Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Orchestras are curious beings. I started 'collecting' them in a big way when I first lived in Berlin in 1975. The same orchestras I go and hear now are filled with people not even born then. Yet an orchestra is bigger than the entire cohort of players who represent it in any year.
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was formed in 1843. They played all of Beethoven's symphonies while Beethoven was still alive. (The picture here is from 1845, the orchestra under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn.) That's like a musical baton relay over almost two centuries, the older generations of the orchestra passing on their traditions and training to the new blood coming in.
I saw the Leipzig Gewandhaus at London's Barbican last night. They're playing under their 19th musical director, the 54 year-old Italian Riccardo Chailly, and clearly have a much-loved master at the helm.
Back in Berlin in 1975, seated rather grandly in the Philharmonie as I followed an unsuspecting private party into their box, an announcer informed the audience of a programme change, but not to worry, their modern piece was still there. The audience duly laughed. It seems a German tradition (being rather shaken at the Berlin Philharmonic now under Simon Rattle with his contemporary agenda) to add one inoffensive modern piece to the preferred traditional bill. The modern piece on that occasion was by Ligeti. It was an elegant and beautiful surprise. Since then I've learned to head for concert halls because of these modern composers rather than despite them. Last night, as well as wishing to experience the orchestra, I was tempted by the chance to hear Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten live.
I followed a couple of elderly ladies out of the auditorium after the concert, one they had loved on the whole, and heard their lament about that Pärt piece ... 'It was just a series of descending scales with bells, but at least it was mercifully short.' So no change there. As someone else might say of those scales (indeed last night's programme note by David Fanning did), 'The scale curls back on itself as it descends and is supported by iterations of the tonic triad, while the eventual point of repose acquires a shade of defiance thanks to the steady crescendo that leads into it.' The composer Thomas Ades claims he cannot understand the language of music critics and the tonic triads lose me (maybe music critics should borrow from wine writers and their 'hints of melon', referencing things we know), but I do love Pärt's haunting sonic soundscapes.
What surprised me last night was how solid classics of the concert repertoire were made new. The young Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos tackled Brahms' Violin Concerto. His cadenza, played on the 'Falmouth' Stradivarius if 1692, had an edge of 21st steel to it ... as an unattributed solo I would have wondered who the modern master was. Then I came to see how this concerto will always be masterly and new. The oboe starts the slow movement with a sweet solo, for example, strings all falling silent while a woodwind band takes over the show, then the violin suddenly kicks in with a variant of that theme, a wondrous task of listening and astonishing creative response.
Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony had the whole audience thrilling and reverberating with sound. That was the official close of the programme, but the audience had started the evening by applauding all the players onto the stage, even with a special round for one late viola player, and now their applause won its rewards. Chailly pulled yet more players onto the stage to fill it as we heard Puccini's intermezzo from Manon Lescaut then the fight scene from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.
Boy, these top German orchestras know how to put on an evening!


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