Carlo Grante, Fabio Luisi / Philharmonia Zürich
Prokofiev / Adolphe / Rimsky-Korsakov

Zurich Opera, 2016-07-10

4-star rating


2016-07-15 — Original posting

Introduction

In this last Philharmonic Concert of the season 2015/2016 in the Zurich Opera, Fabio Luisi directed the Philharmonia Zurich in an interesting program, featuring two popular compositions by Prokofiev and by Rimsky-Korsakov. These were surrounding the world premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s piano concerto. Fabio Luisi does not require an introduction here—we are happy to have him here at the Opera House! For more information on his career see also his Wikipedia entry.

The orchestra of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, was present with all its staff. It filled the stage and parts of the orchestra pit (at floor level, of course). The concert was sold well, but not sold out: the event was scheduled around noon of the hottest day of the year (so far), the dress code in the audience was a bit lighter than usual (luckily the house has good air conditioning!)—a slight contrast to the usual, festive appearance of the orchestra.

The soloist in this concert was the Italian pianist Carlo Grante, born 1960 in L’Aquila. Grante graduated from the National Academy of St Cecilia in Rome, with Sergio Perticaroli. He later continued his education with Ivan Davis, Rudolf Firkušný, and Aliza Kezeradze. Grante is pursuing an international career as concert pianist, with a broad repertoire from Domenico Scarlatti up to modern composers. That repertoire includes highly virtuosic works by composers such as Leopold Godowsky, Ferruccio Busoni, and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. More information can also be found on Wikipedia.

Adjusting to the Acoustics

This wasn’t my first Philharmonic Concert in the Zurich Opera House, so I should be prepared for the acoustics of the venue. Still, after last month’s concerts at the Tonhalle, it took me a moment to adjust to this location. The acoustics in the Tonhalle carry the sound, provide a supportive envelope, and they are an invaluable help in combining the sound of the musicians in the orchestra into a single, rich sound body. In contrast, the Opera House features bone-dry, analytical acoustics serve the purpose of supporting spoken and sung language. They keep text understandable, enabling the audience to hear and locate “vocal output” from the front to the back of the stage, also when the orchestra is playing in the pit.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): Romeo and Juliet, Suite No.2, op.64ter

The Suite featured in this concert is the second (and most popular) one out of three that the composer selected from his Ballet “Romeo and Juliet”, op.64. The ballet was composed 1935. The first Suite (7 movements) is op.64bis, the third one (6 movements) is op.101; in 1937, Prokofiev also created “Romeo and Juliet: Ten Pieces for Piano”, op.75 from the same music. The suite played in this concert (Suite No.2) features the following movements:

  1. Montagues and Capulets
  2. Juliet as a Young Girl
  3. Friar Laurence
  4. Dance
  5. Romeo and Juliet Before Parting
  6. Dance of the Girls with Lilies
  7. Romeo at Juliet’s Grave

It was probably just me, not being quite adjusted to the acoustics yet: at the very beginning of the Suite, the wind instruments (towards the back of the stage) sounded rather naked. Luckily, that lasted only moments, until the full orchestra was setting in, announcing the unfolding drama with its loud dissonances. This and the very popular themes that followed in this first movement (representing the two families, the Montagues and the Capulets) made listeners completely forget about the acoustics.

Excellent Playing in the Orchestra

Acoustics aside, the first movement exposes the excellent sonority of the orchestra, its dense, homogeneous string sound (particularly the violins), in dramatic, energetic and expressive playing in the first theme, contrasting with the lovely second theme with the cello (and later wind) solo parts. Fabio Luisi vividly led the orchestra with momentum, with large movements. He knows his musicians very well, trusts their playing, yet has everything under control, even when he lets soloists play their phrases completely on their own.

The virtuosic second movement, “Juliet as a Young Girl“, is adequately playful, but also volatile and unsteady—and for the first time this evening we experienced Fabio Luisi almost dancing on the podium, almost a substitute for a ballet on stage! This was followed by a short section describing “Friar Laurence” in the bass tuba, accompanied by pizzicati in cello and double bass, grave. This soon gave way to the “Dance” movement, suitable demonstrated by the conductor, featuring a virtuosic combination of pizzicato and spiccato in the string voices: excellent playing!

Emotional Highlights

The fifth movement—the longest in this music—is a very emotional farewell. It features expressive string melodies, in which Prokofiev creates an interesting atmosphere by having the strings play with mutes (that effect is also heard in other movements). This is a very intense movement, with a serene beginning, long, emotional build-up, a beautiful, harmonious climax, ending in a bright, promising perspective, again serene, accompanied by the lovely singing of birds: excellent music, which explains the popularity of this ballet (and the suite, of course).

The following, short “Dance of the Girls with Lilies” is in a strangely depressed mood, featuring an expressive violin solo, played by the concertmaster, Bartłomiej (Bartek) Nizioł—fittingly again con sordino. The suite ends with the dramatic climax of Shakespeare’s play—a tragedy of almost Wagnerian dimension and intensity, ending in a morendo. Clearly, it’s not the end of the story—the music feels open-ended: a good idea not to place this at the end of the program!

Bruce Adolphe (*1955): Piano Concerto (2013, World Premiere)

The American Bruce Adolphe is not “just” composer, but also teacher, pianist, and a writer. His music covers a wide spectrum, from solo to chamber music, to orchestral pieces, to opera, and also film music. He has been Composer in Residence for various institutions, has organized and participated in numerous festivals, and is having frequent TV appearances. Adolphe also has a keen interest in neuroscience, which also explains his cooperation with the Brain and Creativity Institute at the USC in Los Angeles, where he currently is Composer in Residence. He now lives in New York.

The Inspiration for This Concerto

Bruce Adolphe’s Piano Concerto, which had its world premiere in this concert, fits into that biography. It is largely inspired by the book “An Unquiet Mind“, written by the Kay Redfield Jamison (*1946), an American clinical psychologist and writer. In that book, Jamison deals with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that she has had since her early adulthood. A key passage for Adolphe from that book is “Which of my feelings are real? Which Me am I? The wild, impulsive, chaotic, energetic, crazy Me? Or the shy, retracted, suicidal, tired Me?” (my own back-translation from German to English). The concerto features three movements:

  1. Passionately
  2. Slowly, but with great flexibility
  3. Driving, rhythmic, pulsating

This part of the concert required a smaller orchestra. The center of the podium was now occupied by the concert grand (a Fazioli, for a change!), played by Carlo Grante. The general theme in this composition is, to describe states of mind of a patient with bipolar disorder (a.k.a. manic-depressive), from the view of the patient.

I. Passionately

The first movement begins with several dissonant, loud & passionate (!) cries. As soon as the piano starts, though, we are in a calmer world. There are still emotional, wild outbursts, periods of strong unrest—mainly in the orchestra. But in the “base tone”, the piano (and the patient’s life?) is flowing along with deliberately monotonous motifs. The occasional, injected tone doubling / repetitions seem to indicate internal unrest, doubts in the patient’s depressive mind. To me, the movement gave the impression of a therapeutic / analytic construct.

The music itself was very interesting—nevertheless, to me, it felt like watching a film from a psychiatric institution. To some degree, that kept me at a distance, somewhat disconcerted, if not frightened by the imagined scenery. The music itself didn’t put me off at all. I would call it polytonal—though far away from the traditional major/minor tonalities. The solo part largely consists of a single, often soft voice. Therefore, the sonority of the piano remained mostly hidden, with the exception of the emotional eruptions. That also means that Carlo Grante’s abilities remained inconspicuous. The performance itself seemed flawless, maybe with the minor exception of a short moment with coordination issues in the orchestra.

II. Slowly, but with great flexibility

Here, the piano is mimicking the manic-depressive mind. The orchestra takes the role of the psychiatrist, comforting, calming down the patient. The solo part is virtuosic, with violent outbursts and periodic phases of strong unrest. The “Slowly” in the title of the movement refers to the role of the psychiatrist, offering reassuring encouragement. The music is distinctly more dissonant than in the first movement, indicating the conflicts in the patient’s mind. Yet, I found it to be more accessible (at least, for the first listening). It could well be that for me (in the role of an outsider), emotional eruptions are easier to understand, or at least comprehend, than the void, the senselessness of a depressive phase. These outbursts are much more challenging in the solo part than anything in the first movement, and at last, we could also enjoy the sonority of the instrument.

III. Driving, rhythmic, pulsating

The last movement is the most virtuosic among the three. It is really vivid, with wild rhythms, often rhythmically aggressive in the orchestra, jazzy, full of syncopes, enthralling. Same with the solo part: wild, virtuosic, though appearing to act against / complementary to the orchestra. It’s a brilliant composition, quite demanding for the pianist, masterfully played (from score) by Carlo Grante. With the one, minor exception mentioned above, the orchestral accompaniment was excellent throughout. The audience was thrilled, if not enthused (especially from the last movement, of course). Also the composer seemed happy with the performance. Both he and the pianist, as well as of course the orchestra, received a strong applause. With this work and performance, one can understand Adolphe’s success as composer!

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908): Symphonic Suite “Scheherazade”, op.35

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his Symphonic Suite “Scheherazade” around 1888. It’s one of very few works by this composer which have become and remained popular to this day—for good reason! The “Symphonic Suite” comes in four movements, each depicting a tale from the famous collection “One Thousand and One Nights“, as told by Scheherazade:

  1. “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” (Largo e maestoso — Lento — Allegro non troppo — Tranquillo)
  2. “The Kalendar Prince” (Lento — Andantino — Allegro molto — Vivace scherzando — Moderato assai — Allegro molto ed animato)
  3. “The Young Prince and The Young Princess” (Andantino quasi allegretto — Pochissimo più mosso — Come prima — Pochissimo più animato)
  4. “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman” (Allegro molto — Lento — Vivo — Allegro non troppo e maestoso — Tempo come I)

When he published the score, Rimsky-Korsakov removed the titles of the tales. He wanted to leave it up to the listener to imagine an action / theme to the four movements. All movements are free-form, i,.e., they don’t follow any classic scheme, such as the sonata form.

A Violin Concerto?

The overall title for the “symphony / symphonic poem” of course remains. The solo violin plays / impersonates Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter, who is telling all the (1001) stories. In this case, the concert master, Bartłomiej (Bartek) Nizioł, born 1974 in Szczecin, fills that role—masterfully. Scheherazade is the narrator for all four “stories”. Hence, the entire composition may indeed feel like a violin concerto in four movements; the one thing it does not have, though, is a lengthy, formal cadenza. Nizioł played with a dense tone, with a relatively “tight” vibrato. I’m usually not a friend of excess vibrato—but here, I felt that it fits the music quite well. The solo part is rich in emotions, very often quite demanding.

“The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”

The piece opens with a fanfare-like “statement” by the tutti—then, the orchestra opens with a soft, tender beginning, into which Scheherazade starts telling her story, very pictorial, telling. The orchestra is illustrating the scenery, forming large build-ups / dynamic arches. Fabio Luisi conducted this with his large, swinging movements, creating harmonious transitions and long phrases. The orchestra followed with engagement and excellent discipline / coordination. The orchestral balance was excellent—but this is in parts of course the composer’s merit. In this movement, a second narrating voice, the solo cello, is joining in—an engaged listener to the tale? It’s all enthralling, engaging music—beautiful!

“The Kalendar Prince”

Here, there are again multiple voices: this time the bassoon, cor anglais, clarinet and other wind instruments, as well as again the solo cello join the scene in an expressive discourse. A rich, multi-faceted story evolves, filling the listener’s imagination. As already mentioned, Fabio Luisi did not conduct any of the solo segments, but left full freedom to his musicians—and these fully deserved the conductor’s trust.

“The Young Prince and The Young Princess”

Ah, that full-sounding, singing cello section at the opening of this movement—very nice, indeed: expressive, and very homogeneous! The first theme (the prince?) is singing, with up- and downward scales as ornaments, in various voices. The second theme (princess) is more rhythmic, dancing, then very expressive, longing. After Scheherazade has taken up the tale again in a virtuosic-narrative tone, the movement builds up to a grandiose closing gesture—but then retracts into silence.

“Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff …”

The final movement is really enthralling and very virtuosic, both in the orchestra, as well as for the violin solo! The orchestral score is full of challenges, such as intricate, fast “oriental” rhythms, frequent tempo changes / rubato, rapid staccato repetitions for the trumpets. A truly virtuosic orchestral showpiece, full of momentum! Yes, “festival” is a good description, and one intuitively can envisage the rough sea around the climax—but the part with the ship wreckage is entirely redundant: the music by itself is entertaining and fascinating enough. The violin solo features tricky double-stop passages in the beginning of the movement. The violin returns only at the very end, where it plays flageolet tones above the end of the finger board—and that’s how the movement ends. Excellent music, for sure!

 

Conclusion

I must confess: prior to the event, the perspective of spending two hours of a Sunday morning in summer, with brilliant weather (a sky as blue as it ever gets, the lake and the nice scenery in Zurich) in the opera house did not seem very intriguing. Yet, after concert, I can say: it was worth every minute, for the excellent music throughout, the soloists, and, last, but not least, two hours of orchestral excellence in all parts: strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion. The orchestra has a very high standard, features very good discipline, coordination, lots of engagement, without giving the impression of “pure show”, or of cold precision & perfection.


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.



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