2017-05-15 — Original posting
Auditorium Maximum, ETH Zurich, 2017-05-09
Francisco Fullana, Giulia Ott, Eldar Separayev /
Lyra Festival Orchestra
This was the last concert of the season, organized by Musical Discovery, in the context of their series “Musik an der ETH“. These concerts are always somewhat special. They are not held in the usual location, the venerable Semper-Aula at the ETH in Zurich, but in the “Auditorium maximum”. That room is a lecture theater. It has the shape of roughly quarter-circle, with a major balcony—but (unlike what the name suggests) it’s by far not the institution’s biggest lecture hall.
With the larger venue, this last concert typically involves a bigger audience than the maximum of 99 as with the Semper-Aula.
The Context for this Concert
This concert was dedicated to and supported by the Lyra Foundation, a foundation that was created 1995 by a banker in Zurich, Dr. Hans Vontobel, with the goal of supporting young musicians. 2015, on the occasion the celebration of the 20th birthday, the foundation’s follow students formed an orchestra, the “Lyra Festival Orchestra”. Soon thereafter, the patron and initiator of the Lyra Foundation passed away. This led the members of the Lyra Festival Orchestra to reunite in this concert, in memory of the late Dr. Hans Vontobel.
The original theme for the concert was “A Musical World trip”, featuring compositions by J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, P.I. Tchaikovsky, the Kazakh composer Almas Serkebayev (*1948), Béla Bartók, and Astor Piazzolla. It apparently turned out to be rather difficult to organize sufficient rehearsals to realize this program with a set of musicians that are now all working in various major orchestras in Switzerland and in surrounding countries. So, in the end, the “world trip” ended up limited to Germany/Austria, France, and England.
I realized that the name “Lyra Festival Orchestra” is now also used by an ensemble in the States.
The Lyra Festival Orchestra (17 musicians) played under the direction of its founder, Eldar Separayev, a Kazakh musician, with primary education as cellist. Separayev studied in Almaty, Zurich, and Berlin. He now is pursuing an international career as soloist and chamber musician; he also plays in various orchestras, and he is first solo cellist in the Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie Konstanz. As conductor, Separayev has worked with various orchestras in Kazakhstan, as well as with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and the Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie Konstanz.
Francisco Fullana, Violin
The violinist Francisco Fullana was born in Palma de Mallorca. He performed his studies at the Royal Conservatory in Madrid (Manuel Guillén), as well as at Julliard School in New York (Don Weilerstein, Masao Kawasaki), and finally at the University of Southern California (Midori Goto). Since then, Fullana is pursuing an international career as soloist and chamber musician. He helped founding the COSA Chamber Music Institute and Chamber Orchestra in San Antonio, and since 2016 he is first concertmaster in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Fullana plays the “Mary Portman” violin by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1735).
Giulia Ott, Harp
Giulia Ott studied in Basel and is now playing in various orchestras. She has won various prizes and is now practicing in the Bern Symphony Orchestra, and she is also a member of the Verbier Festival Orchestra 2017.
Mozart: Divertimento in D major, “Salzburg Symphony” K.136 (K.125a)
This is on of a series of Divertimenti (entertainment music) that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed 1772 – 1785. I have written about this in an earlier concert report, so here, I’m just giving the list of the movements:
The venue clearly is a lecture hall, and as such, it features bone-dry acoustics. It’s not the ideal environment for a chamber orchestra (5 + 4 + 3 + 4 + 1 string players) in general, and it’s probably even less ideal for baroque and early classical works. Especially so, if light articulation (as in historically informed playing) is used. Orchestras usually perform these Divertimenti without continuo instrument. Still, in this case, a harpsichord (or a fortepiano) might have helped “filling in” for the dryness of the acoustics.
The issue with the dry acoustics definitely affected the Mozart performance, as it prevented a real “ensemble sound”. Still, for an ad-hoc orchestra such as this one, it was a very pleasant, lively performance. The tempo was maybe a bit at the upper limit, as fast notes were close to sounding a bit superficial (although not demanding technically, one should not underestimate the movement!). But the articulation was light the sound very transparent, and the vibrato rare / hardly noticeable.
I liked the fact that vibrato really appeared as a means to highlight specific notes only: it definitely had the desired effect! One should note, though, that playing without vibrato—or with little vibrato only—is much more demanding on the intonation. It tends to highlight the smallest intonation errors. The dry acoustics had another effect: there was no reverberation or “acoustic envelope” that would have softened, maybe covered intonation issues. But in any case, the orchestra did fairly well, intonation-wise, considering that it’s not an ensemble that plays together all the time. Just from the bows and the way the bow was used / held, one could tell that not all players came from the same “school”.
Also here, the tempo was very demanding, at the upper limit. However, the orchestra was indeed very virtuosic, the coordination excellent, considering Separayev’s often single-handed conducting. Really entertaining, joyful music, with momentum, and with a healthy “forward drive”!
The most popular of the violin concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) is the one in E major, BWV 1042, probably from Bach’s time in Weimar (1708 – 1717). It features three movements:
- Allegro, 2/2
- Adagio, 3/4
- Allegro assai, 3/8
For the violin concerto, Eldar Separayev sat down at the first cello desk, leaving the control in Francisco Fullana‘s hands. More so than in the Mozart Divertimento, I missed a continuo instrument (harpsichord) here, especially in the slow movement.
I really liked the fast, lively tempo here! However, it was at the limit again—not for the orchestra, but in that it barely left time for articulation in the ornaments in the solo part. And Fullana often added extra ornaments on his own, particularly in repeats: I liked his fantasy in ornamentation. Again, the articulation was light, the coordination very good: Fullana kept the control for coordination, played in close cooperation with the orchestra. I particularly liked the subtlety in his p playing: the soloist did not try to show off a big tone / volume. Wherever the initial theme returned, the musicians picked up the original (fast) tempo. The absence of a harpsichord to me was most obvious in the short cadenza, where Separayev just offered a scarce 1-voice accompaniment.
Articulation and phrasing were very subtle in this movement, both in the solo part, as well as in the orchestra. Some might have asked themselves “Where’s the Guarneri violin?”, as again Fullana did not show off volume and full tone. However, I the quality of the instrument to me was obvious at the “other end of the scale”: in the softest parts, where for ppp playing, Fullana only used tiny amounts of bow—and yet, his instrument had no problem marking its presence above the accompaniment.
III. Allegro assai
Here again, the tempo was fairly fast. The solo part is not extremely virtuosic—but at this tempo, articulation the short note values turns into a challenge. In defense of the musicians, I should state, though, that this concerto is so (too) well-known (most or every violin pupil will play it at some point!), that I have some understanding for musicians who push the tempo here!
If the music occasionally sounded a bit dry, then I blame this on the acoustics (and the absence of a keyboard instrument in the basso continuo), not the musicians.
Solo Encore — Ysaÿe: Sonata No.2 for Solo Violin in A minor, op.27/2
In 1923, the Belgian composer Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931) wrote six sonatas for solo violin (op.27), each dedicated to one of his friends and fellow violinists. Ysaÿe portrayed his colleagues, made fun of their idiosyncrasies. Sonata No.2, in four movements, was dedicated to Jacques Thibaud (1880 – 1953), who used always to start rehearsing by playing parts of J.S. Bach’s E major Partita (No.3, BWV 1006). Francisco Fullana played the first movement, “Obsession / Prélude” of that sonatas encore. This directly and repeatedly quotes the first bars of Bach’s Partita, and combines it with the “Dies irae” theme.
Fullana appears to like fast tempo! He played that movement again at a very fast basic pace—but he used extensive, even extreme agogics throughout the piece, turning this into a real caricature—more than I have ever heard with this piece before. It was huge fun, and excellent entertainment: thanks a lot!
Among the few concerto-like works by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), there are two movements for harp and string orchestra,
- Danse sacrée
- Danse profane
which the composer wrote in April/May 1904.
“Danse sacrée” (sacred dance) is an ethereal, reflective piece which builds up to a climax, then calms down again, across some capricious downwards arpeggios—played here by Giulia Ott. The “Danse profane” follows attacca (“enchaînez“, without rest): while the first dance is in 3/2 time, the “profane part” in 3/4 time—it features some animated harp solos, then again is indulging, swaying in gentle waltz rhythm, with heavy rubato. It’s definitely more virtuosic in the solo part: both typical for Debussy and for impressionist music in general, going through several build-ups, finally fading away in high notes—but ending in an abrupt, surprising ff pizzicato. I almost had the feeling that the harp suited Debussy better than the piano!
Giulia Ott also offered an encore—a gentle, harmonious, moderately polyphonic piece, played with lots of refinement and subtlety. I wish she had announced the piece—as most people in the audience, I’m not familiar with the harp repertoire, so was not able to identify the music.
Britten: Simple Symphony, op.4
1933/1934, Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) creates his Simple Symphony, op.4, a piece for string orchestra with four movements. For all of this symphony, Britten used snippets / themes from early piano compositions (1923 – 1926). It’s certainly not by accident that all movement titles are alliterations:
- Boisterous Bourrée (Allegro ritmico)
- Playful Pizzicato (Presto possible pizzicato)
- Sentimental Sarabande (Poco lento e pesante)
- Frolicsome Finale (Prestissimo con fuoco)
Only in this piece I realized that during the Debussy I had stopped thinking about acoustics, and this persisted in Benjamin Britten’s piece: in parts, that must have been due to the music’s denser texture and also due to the use of more legato and portato playing, rather than of light, baroque and early-classical articulation (as in Mozart and Bach). Also the (ubiquitous) use of vibrato is certainly OK (if not a necessity / requirement) in music of the first half of the 20th century: that’s what composers expected, what them wrote their music for. I concluded from this that in the case of orchestral music, the venue (Auditorium maximum) is better suited for music of the 20th century than for compositions of the classical or baroque periods.
I. Boisterous Bourrée
Boisterous? The justification of that term is mainly that it alliterates with Bourrée. In its nature—and in the interpretation that we heard—it’s a resolute, joyful-moody piece, with baroque-sounding polyphonic / fugato textures. The Simple Symphony was written for a children’s / pupils’ orchestra—and as such, one could certainly picture this as being somewhat simplistic, maybe heavily articulated, if not even clumsy piece. However, when played with an orchestra of professionals, as here, and with the appropriate, faster tempo, this turns into a nice miniature, more demanding, for sure, and far more than just children’s play!
II. Playful Pizzicato
In the hands of professionals, this is far more than playful: a virtuosic, sporty, pizzicato-only piece, demanding in coordination, full of momentum, particularly in the very sonorous central part: a nice little gem, and serious fun!
III. Sentimental Sarabande
Yes, sentimental and expressive—full of really beautiful, elegiac melodies, played with a sound that now filled the venue (even in the soft segments!), made the listener forget about the limitations in the acoustics.
IV. Frolicsome Finale
The final movement is both virtuosic and playful, enthralling—excellent playing in this concert. Children’s music? Really? Rather not!