Martin Grubinger, Lionel Bringuier / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Dorman / Stravinsky
Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-09-14
This was the opening concert (the first of two opening concerts, actually) for the season 2016/17 at the Tonhalle Zurich, so, there were a few extras, which were presented by the artistic director of the Tonhalle Society, Ilona Schmiel:
- This concert serves to present the Artist in Residence for the coming season. For this season, the selection for this position was a rather unusual one: not a violinist, a cellist, or a pianist, but the percussionist Martin Grubinger. Of course, that artist plays a central role in this opening concert, see below.
- In some ways, this concert also gives an idea on the repertoire for the coming season. It was the explicit wish of Lionel Bringuier, Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, to focus his third season with the orchestra on the Ballets russes, in particular Igor Stravinsky‘s ballets, such as The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913, see below).
- This concert also starts the last season in the Tonhalle as we all know and like it: starting in summer 2017, the building will be renovated from the ground up, the orchestra will spend an approximate three years in exile,. starting with the season 2017/18.
- Finally, this concert also represents a turning point in Lionel Bringuier’s career, or more accurately, his term with the Tonhalle orchestra, as this summer the Tonhalle Society announced that Bringuier’s 4-year contract (starting in summer 2014, ending 2018) will not be extended. This not only will make his work with the orchestra more difficult, but it also will put the Tonhalle Society into a difficult position: they will be facing a change in the position of chief conductor while the orchestra is in the exile.
It feels as if the main idea behind the opening concert was that of a “big bang”: Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” created a major scandal when it was performed in Paris for the first time (see below). This filled the second part of the concert. 100 years after that premiere, the “Rite of Spring” has lost its “bite”, it has long become part of the standard concert repertoire. However, the first part featured a composition from 2007, “Frozen in Time”, by Avner Dorman, for percussion and a large orchestra (see below). By its sheer nature, this certainly led to a kind of “big bang”—though not by creating a scandal or by upsetting people, but through its enthralling rhythmic nature.
For a (rather conservative) subscription audience, Dorman’s composition may sound experimental, while Stravinsky appears to provide a “safe bet” for success. Starting the program with the experimental part, and ending with the popular, known piece may sound logical and avoids people leaving the venue after the intermission. In my view, it didn’t quite turn out as intended…
The Artist in Residence
The Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger (*1983) is one of the “shooting stars” among the young generation of (classical, solo) percussionists. He is pursuing a very successful, international career. Not only has he performed with prominent orchestras (from the States to the Far East) and conductors, he also had numerous compositions written for him specifically. “Frozen in Time” (2007, featured in this concert) is just the first one of these. Grubinger studied at the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz and at the Salzburg Mozarteum.
Avner Dorman: Frozen in Time (2007)
Avner Dorman (*1975) is an Israeli composer and conductor. He received his first education at Tel Aviv University, studying music (with Josef Bardanashvili, *1948), musicology, and physics. Later, he studied with John Corigliano (*1938) at Juilliard School and obtained a doctorate in composition. Dorman is currently teaching theory and composition at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College. At the same time, he is pursuing active careers both as a composer and as a conductor. His music is performed and supported by numerous, prominent conductors and artists. In 2013, Dorman was appointed to be music director of CityMusic Cleveland chamber orchestra. More information on the composer is found on Wikipedia.
Dorman’s composition “Frozen in Time“, written for Martin Grubinger, premiered 2007 in Hamburg, with the Hamburg Philharmonic under the baton of Simone Young, with Grubinger playing the solo part. It is a composition in three movements, for percussion and big orchestra. The theme of the composition: looking back onto the history of planet earth, by taking three (alleged) “snapshots” from the evolution of the continents, on a geological time scale. So, “frozen” does not refer to frozen matter, but to those three snapshots from the past (and the present time, as we will see). The titles of the movements refer to developing continents, in the first two parts states of continents long before the world looked as we know it now:
- Indoafrica — this refers to a primordial continent, which later split up, and out of which later Africa and the Indian subcontinent evolved.
- Eurasia — closer to the present: Europe and Asia at an early state
- The Americas — a view onto the present state of the Americas.
The work, the concert, and hereby the season, starts with a big, loud splash by the soloist—the “big bang” that I was alluding to above. After this opening, the music temporarily retracts into retained rhythms. But this doesn’t last long: soon, Grubinger develops a polyrhythmic firework. Eruptions periodically alternate with sections with soft, almost just hinted sounds from metallophones. In the eruptions, Martin Grubinger develops a fascinating, even mind-boggling multitude of rhythms, with acoustic forces that almost blinds one’s senses. For lay people, it is impossible to follow the this intricate mix of rhythmic pattern in any detail—as ordinary listener, one is simply overwhelmed.
In this part / movement, the orchestra barely fills more than a secondary, a side role: certainly less than a typical accompaniment in classical concertos. Towards the end of the piece, there is a sequence that remotely reminded me of music by Arvo Pärt (*1935). Here, the solo cello shortly appeared as a partner to the percussionist. And in the final sequence, also the orchestra has the opportunity to play a momentarily essential role. Based on the theme for this movement, the percussion solo is inspired by African and Indian music, occasionally also alluding to Gamelan music.
Allegedly, this movement describes the cool / cold, nordic parts of this big continent. Gentle, almost whispered, ethereal are produced on the vibraphone, with subtle accompaniment by the strings. Sometimes, the percussion instruments sound like soft organ music, or like music from a glass harp. Then again, I meant to hear the soft sounds of nature, the silence of a night, a starry sky: a dreamy, almost cosmic atmosphere.
The melodic aspects in this movement are inspired by Mozart, possibly even borrowing melodies from Mozart’s works. To me, these (alluded) melodies transpire so much warmth, an almost cosy atmosphere: it was hard for me to make a connection to a cold, Nordic climate. I’m excepting from the initial few bars, which again reminded me of music by Arvo Pärt.
III. The Americas
The last movement finally explores the full spectrum of Martin Grubinger’s percussion setup, and the full gamut of the artist’s possibilities. And finally, also the orchestra fills a prominent role, often rhythmically very active. the music includes a large variety of rhythms and styles, from Jazz to Tango, from Afro-Cuban music to minimal art, etc. , and all this mixed with reminiscences from the first two movements. The result is an enthralling hodgepodge of sounds, of masses of people in a modern mega-city. Fascinating, altogether!
With his performance, Martin Grubinger totally enraptured the audience: the applause, also for the orchestra, was absolutely frenetic. Actually, the orchestra was equally enthused by Grubinger’s playing and also strongly applauded the artist. Grubinger announced an improvised encore—not on his standard range of percussion instruments, though: he fetched a team of five percussionists, most or all from the Tonhalle Orchestra. Together, they formed a little half-circle at the right edge of the podium, playing five minutes of an enthralling, rabid improvisation on cajón, djembé, tarabuka, African bass drums and other, small percussion instruments, with Grubinger leading on the cajón. An excellent start for the season!
Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (1913)
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, Весна священная) is a ballet that Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) wrote in 1913, for the Ballets Russes company in Paris, directed by Sergei Diaghilev (1872 – 1929). The original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky (1889/90 – 1950). The first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (1913-05-29) caused a major riot. The fame of this incident has stuck with the music ever since, even though it is now believed that the main reason for the riot was in Nijinsky’s choreography. The ballet only survived the original run and a short tour to London. Thereafter, it was not performed again until 1920. Thereafter, the ballet and the music have gained substantial popularity, and by now it is a part of the standard concert repertoire.
The Structure of the Ballet
Stravinsky’s music once was avant-garde in its experimental tonality, dissonance, and rhythm. The work proved to be an important, seminal work for numerous 20th century composers. Even now, it still strikes, enthralls with its strong rhythmic features. I don’t want to dwell too much on the composition’s internals—but here is the structure of the ballet, which is in two parts:
- Part I: L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth)
- Les Augures printaniers — Danses des adolescents / Augurs of Spring — Dance of the Young
- Jeu du rapt / Ritual of Abduction
- Rondes printanières / Spring Rounds
- Jeux des cités rivales / Ritual of the Rival Tribes
- Cortège du sage: Le Sage / Procession of the Sage: The Sage
- Danse de la terre / Dance of the Earth
- Part II: Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice)
- Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes / Mystic Circles of the Young Girls
- Glorification de l’élue / Glorification of the Chosen One
- Evocation des ancêtres / Evocation of the Ancestors
- Action rituelle des ancêtres / Ritual Action of the Ancestors
- Danse sacrale (L’Élue) / Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One
The most important thing first: Lionel Bringuier and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich presented a virtuosic, technically near-perfect performance of Stravinsky’s rhythmically strong and complex work. The coordination and the precision in general were excellent. The orchestra was able to produce an astounding, almost oppressing volume, yet maintained good transparency and balance. I also liked the strong and homogeneous sound from the string section. As expected, the wind instruments gave a particularly strong performance—the bassoon plays an important role here. The same can be said about the percussionists. The first part felt a bit technical, though, lacking the “internal fire”, and at times, the music seemed to lose its momentum.
In the second part, I liked the consistently clean intonation in the brass section, such as the muted trumpets. In the final sections in particular, strong rhythmic features dominate. Here, I noted Bringuier’s preference for a fast tempo—too fast, maybe, or at least at the limit. I have encountered this in earlier concerts, too.
Overall, the performance of the orchestra was excellent, Lionel Bringuier’s direction was clear and firm. But, as already mentioned, my overall impression was that of a “technical” performance. It was maybe technically perfect, but lacking fire, maybe emotionality in general. It could well be that the reason for this impression (partly) was Bringuier’s somewhat rigid, technical style of direction. Was it all too controlled? Or was it all lacking some inspiration, enthusiasm?
I could barely point to any substantial, factual deficiencies in the performance of Stravinsky’s “Sacre”—certainly not on the part of the orchestra. Yet, the final applause was rather moderate, almost lukewarm. I asked myself whether Stravinsky’s composition is showing signs of age. Maybe it just can hardly compare / stand up to Avner Dorman’s strongly rhythmical, enthralling composition?
Of course, Bringuier’s departure from his position in summer 2018 is common knowledge now. This may have caused the musicians (conductor and orchestra) to lack enthusiasm, the absolute will and coherence that is needed for the ultimate performance level, for a convincing, compelling outcome. It could easily be that now, after the announcement, also the audience has become more skeptical, more meticulous, and harder to move emotionally?
Maybe, with a simple inversion of the sequence of the works (Stravinsky first, followed by Dorman / Grubinger), the result would have been better? Overall, the concert left me with somewhat mixed feelings. It left behind some unanswered questions.
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.