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Ray's Concert Reviews

by Ray Chowkwanyun
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Freitag, 20.Aug.99 19.30 Uhr

Row 6, about a dozen seats left of center in the parterre. About four rows back would've been better, I think.

Kancheli Lament for Violin and Women's Voice and Orchestra (1984)

Violin: Gidon Kremer
Soprano: Maacha Deubner

Beethoven Symphony No. 3

Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Orchestra: Rotterdam Philharmonic

  The Kancheli is one of those modern pieces where the soprano starts out in the left rear of the orchestra and in the middle of the piece, surreptitiously tip toes through the orchestra to a place on the right of the conductor. The piece began and ended with small scrapings on the violin by the soloist - looking very old and very bald. I suppose it was life beginning and life ending or something like that. In between, I thought it was very beautiful in places, if about fifteen minutes over long. Others, less enthusiastic, opined it was more like thirty minutes over. I found the pairing of violin and soprano to be surprisingly pleasing. The two made for a very pleasing duet.

One big long continuous piece. No commercial interruptions whatsoever. It sounded very derivative. I heard bits of the Prokofieff Violin concertos and Rachmaninoff - not surprising given that the conductor, Gergiev, is Russian (head honcho at the Kirov). Also, Debussy (piano parts) and Also Sprach (big bombastic bits).

The musicians gave it about as committed a reading as it is possible to imagine. A bit of stage business ensued at the beginning - there was a delay and we heard the soloist playing some short snatches. Presumably a last minute artistic difference of opinion was taking place.

At the end, the composer himself appeared. A kindly old gent in long white moustaches and a velvet suit.

A completely convincing performance of the Beethoven followed. In the spirit of the piece, Gergiev laid right into it with no pause whatsoever. His cummerbund fell off during the slow movement and he scrambled to hide it under the score. Later, a woman fainted and had to be carried out. It was turning into a long night for our tovarisch, what with the long pause before the Kancheli and now this.

The great thing about Gergiev is he isn't afraid to allow the music room to breath, especially during the slow movement. There were long elegiac passages where I just closed my eyes and let the beauty wash over me. He is a master at manipulating the tempo to suit the mood of the music, making especially telling use of the hesitant pause. i.e. he is not afraid of silence, but incorporates it into the music. For a conductor of the Mendelssohnian school, silence is always problematic. When the music is going, all is fine: the conductor and orchestra gallop along. But what to do about rests? They are a barrier to be hurdled over, essentially antithetical to the Mendelssohnian aesthetic. By contrast, a Wagnerian style conductor seeks always to penetrate beneath the surface of the score to the heart of each composition. This means he quite naturally sees the piece in its entirety - including the silences. Rests are no longer an alien entity but an integral part of the music, fully expected, fully built up to, fully integrated into the body of the music.

Gergiev is also a master of dynamics. His trademark is a nervous fluttering of the fingertips. It's quite showy, but it's all genuine and in the service of the music. Nothing is contrived or calculated. It's actually a quite accurate, quite precise way of indicating extremely subtle nuances in dynamics so that forte is never just forte, but forte plus or forte plus plus and sometimes even forte plus plus plus. These very delicate shadings of dynamics add inestimably to the expressive power of the music.

Also characteristic of Gergiev, the strings exhibit beautiful rounded tones. He gets the same dulcet tones out of his Kirov and the Met orchestra as well. The Rotterdammer brass is, alas, merely adequate. A bit too thin and blatty for my taste. I admit to being an addict of the rich calorie laden sound of German brass which is never harsh and always so smoooth. In contrast, the woodwind section is excellent. Big, weighty sound and very woody. The drummers are likewise excellent. The bass drum in particular producing spectacular sounds. This hall is really wonderful to the drums. One can hear every little subtle nuance of skin vibration. It has to be heard to be believed. Even in the Musikverein you don't hear drums like this.

Usually Gergiev conducts without baton, but for Beethoven, he needed the big guns. The selected weapon was a short stubby baton which he sometimes transferred to and grasped in the left hand when he wanted to go sans baton 

The Kancheli was nice, but I need sonata form and Gergiev is a master of this form. He knows how to build tension and how to relax again. At some climaxes he would go into "pile driver" mode and with both hands together make like he was hammering a piton into the ground. Doug Sax once told me the difference between a world class orchestra and your good average local orchestra is about ten decibels (db). In which case, the Rotterdammers are about three db short. There were times when Gergiev begged for more and they just couldn't supply it. Gad, I'd like to see him at the controls of a really world class machine like the Vienna Philharmonic, who, by the way, are another three db above the rest of the world (including their great rivals the Berliners).

The performance was signature Gergiev. But at the same time, signature Beethoven. That is the paradox of Beethoven. To be truly Beethoven, a conductor has to make it truly his own. Has to find and speak with his own voice. Otherwise it is not Beethoven. It is merely machine music.

At the end, ten (very enthusiastic) curtain calls.

'nuff said.

This report powered by Brahms' German Requiem (as conducted by Der Klump).



The New Auditorium at
Luzern, Switzerland


Bottom line: ya gotta go.


The Architecture

Looking across the lake, the new concert hall is situated to the left of the Bahnhof and complements the architecture of the older building, itself an impressive looking specimen. The signature element of the new hall is the roof which juts out, paper thin for what seems like a mile, producing a vast canopy under which people naturally gather and shelter before, during and after concerts (we are, after all, in the "Sink of Switzerland" which is a popular name for Luzern due to the often inclement weather of which we got a full taste (rained continuously from the night before until just about two hours before curtain time)). 

There is a terrasse at the topmost balcony level which allows you to get up close and personal with this fabulous roof from which point you feel as if you are beneath the belly of some vast gray spaceship. The corner of the roof is especially impressive, a huge, razor sharp arrowhead seemingly about to launch itself across the lake to the mountains beyond. Indeed, from the bridge, it looks like one of those menacingly evil battle cruisers from Star Wars. And from the ground, the razor sharp edge of the roof is strongly reminiscent of the monolith from 2001. The architect, Jean Nouvel, must be a science fiction fan.

This is what architecture is all about: making use of the physical setting, being a good neighbour to existing buildings, and inspiring the patrons before the music even begins. And in a very warm and welcoming way. This building is never cold as some Bauhaus architecture can be. Excepting the jutting roof, it is a glass palast, elegantly and logically laid out inside. 

How great is this building? Even the restrooms are worth a visit. The visual ideas from the outside are carried on inside, producing a complete unity of design. Mimicing that slab of a roof, the sink is one long slab also (of green glass), tilted away from the patrons so that the water flows away into a crack at the bottom. This green theme is carried on through to the floor which is covered in dark green slabs of marble.

In a relief from the unrelenting squareness of Bauhaus, the lobby wall swells out in the most sensuous curve and is covered in warm wood.


The Auditorium

In a word, an updated Musikverein. A simple little shoebox holding 1'200 lucky concertgoers. The architects have finally learned not to chop up the vertical space with big overhanging balconies as was so much the vogue in the sixties (our downtown LA barn is a lamentable example). The wraparound balconies hold no more than three rows, swelling in back to accommodate more. There are four balcony levels in all and all the space above the parterre is completely empty. There is a floating ceiling that may be raised or lowered as the occasion dictates. Likewise many of the side panels can be rotated for various acoustic effects which I cannot explain, not being an acoustician.

The walls are predominately white, relieved with blond wood. The walls are covered with honeycombed tiles of variegated design whose purpose, presumably, is to diffuse the sound - a function performed in the Musikverein by its riot of baroque decorations and above all, that proud parade of caryatids. I rapped on some of the tiles afterwards and they appeared to be made up of wood with a cardboard backing and painted with a dull white paint, presumably chosen for its acoustic properties (Michael Green tells me different paint will reflect the sound differently).

Do the tiles succeed? Well partially anyway. The extremes of the frequency range are a complete and, ahem, resounding success. The bass drum sounds to shattering effect. From the sixth row, one feels pressure on the chest when that mighty instrument is whacked. In all too many auditoriums, the bass drum is swallowed up, appearing to sound more like a toy drum. At the other end of the spectrum, the hall appears to be able to reproduce sounds out to the supersonic with weight and warmth, never sounding edgy or sharp.

This hall is particularly kind to the female voice. The soprano in the first piece fairly blossomed out, her voice sounding with weight and great warmth in a way she would not in the Musikverein. If I have one criticism of the Golden Hall, it is that it is not so kind to the soprano voice. Please don't misunderstand me, the Musikverein doesn't murder the female voice, it just doesn't sound as warm as at Luzern.

It's in the middle that we have problems. The rich harmonic structure of bells is not reproduced quite correctly. You get the fundamental tone, but the harmonies are swallowed up, robbing the bells of their richness. You can hear this as well in the orchestral tuttis which sound smeared and blurred robbing them of their full impact. (Of course, this could be the Rotterdammers.) Woodwinds sound lovely - really woody and warm. The piano sounds like a piano. Solo violin was no problem. The first piece began with some little squeaks from solo violin and we had no problem hearing every nuance. (Indeed, you can hear the rumbling of the lady's stomach in row twenty (just kidding). But you can hear the sound of the conductor turning the pages of the score from row six (no kidding).) The problem seems to come a little higher up. I'm not golden eared enough to be able to give you the exact frequency number, but there is a problem and the Musikverein remains secure on its throne of World's Best Auditorium.

All this is, of course, based on a single datapoint. I would dearly like to hear Gergiev conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in this hall to get a better gauge on the building.

OK. Second datapoint. If the three rows behind the orchestra are relieved of their human cargo, the smearing problem described above disappears. All is stunningly clear as a bell (literally, the percussionist ended the piece by gently tapping on some bells). Comparing Luzern with the Musikverein is like comparing a new and an old Krugerrand. The one is freshly minted and shiny new. Every note sparkles with detail. The other has the patina of age and sounds more burnished, more rounded, warmer. The one is Spring, the other golden Autumn. No need to choose between the two. Rather, rejoice that there is a new star in the firmament of great auditoriums and split your custom between the two.

This report powered by Brahms' German Requiem (as conducted by Der Klump).

-- Ray













































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