JWR Articles: Live Event - City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Conductor: Andris Nelsons) - August 17, 2010

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

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Great vibes in the KKL

If Anver Dorman’s Frozen in Time (2007) is an example of where classical music is going in the twenty-first century, then symphony orchestras and their admirers can breathe a sigh of relief.

This three-movement concerto for percussion and VERY LARGE orchestra truly has something for every generation and taste. If you crave copious amounts of sonic eruptions whose decibel count makes rock bands’ seem pianissimo, then the outer movements (“Indoafrica,” “The Americas”) will knock your socks off or loosen your permanent dentures. Got a hankering for ethereal introspection and old dance forms infused with hints of past masters (sicilianos and Mozart, in this case)? then hear no further than “Eurasia,” where the only fault lies in a wayward closing section that doesn’t quite seem to know how to bow out gracefully.

For those whose musical cranks are turned by technical challenges that leave the soloist sweating mallets and the crowd gasping in shock and “awdmiration” (we writers can create things too!) the solo part is a tour de force of (in this order) rhythm, tone/texture and strands of melody whose primary purpose is to fuel the “stickrotechnics” that leave every instrument burning up from the heat of torrid tribalism, jazz that won’t quit or slow motion wafts of emotion. Those last are as beautiful to watch lovingly released (never hit) out of the marimba or vibraphone as they are to savour then sear into take-away memory.

Percussionist Martin Grubinger brought the zesty score to magnificent life, equally at home with a fist full of mallets, non-edible drumsticks or a foot that never fails to find its target. Necessarily dashing to and fro between the keyboards, kit and cencerros (cowbells of the highest order), the nimble musician perfectly threw in a “snares off” timesaver on the way to Dorman’s next assignment. The orchestra responded in kind and the party was on. The only real blemish could be traced back to the podium where, similar to opening of the Prelude to Parsifal (which began this program) and the quietest, most delicate moments of the Tchaikovsky symphony to come, the ensemble was good, but never great and the sense of a forward-moving line was maddeningly missing in action.

After the crowd signalled its rabid enthusiasm for Grubinger’s artistry and athleticism (no one in less than top physical form could manage this musical workout), he returned to the stage with a single side drum and tore into a solo piece whose circus air and two-stick hijinks (this must go to YouTube) would be equally at home in Las Vegas clubs. Can we have that much fun at the symphony?

If the grid ever breaks down, conductor Andris Nelsons has enough energy and passion in his tall frame to keep the lights on in Lucerne for weeks. When loud and fast (especially if the baton is sidelined in favour of a truly hands-on approach: the improvement in ensemble is palpable) his talented colleagues shift into high gear—eager for the rollercoaster ride. When that works (much of the “Pathétique’s” “Allegro molto vivace” turned out fine) it’s a pleasure to be in the room. When it doesn’t (the first movement allegros were just silly, as if the carnival spirit that filled the air before intermission wouldn’t go home; his penchant for jumping up and down, crouching to make things softer and giving away the sudden surprises with grunts may titillate the audience but more often than not yielded another “untogether" result from the musicians) the exits start to beckon. In the more refined, yet still easily flowing sections (a few measures of Parsifal; all of the symphony’s dance movement—Allegro con grazia) Nelsons seemed at ease, eager and readily capable of “playing the orchestra.”

Now back to the truly quiet, delicate dreams of art that are the lifeblood of perhaps Wagner’s most extended, tender writing. The need to breathe—with the strings in particular—is paramount. Merely holding the baton and hope the sound will magically appear as one, then the miraculous changes made sotto voce (and completely in sync) while simultaneously jabbing at the players, produced more moments of discomfort than reverence and belief. Perhaps its time to drop the baton entirely and shape the music directly, more in the manner of Grubinger where his arch of lift, wait/weight then sound-release was, again, as beautiful to watch as to hear. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

Just a short walk (or take one of the many boat trips from the docks in the centre of Lucerne) is Wagner House. No trip is complete without a visit to the Richard Wagner Museum—an ideal experience before attending your next concert! JWR

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Conductor - Andris Nelsons
Percussionist - Martin Grubinger
Prelude to Parsifal - Richard Wagner
Frozen in Time - Avner Dorman
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 "Pathétique" - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
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