Stephen Waarts, Juan Pérez Floristán, Howard Griffiths / Orpheum Supporters Orchestra
Ravel / Chausson / Gershwin / Shostakovich

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2019-09-15

4-star rating

2019-09-19 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction — The Orpheum Foundation for the Advancement of Young Soloists

Every year, the Orpheum Foundation for the Advancement of Young Soloists selects 4 – 8 young talents for their support program. For the duration of that tutelage, the foundation offers extensive support in the form of concert opportunities, possibly even a CD recording. That support is often instrumental in launching the international career of a musician. Since its inception in 1991, the Foundation has supported a large number of artists under its tutelage. The list of their names reads like a “who is who?” among the younger generation of artists. This proves that the Foundation is highly successful in its activities.

The tutelage typically culminates in a concert in Zurich’s main concert venue (the Tonhalle Zurich, currently the Tonhalle Maag): a chamber music concert for ensembles, an orchestral concert with a world-class orchestra and conductor for soloists. I have reported about a number of these in my blog. For the Orpheum Foundation, this was the year’s second “Young Soloists On Stage” concert in Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag. And as usual, the organizer presented two promising, young talents, Stephen Waarts and Juan Pérez Floristán.

A Different / Unusual Orpheum Concert?

In some ways, this event differed from the usual Orpheum concerts. I think it is worthwhile giving some background information about the concept that applies to this event, as opposed to regular “Young Soloists On Stage” concerts. This information was kindly provided by the foundation’s managing director, Thomas Pfiffner. Let’s first look at the “regular” Orpheum concerts (all of the Foundation’s events that I attended in the past fall into this category):

A Look at Typical Orpheum Concerts

To the “ordinary” concert attendee, the traditional “Young Soloists On Stage” concerts look like regular concerts with usually two young soloists. These perform one instrumental concert each (or occasionally a double concerto). Typically, this is preceded by an orchestral opening piece, and complemented by a closing (major) orchestral work. Sure, Orpheum concerts feel more festive than ordinary concerts: there will be a welcome note by the president of the Foundation, Dr. Hans-Heinrich Coninx. The Foundation will also hire a radio moderator to introduce the soloists, and to moderate the event.

As stated, the orchestra typically is a top-class symphony orchestra under a prominent conductor. Mostly, it will be the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. However, I have also attended concerts with the Bamberger Symphoniker, or with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. These orchestras performed conductors such as Vladimir Ivanovich Fedoseyev, Christoph Eschenbach, Michael Sanderling, and David Zinman. These may or may not be members of the Foundation’s advisory committee.

There is Much More to it!

  • Less obvious to the public, the Orpheum Foundation invites producers, concert agents and organizers, in order to allow the artists to establish contacts. This opens up up opportunities for further steps in their career, for future concerts and recordings, etc.
  • In addition, the Foundation will arrange for an audio or video recording of the concert. The resulting recordings may be broadcast, the resulting videos or CDs may help opening doors to further engagements, concert opportunities, recording contracts, etc.
  • For these support activities to be effective, to have the most focus towards the concert and the artist, the Foundation wants to ensure some exclusivity to the event. The support contract stipulates that for the duration of the contract, the artist is not supposed to have competing performances (typically in Switzerland). These might affect the success of the “Young Soloists On Stage” concert.

What was Different in This Concert?

Primarily / on the surface, the orchestra wasn’t a regular, professional “world-class symphony orchestra”, but rather a semi-professional orchestra that grew out of the activities of the Foundation, the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra, see below. With this, the orchestra’s performance had more focus, a more central role in the event. And the repertoire for the two soloists did not feature a full violin or piano concerto with multiple movements. Rather the artists played one limited-size, single-movement piece of around 15 – 20 minutes each. Also, there was no radio moderator introducing the artists. Rather, the conductor, Howard Griffiths (*1950, see also Wikipedia), gave brief introductions to the compositions.

One might see this as a disadvantage for the young soloists. However, the concert still was recorded and still was fully in the scope of the Foundation’s support activities. The main difference was that in compensation for the “semi-professional accompaniment” (and the associated restriction in the performance duration / repertoire), the contract agreement does not include the exclusivity clause mentioned above. In other words, the artists are free to perform in concerts without the involvement of the Foundation. As an example, Juan Pérez Floristán appear in Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag on 2020-03-23, in a solo recital organized by the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft, as part of their Série Jeunes.


The Orpheum Supporters Orchestra

In 2016, in order to expand its scope in supporting the advancement of young soloists, the Foundation’s Artistic Director, conductor Howard Griffiths, founded the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra—a rather unusual, unique orchestral formation! Among the around 85 members of the orchestra, only around 10 are professional musicians. All other members are working in a large variety of professions. Many work in management, are entrepreneurs, doctors, directors, lawyers, etc., and they all have had excellent musical education. Some have had professional musical education, but now work in management. As an example: the concertmaster, Fabienne Leresche Tönz, is a musician, but now works as National Field Sales Manager for an international company.

With their engagement in this orchestra, these people expand the Foundation’s support activities. They offer additional concert opportunities to young artists. As the review below will show, one should by no means underestimate the capabilities of this orchestra. Indeed, what they achieve is truly astounding. This was the third concert with this formation, and the plan is to perform concerts with the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra on a biannual basis.

How Do They Do It?

Dr. Hans-Heinrich Coninx is President of the Orpheum Foundation, and he plays in the cello section of the orchestra. As a typical member, he was publisher and president of the board in one of Switzerland’s biggest publishing houses—and he was instrumental in the creation of the Orpheum Foundation. In his opening address, Coninx explained how the orchestra was called into action:

In April, five months prior to the concert, Howard Griffiths sent out “calls to duty” (Dr. Coninx even referred to it as “marching order”, as in military) to each of the orchestra members, together the person’s personal sheet music. That meant: rehearsing, rehearsing… (some more, some presumably less). A mere one week prior to the concert, the orchestra members convened for rehearsals. These were first for individual voices, then for groups of voices (e.g., all strings, or all wind instruments). On Friday, there was the first rehearsal with the entire orchestra, On Saturday, morning and afternoon, two rehearsals with the soloists. Finally, the dress rehearsal happened on Sunday, followed by the concert.

Clearly, this is a challenging rehearsal schedule, not much different from that of professional orchestras. And it indicates that this ensemble is far from a lay orchestra. Of course, there are still major differences to a fully professional orchestra. One of those was that some instrumentalists (understandably) seemed more nervous than others…

Soloists

Stephen Waarts, Violin

The violinist Stephen Waarts (*1996 in the USA) is of Dutch-American origin. He started his studies with Li Lin at the San Francisco Conservatory. From there, he moved to the Curtis Institute, to study with Aaron Rosand (1927 – 2019). Stephen Waarts won the second prize at the 2013 Montreal International Competition, and the first prize at the 2014 International Menuhin Competition. He also was a prizewinner at the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Competition. With these awards in his pocket, Stephen Waarts successfully launched an international solo career. At the same time, he is now continuing his studies at the Kronberg Academy in Germany, with Mihaela Martin.

Juan Pérez Floristán, Piano

Juan Pérez Floristán (*1993) was born in Sevilla / Spain. This is not my first encounter with the artist. On 2017-02-07, I heard him in a solo recital in the Semper-Aula of the main building of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in the context ofMusik an der ETH. There, he presented an impressive repertoire from Franz Liszt’s B minor Sonata to Claude Debussy, George Gershwin (!), Béla Bartók, and Alberto Ginastera. For details see my concert review from 2017. Juan Pérez Floristán also maintains a very active presence in the social media.

Conductor: Howard Griffiths

I don’t need to introduce Howard Griffiths. For the 10 years between 1996 and 2006, he has been the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Despite a large number of international engagements, he continues to be based in Zurich, where one of his key functions is that of Artistic Director of the Orpheum Foundation.

I have heard Howard Griffiths as conductor in concert several times—though his time with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra was before I started blogging. However, I did write reports about two concerts in 2018, where he conducted other orchestras: one on 2018-03-18 in Bern, with the Brandenburg State Orchestra. A more recent one was in Zurich, on 2018-12-02, with the Camerata Schweiz.

Program

Setting, etc.

The concert was not quite sold out (the weather probably was too nice—a clear, balmy late-summer evening), though well-attended. My wife and I were kindly offered press seats 13 & 14 in row 14, in the rear of the left-side stall block, close to the center of the hall.

Ratings

I decided not to rate the orchestra in the opening piece, and the ratings in the pieces by Chausson and Gershwin refer to the soloists only. The orchestra’s performance wasn’t that bad at all (read on, please!), through definitely not at the level of the orchestras in regular Orpheum concerts. The performance in the Suite by Shostakovich, however, had surprising qualities. So, I ended up rating the movements in that performance as well.


Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937): Pavane pour une infante défunte, M.19a

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) wrote his Pavane pour une infante défunte, M.19, in 1899, as a composition for piano solo, generally acknowledged to be a masterwork. This was while he was still studying composition at the Conservatoire de Paris under Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924). One year later, he got expelled from the institution. It was not his first piano composition—but the first one that made him widely known in the music community. Later, in 1910, he published an orchestral version (now listed as M.19a), which opened this concert.

The Performance

It sounds bad to start a concert review with critical remarks. However, my intent is to reproduce my live impressions, as sincerely as possible. Still, let me mitigate my opening remarks by inserting some (anticipating) general remarks:

Pitfalls of Working with a Semi-Professional Orchestra

There are obviously limitations to what one can achieve with a semi-professional ensemble, such as the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra. In the string section, the sheer number of players (14 + 13 violins, 8 violas, 12 cellos, and 4 double basses), together with the (small) proportion of professional players was hiding the differences in the level of experience. However, the wind section is essentially a collection of soloists, hence much more of a challenge for a semi-professional orchestra.

That said: the members of the orchestra have obviously done their homework over the past months. Despite the very short rehearsal period and the occasional mishaps. Over the course of the evening, the orchestra often produced results and a sound that were amazing—to a degree that I would not have expected from semi-professionals. Of course, the conductor was instrumental in achieving these results. Howard Griffiths, with his open, friendly and outgoing personality is an excellent motivator. He sure must be a joy to work with. In his conducting, he always uses lively, vivid gestures. Here now, he even intensified his visual contacts, his interaction with the orchestra. And under the given circumstances, the result was excellent!

On to Ravel’s Music…

Ravel’s Pavane certainly was a very atmospheric choice—an ideal fit & preparation to Ernest Chausson’s Poème. However, it may not have been the ideal opening for this occasion. Namely, in the opening bars, the horns and bassoons are cruelly exposed, with only pp and pizzicato accompaniment from the strings. And they must play a subtle pp themselves: a challenge even for professionals in the case of the horns. Not surprisingly, that beginning lacked the desired subtlety, understandably sounded somewhat shaky (also in the intonation), and too prominent.

Fortunately, after 7 bars, the beautiful, lyrical, melancholic melody moved into the strings. These produced a very subtle, smooth and homogeneous string sound: very good, indeed! The main deficiency in the performance expectedly was in limitations in the dynamic balance between strings and the wind instruments, and lacking subtlety in the latter. A very ambitious start—too ambitious, perhaps?


Ernest Chausson (1855 – 1899): Poème in E♭ major for Violin and Orchestra, op.25

Ernest Chausson (1855 – 1899) composed his Poème for Violin and Orchestra, op.25, in 1896. According to Wikipedia, it is “generally considered Chausson’s best-known and most-loved composition”. The initial title was Le Chant de l’amour triomphant (Chant of the triumphant love). Later, that changed to Poème symphonique, ultimately just Poème. The orchestral version performed here was the first one of three: a version with piano accompaniment followed, later one for violin, string quartet and piano.

As Howard Griffiths told the audience, it actually was the violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931) who suggested writing a violin concerto to Chausson. The latter felt overwhelmed by such a task and offered to write a shorter, one-movement work instead.

The Performance

Here, Stephen Waarts entered the podium. A tall, slender young man, apparently devoid of stage anxiety, yet modest and inconspicuous in his appearance. Needless to say that he played his part by heart: very subtle already in the first solo, soft and warm in the tone, with a harmoniously swaying vibrato. The latter was very adequate for this composition. I found his playing to be very atmospheric and full of emotion. It featured clear contours, clean intonation also in double-stop passages. He kept close contact with the conductor, and throughout the piece, he stayed calm, even when he was building up drama and intensity —the resting pole in the hall! A very touching piece and solo performance.

In the orchestra, I was impressed by the performance of the strings—not the least the viola and cello voices. Howard Griffiths had the orchestra perform with subtle dynamic control, especially in the strings, taking orchestra and soloist through the broad, intense climax. Chausson’t scoring is excellent, carefully avoiding covering the solo (with the help of mutes, where appropriate). And yes, there were the occasional, minor impurities in the wind section. And not all of the woodwind voices were always a subtle, clean and smooth as usually expected. However, it was the soloist who kept the listener’s attention—and his performance was essentially flawless.

Rating: ★★★★½ (Solo)


George Gershwin (1898 – 1937): “Rhapsody in Blue” for Piano and Orchestra

The “Rhapsody in Blue” is a work by the American composer George Gershwin (1898 – 1937). The Rhapsody originally was for solo piano and Jazz band. It was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé (1892 – 1972) several times, including the original 1924 scoring and the 1926 “theater orchestra” setting. And finally, the 1942 symphony orchestra scoring that we heard in this concert. I don’t need to introduce this composition. It is very well known, in its mix of Jazz elements and classical orchestra score. Howard Griffiths announced that “this is going to swing—and I can assure you: this orchestra can swing!”

The Performance

The composition opens with a famous clarinet solo, featuring a long upwards glissando. This was performed amazingly well—even though the clarinetist is not listed as a musician! The subsequent brass parts, though, were less convincing. Gradually, however, the orchestra grew into the Jazzy spirit of Gershwin’s composition, getting enthused. Despite the occasional impurities in the brass intonation, the orchestra played an instrumental part in enthralling the audience.

Of course, the key focus here was on the soloist, Juan Pérez Floristán, whose performance was simply stunning and instantly captured the attention of the audience. He performed the solo part with dedication, if not voluptuousness, yet clear, absolutely firm, virtuosic. At the same time, the artist remained relaxed, playful, with lively gestures in body and arms, obviously enjoying the swing, the extensive rubato. However, this wasn’t just empty show: he lived in this music, but did not play himself into the foreground. And, of course, he kept close contact with Howard Griffiths at all times.

I must concede that in the past I wasn’t really a fan of Gershwin’s music, the Rhapsody in Blue in particular. I must have heard it in bad recordings or rather superficial performances. OK, in comparison to a live concert, recordings on CD have a hard time conveying true Jazz spirit to the listener. Definitely, I came into this concert with some skepticism. However, Juan Pérez Floristán’s performance completely changed my opinion about this music. here, I found it fascinating, enthralling, excellent. Thanks for “unlocking” this piece for me!

Rating: ★★★★★ (Solo)


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975): The Gadfly Suite, op.97a (Excerpts)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) composed the music to the 1955 Soviet film The Gadfly, based on the novel of the same name by Ethel Lilian Voynich (1864 – 1960). From this music, the Soviet composer Levon Atovmian (Levon Tadevosovič Atovmʹân, 1901 – 1973) selected 12 pieces, which he arranged into a suite, now known as The Gadfly Suite, op.97a. The suite features the movements below. I have marked the ones that Howard Griffiths selected for the performance with the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra:

  1. Overture: Allegro con moto
  2. Contredanse
  3. Folk Festival (National Holiday): Allegro vivace
  4. Interlude: Adagio
  5. Barrel Organ Waltz: Allegretto
  6. Galop: Allegro
  7. Introduction (Prelude)
  8. Romance: Allegro moderato
  9. Intermezzo
  10. Nocturne: Moderato
  11. Scene
  12. Finale: Allegro non troppo

The Performance

In his brief introductory notes, Howard Griffiths mentioned that the Gadfly in the film stands for (no, not an insect!) a freedom fighter (he jokingly stated that today, we would probably call this a terrorist) who gets shot in the end. —

Note that the ratings below are to be taken with a grain of salt—they really just mean to indicate “better” vs. “not quite so brilliant”, etc.; in line with what I stated above, I decided not to give an overall rating.

I. Overture

Impressively coherent, firm & strong string sound! Shostakovich’s score is easier on the orchestra than Ravel’s and Chausson’s, of course: it focuses on pithy themes and motifs, much more than on orchestral colors and refinement (as found with the French composers). With this, there are also far fewer moments where the wind soloists are exposed / challenged.
★★★½

III. Folk Feast

A movement with drive & “pull”, under Howard Griffith’s firm guidance—the orchestra clearly liked and enjoyed this movement! Also the coordination was very good, the violins excellent again. Just the clarinets with their catchy solo—albeit sufficiently virtuosic—felt a bit pushed, occasionally coarse (too pithy), and rarely 100% in unison (often slightly impure).
★★★

IV. Interlude

Interestingly, the slow movements turned out a bigger challenge to the orchestra than the fast ones. The long notes expose even minor impurities in the intonation, especially in the wind section (clarinets, trombones)—the muting in the violins contributed to this. I did like the sound of the lower strings, though.
★★½

V. Barrel Organ Waltz

That’s a movement which I really liked in this performance: the strings often just with subtle pizzicato, the woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets) marking the playful sound of a little barrel organ. Very nice, atmospheric!
★★★½

VI. Galop

Another lively movement, playful, full of rhythm and drive, which the orchestra (and the audience) sure enjoyed! No complaints about the brass section here!
★★★½

VIII. Romance

A slight disappointment here, as the concertmaster’s violin seemed unable to develop full volume, sounded somewhat matte, dull. Was that the instrument? The nerves? The occasional impurities in the intonation spoke for the latter. Much better: the emphasis, the warmth and expression in the middle part, where the melody is carried by the strings in unison. Maybe slightly exaggerated in the romanticisms, though?
★★½

X. Nocturne

A movement with dramatic tremolo in the joint strings, accompanying the excellent lead cellist (Joachim Müller-Crepon) in his atmospheric, elegiac, intense, expressive solo: absolutely professional, undoubtedly. One of the highlights in this performance.
★★★½

XII. Finale

For the martial finale (what else was there to expect in film music from that time?), conductor and orchestra again pulled together all their forces, for a powerful closure of the official program.
★★★½


Encores / Conclusion

With the two encores, Howard Griffiths and his “partners in crime” added a fun ending to the concert, by performing two pieces of film music:

Not only the members of the orchestra, but primarily also the audience had real fun with this, as one could easily tell from the lively applause!

Finally: it may seem that my ear primarily focused on deficiencies. Nevertheless, I can assure you: I have truly enjoyed that concert—not just the memorable performances of the two Orpheum soloists! Thanks to everybody for this evening!



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