Hall of the Tonhalle am See. And he invited the audience to sing along in the Trio section of that march. I didn’t see audience members sing, but the string players in the orchestra did so: loud and clear—and real fun, for sure!
The outcome was all the more astounding, as the orchestra had prepared this program in a mere week of intense rehearsals, as the conductor explained in the closing comments. Sure, the orchestra entered these rehearsals after private preparations, but still!
The author would like to express his gratitude to
- the Orpheum Foundation and Goldmann PR for the invitation to the concert
- Goldmann PR for forwarding the photos from the concert.
With the exception of the artists’ press images at the top (and the picture of the podium prior to the arrival of the orchestra), all photos are © Thomas Entzeroth, Zürich.
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