Julia Hagen, Aimi Kobayashi
Kristiina Poska / Tonhalle Orchestra
Tchaikovsky / Liszt / Dvořák

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2020-03-04

3.5-star rating

2020-03-08 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

Without exception, the many concerts organized by the “Orpheum-Stiftung zur Förderung junger Solisten” (Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists, going back to 1991) have been enriching experiences. They brought the encounters with numerous young, promising artists. Most of these have since successfully launched an international concert career and are performing on the world’s prominent concert stages.

One of these concerts (Zurich, 2018-04-13) stood out, in that it was jointly organized by the Orpheum Foundation and the Müller-Möhl Foundation (created in 2012). That latter organization focuses on

  • Education (early child care & education, the future of education, financial literacy)
  • Gender Equality (job & family, gender diversity, women returning to work)
  • Promotion Activities (Switzerland as location for businesses and foundations, philanthropy, emerging businesses).

It was the aspect of gender equality that let the two foundations join their efforts for that concert on 2018-04-13, featuring chamber music with five female artists.


Program

Now, two foundations joined forces again for a concert at Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag. This time it was not chamber music, but an evening with orchestral works:


The Artists

Given the goal of the two foundations, the focus in this concert wasn’t on the compositions, but rather on the fact that the soloists and the conductor were all female. As most concerts of the Orpheum Foundation, the evening featured two instrumental soloists—this time a cellist and a pianist:

Orpheum Concert 2020-03-04 @ Tonhalle Maag: Aimi Kobayashi & Julia Hagen (© Thomas Entzeroth)
Orpheum Concert 2020-03-04 @ Tonhalle Maag, Zurich: Aimi Kobayashi & Julia Hagen (© Thomas Entzeroth)

Julia Hagen, Cello

Julia Hagen (*1995 in Salzburg) started taking cellos lessons at the age of 5. She received her musical education in Salzburg, in Vienna, then in Berlin. Since 2019 she is continuing her studies at Kronberg Academy. For details on her education, repertoire and career see also her CV at the Kronberg Academy Website. The artist performs on a 1684 cello by Francesco Ruggeri (also Rugeri or Ruggieri, c.1628 – 1698, Cremona).

Aimi Kobayashi, Piano

The Japanese pianist Aimi Kobayashi (*1995, UbeYamaguchi Prefecture), started learning her instrument even earlier, at the age of three. Here, she performed on one of the Tonhalle’s Steinway D-274 concert grands.

Gender Equality?

The introductory presentation was given by Carolina Müller-Möhl (President, Müller-Möhl Foundation) and Claudia Coninx Kaczynski (Vice-President of the Orpheum Foundation, and daughter of its founder, Hans Heinrich Coninx). They pointed out that ever since its foundation, almost exactly half of the over 250 young artists receiving support by the organization were female. In other words: gender equality is indeed achieved. However, this does not apply to the people at the helm of the orchestras: female conductors are still a minority. This concert was a contribution to shifting the balance towards gender equality for conductors:

Kristiina Poska — Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

The Estonian conductor Kristiina Poska (*1978 in Türi, see also Wikipedia) started her musical career at age 8, when she began learning the piano. In 1994 she graduated from the local music school. She then took up studies in choral conducting in Tallinn, later in Berlin. 2004 – 2009, she added studies in orchestral conducting, thereafter launching a successful career as conductor, predominantly in opera. As of this season, Kristiina Poska is General Music Director (GMD; Generalmusikdirektorin) at the Theater Basel. In that same season, she started her new role as chief conductor of the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, based in Ghent, Belgium. Kristiina Poska has been working with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (see also Wikipedia) before, as guest conductor.


Setting, etc.

Because of the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), the Swiss Federal government in a first reaction prohibited events with 1000 or more participants. With this regulation, many concerts are being canceled, or the number of participants is restricted. For example, the Zurich Opera restricts ticket sales to 900. This keeps the number of people in the venue—including the orchestra—below the limit. Oher organizers cancel even smaller events, in order to avoid unnecessary risks. Needless to say that this puts many organizers into serious trouble. Artists (soloists and orchestras) are affected by this just as much. Very few artists and organizations are insured against incidents such as a major outbreak of an epidemic.

The Orpheum Foundation usually fills the Tonhalle Maag with its 1200+ seats in the auditorium (not counting the orchestra). With this situation, it was on a knife’s edge whether this concert could be performed or not. In the end, it turned out that either ticket sales were not as strong as they used to be, or enough people canceled their visit. Certainly, it would have been a pity for the female protagonists if the event had been canceled or shifted into the future (if that would have been a possibility at all).

My wife and I were offered optimum seats close to the center of row 11—in a hall that was 2/3 full at best.


Concert & Review

The concert started with a brief, joint introduction by Claudia Coninx Kaczynski (Vice-President, Orpheum Foundation) and Carolina Müller-Möhl (Founder and President, Müller-Möhl Foundation):

Orpheum Concert 2020-03-04 @ Tonhalle Maag: Claudia Coninx-Kaczynski & Carolina Müller-Möhl (© Thomas Entzeroth)
Orpheum Concert 2020-03-04 @ Tonhalle Maag, Zurich: Claudia Coninx Kaczynski & Carolina Müller-Möhl (© Thomas Entzeroth)

Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme in A major, op.33

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme in A major, op.33, in 1876/1877, in cooperation with the cellist (and fellow professor at the Moscow ConservatoryWilhelm Fitzenhagen (1848 – 1890). The latter became the dedicatee. He also premiered the composition in 1877. In the aftermath, Fitzenhagen unfortunately did not leave the composition alone. Rather, he did some serious re-shuffling, even omitting one variation altogether. Sadly, Fitzenhagen’s re-arranged / crippled version prevailed over the original ever since (only very few soloists turn back to Tchaikovsky’s original). For details see my review from a concert in Zurich on 2017-06-25.

Inevitably & sadly, the version performed in this concert was Fitzenhagen’s. Just as in all live performances that I have witnessed so far.

The Performance

Orchestra, Conductor

Kristiina Poska and the Tonhalle Orchestra supported the soloist with an excellent accompaniment, leaving very little, if anything, to wish for. My only, minor reservation is with the beginning, the very first bars: the articulation in the first violins sounded a little vague. True, they are bridging the rests in the other voices, but the softness of the articulation made this sound (a little bit) like sloppiness in dynamics & coordination. I’m sure some or all of it was intentional. My preference would just have been a tad more clarity in the articulation.

That was rapidly forgotten, though, as already with the pizzicati and the beautiful horn solo in the second half of the introduction, we found ourselves fully immersed in Tchaikovsky’s atmosphere and soundscape. In fact, throughout the concert, the orchestra proved to be in excellent shape, alert, motivated, and virtually flawless, near-perfect. Kristiina Poska’s conducting was devoid of show effects, but featured clear, factual gestures, always to the point. And the conductor received excellent, attentive support by the concertmaster (Andreas Janke) and the first cellist (Thomas Grossenbacher). To me, the excellent cooperation between conductor and orchestra was a clear sign of mutual trust and familiarity.

Solo

Julia Hagen introduced herself with the actual Rococo theme: emphasis (not exaggerated, though), expressive tone with a harmonious vibrato, relatively mellow in the articulation, and definitely highly musical. She does not press / enforce the tone, maintains elasticity in the dynamics, as well as in the agogics. Delightful, how she applied a ritenuto to the four portato semiquavers at the climax in the second part of the theme!

One key impression about Julia Hagen’s playing was her calm: she was never dragging, nor did she ever rush. Certainly, she took her time to play out lyrical passages. However, ayt all times, one could observe an excellent cooperation between soloist and accompaniment / conductor. My main quibble was with a certain “cloudiness” in the tone / articulation. This occasionally caused faster passages to sound somewhat blurred. This could in parts have been my personal impression and taste. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was missing a more percussive left hand, and/or a more percussive use of the bow?

In Fitzenhagen’s version of the variations, it takes up to Variation VII (originally III) and the Coda, until the soloist is finally allowed to let loose and inject fire into the solo part. Julia Hagen took this at quite a virtuosic pace. The orchestra of course followed—as alert and precise as ever, and full of momentum. A fulminant ending. One can see why Fitzenhagen moved variation III to the end—for the mere effect of a brilliant closure!

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Liszt: Piano Concerto No.1 in E♭ major, S.124

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) wrote his Piano Concerto No.1 in E♭ major, S.124 between 1830 (first sketches) and 1856 (publication). For additional information see my earlier concert reviews from 2017-10-22 in Zurich and on 2018-11-28 in Lucerne. The movement annotations are as follows:

  1. Allegro maestoso (4/4)
  2. Quasi adagio (12/8) — L’istesso tempo (4/4) —
  3. Allegretto vivace (3/4) — Allegro animato (2/2) —
  4. Allegro marziale animato (4/4) — Più mossoAlla breve, più mosso (2/2) — Più Presto — Presto

The Performance

I. Allegro maestoso

In her looks, Aimi Kobayashi is understating: all the more, she surprised the audience with the virtuosic tempo, at which she decidedly threw herself into the triple-octaves of the first solo. Not only did the pianist demonstrate extreme agility, but she also used very pronounced agogics and rubato, especially in the rocket-like accelerando, e.g., already in the first grandioso cadenza. Then again, she could switch to very fine, subtle and serene pp playing, whenever Liszt allowed for a lyrical moment (e.g. in the cadenza prior to [B] in the score).

Prior to [C], in the two bars preceding the con impeto solo, the orchestra completely covered the piano with its ff—but I guess it takes almost titanic forces at the piano to beat the orchestra here. Certainly, Aimi Kobayashi did not try to impress with power, even though grandioso passages such as the chord cascades after [C] were very impressive. Rather, her strength was in flexibility (the rubato!) and agility. Especially of course in the sleek, glittering runs at the end of the movement.
★★★★

II. Quasi adagio — L’istesso tempo

Calm in tempo and attitude, dreamy singing, relaxed, with pronounced agogics: beautiful, this short halt on the first-beat pause in bar 16, and the subtlety in the finest ppp (and below)! Aimi Kobayashi kept that serene, calm atmosphere also through the ff climax prior to the descent that leads into the L’istesso tempo part [D]. Needless to say that there was a pronounced pause at this point, before the orchestra set in (p, espressivo)—and Kristiina Poska managed not to lose any tension.

It’s a movement that suits the character of Aimi Kobayashi’s playing very well. Particularly with the serene singing in the lyrical segments. At the central climax, the pianist showed the right amount of power, agility and virtuosity—just to return to the beautiful una corda singing tone in the finest pianissimo, very calm and peaceful (quieto). She maintained that through the long trill in the final segment, when the piano is merely accompaniment to the orchestra. An enchanting performance!
★★★★

III. Allegretto vivace — Allegro animato

Already the orchestra started with a very fluent pace. When Aimi Kobayashi joined in (Capriccioso scherzando), she even switched to a slightly faster pace, keeping the last staccato quaver in each phrase decidedly short, almost abrupt. The tempo felt a little on the fast side. Yet, the soloist occasionally seemed to urge towards an even (slightly) faster pace. Her playing was very light, agile, subtle—maybe even too subtle, considering that Liszt composed this (also) into his own hands?

The Allegro animato brings back the initial theme, gradually building up to fff for the transition to the last movement. Here, it felt as if the soloist was reaching limits in power—and this continued into the last movement:
★★★

IV. Allegro marziale animato — Più mosso — Alla breve, più mosso — Più Presto — Presto

Liszt marked the piano part with strepitoso (noisy, boisterous), later più rinforzando, and the like. Here, Aimi Kobayashi appeared to compensate limitations in power with extra agility and lightness. True, Liszt also marked incalzando (urging) and later non ritenere (don’t hold back). So, some push in tempo is in order, and the tempo keeps accelerating towards the end. I suspect that the composer saw this last part with somewhat more thundering, extroverted virtuosity. Still, the soloist demonstrated astounding virtuosic abilities, especially in terms of agility and fast fingers / hands: congrats!
★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Dvořák: Symphony No.9 in E minor, op.95, B.178, “From the New World”

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) wrote his Symphony No.9 in E minor, op.95, B.178, “From the New World”, in 1893, during his stay in New York. The four movements are

  1. Adagio — Allegro molto
  2. Largo
  3. Scherzo: Molto vivace — Poco sostenuto
  4. Allegro con fuoco

Additional information on the symphony is available from Wikipedia, as well as in earlier concert reviews.

Orpheum Concert 2020-03-04 @ Tonhalle Maag: Kristiina Poska (© Thomas Entzeroth)
Orpheum Concert 2020-03-04 @ Tonhalle Maag, Zurich: Kristiina Poska (© Thomas Entzeroth)

The Performance

I. Adagio — Allegro molto

Already the 8-bar introduction showed careful, diligent dynamics—and a remarkable calm, leaving time for the pauses—yet building tension / expectation. Then, the main theme: pure joy to watch the orchestra in excellent, prime condition, attentive, active, cooperative, picking up Kristiina Poska’s impulses, filling the music with drive and momentum! Powerful, expansive dynamics, excellent coordination, clear articulation, expressive cantilenas—all voices really pure delight! Kristiina Poska left plenty of time for lyrical moments, then swiftly (but harmoniously) returning to the original fluent pace.

The performance remained highly differentiated in the musical flow. The conductor obviously has a very clear vision, a good feel for the structure. A performance full of momentum—never even a trace pompous.

My only quibble: the exposition was not repeated (leaving the movement somewhat short, despite its size). However, this may have been due to time constraints.
★★★★

II. Largo

Very careful and detailed dynamics, already in the first bars in the brass. Then, this beautiful cantilena cor anglais: warm, atmospheric, full of emotion, but never even a trace overblown. The ppp in the strings was extremely subtle, gentle, almost like from behind the scenes (or from another world?). Yet, it always remained clear, transparent, retaining presence and intensity. Kristiina Poska avoided all unnecessary larmoyance, e.g., in the muted strings after [3] (Poco meno mosso). At [4], the music started as a serene idyl, went through a controlled build-up—just to return to the bucolic cor anglais melody, maintained warmth, intensity, even suspense through the fermatas. And these colors… masterful!
★★★★½

III. Scherzo: Molto vivace — Poco sostenuto

Virtuosity, splendor, precision: brilliant, for sure! The Poco sostenuto (Trio) once more exposed the excellent wind soloists, the colors. It also re-confirmed Kristiina Poska’s excellent sense for tempo, and for natural, harmonious transitions. Together with the orchestra, she was able to form impressive dramatic arches. Her tempo in general was fluent, certainly, she avoided excessive indulging and over-stretching passages. Nothing was ever overblown or pompous. And at no point was there ever a danger of tension getting lost: compelling, convincing throughout!
★★★★

IV. Allegro con fuoco

Here now, Kristiina Poska definitely let the powers of the orchestra loose—yet, she managed not to overload the limitations of the acoustics in this venue, avoiding excesses. I liked the clarity of the performance, the excellent tempo: fluent, full of drive, though never pushed. And the conductor kept up the tension, also in calmer, softer segments. In its length and variety, the need to maintain flow and tension across long phrases / arches, this definitely is the most challenging of the movements.

It is pointless to try mentioning all qualities of the orchestra, such as the beautiful, singing cantilenas in the cello, the top-class woodwinds, the splendid brass. No, the one, little mishap in the horn did not affect the result at all! The enthralling coda made listeners forget about this. As it turned out, the orchestra still had plenty of reserves for an extra build-up the final bars.
★★★★

True, one could argue that the artists did not really try exposing the Bohemian heritage, which—besides the American influence—is also present in this music. However, in this performance, one did not really miss that component. A splendid, brilliant interpretation overall: congrats!

Overall Rating: ★★★★


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