Beethoven, J. Haydn, Gruber

Latvian Conductor Andrís Nelsons was the main attraction of tonight’s concert at the Musikverein.  A protege of Mariss Jansons, Nelsons has burst onto the Vienna music scene recently and received glowing reviews here, but always when I have been out of town.  So now I had to see for myself.  He used to play first trumpet in the Latvian National Opera orchestra until he ended up taking the baton as an emergency fill-in about ten years ago, which launched his career, first as chief conductor of that orchestra, and now in Birmingham.

Nelsons has an unusual conducting style.  He provides a few measures of beat with his baton to get everyone started together.  But mostly he paints with the baton instead of beating with it.  His movements on the podium are athletic and sometimes acrobatic, but nevertheless restrained.  He generally holds still in some contorted position which expresses the mood of the music, and makes demonstrative cues and modifications with his hands, before jumping up and down a few times and landing in a new body position.  Every now and then he keeps beat for a few more measures to ensure the orchestra remains together.  The technique produces expressive results.

Tonight he led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which also requires some introduction.  A bunch of members of Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Youth Orchestra, perhaps the leading youth orchestra in Europe, wanted to continue to play together after they passed the orchestra’s age limit, so Abbado created the new orchestra for them.  They are “resident” in several European cities, which also means in none.  Tonight, they too performed athletically, their bodies swaying in broad circles along with the music as they played – whether they do this normally or only as a result of Nelsons, I do not know since I have not seen them play before.

Works by Beethoven book-ended the program, surrounding two trumpet concerti with Håkan Hardenberger, frequent guest in Vienna, as soloist.

The Beethoven works shone, particularly the Egmont Overture at the start of the concert.  The Seventh Symphony at the end of the program may have been less precise.  This chamber orchestra was actually larger than the reduced-size Tonkünstler I saw yesterday, which I suppose indicates what Zehetmair tried to accomplish yesterday.  The sound today filled the hall, but at the required moments remained subtle and restrained, particularly in the slow movement.  Nelsons adjusted the dynamics to great dramatic impact.

The first of the trumpet concerti, coming before the intermission, was that of Joseph Haydn.  Hardenberger sang with his instrument, in a somewhat subdued, mellow, tone.  Although I have appreciated him often in Vienna over the years, I do not believe I have heard him play any music written before the 20th century.  His playing remains technically excellent, but I am not convinced that this tone fully worked for Haydn, especially since it did not always come out purely or cleanly from the instrument.

After the intermission came the second trumpet concerto, “Busking,” written for Hardenberger in 2007 by the now 70-year-old Austrian composer H.K. Gruber, scored for trumpet, accordion, banjo, and string orchestra and obviously inspired by street music (at least in name and orchestration, if not in the actual musical style).  In reality, the concerto did not call for one trumpet, but several: Hardenberger emerged on stage with three instruments: a standard B-flat trumpet, a flugelhorn, and his favored C-trumpet, as well as a variety of mutes.  The piece began with Hardenberg playing the music using only his mouthpiece.  The first two minutes of this concerto provided amusement.  Unfortunately, the work lasted more than two minutes, with endless variations on the same lines.  But it went on and on interminably.  And on.  And on.  And on.  And when it finally finished, it became clear that was only the first movement.  Two more movements of utter boredom followed, making the work’s title anomalous.  Gruber knew we had all paid for our tickets in advance and therefore the performers were getting their money – if they actually tried to busk using this music, no one would have thrown them a single coin.  Perhaps someone might have thrown a tomato.  The work continued unbearably – never in an ugly way, just dully – for over half an hour.  If Gruber had nothing at all to say, he should not have said it at all.  Or he should have stopped at two minutes when the audience was still amused.  Boos rang out from the floor as soon as the work ended.  This was not fair for the performers, who actually played quite well, although during a rehearsal someone should have had the good sense to yell “stop” and refrain from performing this tedium in public, at least not to a captive audience in a concert hall.

In this regard, the time it took for the orchestra to warm back into the Beethoven Seventh may owe in part to the orchestra itself trying to recover from the immediately preceding work.  They would have been wiser to skip Busking and just launch directly into the symphony after the intermission.

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