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Orchestral Music Review Print

Warmth, Precision and Transparency from Austrian Orchestra

November 10, 2009 - Winston-Salem, NC:

The Bruckner Orchester Linz played in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University as part of the Secrest Series, and under the no-nonsense direction of its Music Director, American-born conductor, Dennis Russell Davies.  Obviously challenged by the restricted size of the stage, the orchestra squeezed (most of) itself on the stage, forgoing a stand of violins in the concerto and a double bass later on.  Unfortunately, the slow steady drizzle, sopping autumn leaves and the pending legal holiday (Veteran’s Day) brought out a very enthusiastic but small audience in the cavernous hall.

And there was much to be enthusiastic about!  This orchestra is first rate, and excepting a dozen “super-star” orchestras (Concertgebouw, Chicago Symphony, Czech Philharmonic, et al.), it can match or excel most major orchestras in the U.S. and elsewhere.  The strings were warm and the winds (except for the trumpets in the first work) discreet yet colorful.  The orchestra has depth and variety – the principal woodwinds in the Haydn are of a nuanced subtlety to be envied, yet different from the principals in the concluding work by Bernstein and the rotary-valve trumpeters of the Haydn switched to piston trumpets in the Bernstein.

Most of us are used to the din and clamor of an orchestra warming up for as much as half an hour before the concert.  Personally, I love this anticipatory hubbub - as long as the trumpet is not rehearsing his Petrushka solo or the trombone her Bolero solo.  While I have seen the Berlin Philharmonic come on stage, fully tuned, and attack the overture without even tuning, the Linz orchestra comes onstage (including the concertmaster) in two long lines, to the extended (and somewhat forced) applause of the audience - and then tune: no on-stage warm-up!

This writer can never hear too much Haydn, and the Symphony No. 101 in D, “The Clock,” named for the tell-tale ticking which accompanies almost the entire second movement, is an especial favorite.   The whole Symphony was delightful, even the usually sober-sided Menuetto, with its displaced accents and droll bag-pipe-ish Trio.  Several times, Haydn playfully tempts the listener to think a movement is over – only to continue in a new key (in the Andante) or to add another statement of the theme, as near the end of the last movement.  Delightful!

In our part of the country, we do not hear much minimalist music, a repetitive style much in vogue with American composers ever since the 1970s.  So it was with a sense of anticipation and curiosity that the audience greeted the next work on the program, Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987).   Glass (b. 1937) is one of the most frequently played composers of the movement called Minimalism, which includes Terry Riley and Steve Reich in the U.S. and Arvo Pärt in Europe.  Marked by carefully structured repetitive pulsing chords, complicated hemiola and long musical surfaces, this style is the antithesis of the serialists and post-serialist modernists (Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lutosławski, etc.) – it rarely shocks or startles the listener, rather, it lulls him.  A colleague sitting nearby found the second movement conducive to meditation, while I kept waiting for musical events and contrasts.  And just when I thought it would never end, it didn’t; eventually it ran out of gas and stopped.  The third movement, more active than the first two, ends recapturing some of the flavor of the first movement. 

The violin soloist was the young Frenchman, Renaud Capuçon (b. 1976), a rising star in the musical pantheon.  It is difficult to comment on his style and musicality in a work which defies traditional analysis, but Mr. Capuçon played in tune, with an agreeable tone and an apparently sound technique.  I look forward to hearing this young virtuoso in other repertory, either on tour or from his already large discography.

After intermission we were treated (and I mean, treated!) to a sizzling performance of Leonard Bernstein’ Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  Opting for a relaxed tempo, Maestro Davies brought out rhythms and counter-rhythms with a clarity and transparency rarely heard.  And the plethora of pounding percussionists lined up around the back of Wait Chapel beat the bejezus out of the Latin-inspired rhythms.  The long flute cadenza was gorgeous as were the horn solos, although the bass clarinet had a bit of trouble getting into the “swing” of the piece.  What fun to hear an Austrian orchestra excel in this quintessentially American work.