Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

The first concert I ever attended in Yerevan was the Armenian State Youth Orchestra.  I had remembered that they were relatively good, compared with the adult Armenian Philharmonic, and tonight’s concert confirmed my recollection.

The Tschaikowsky Sixth Symphony allowed the orchestra to demonstrate its warm tones, which progressively heated up throughout.  The young conductor Sergey Smbatyan, who founded the orchestra in 2005 (when his father headed the Yerevan Conservatory), took the first two movements deliberately and probably too carefully, considering that the Orchestra could easily handle this music.  The third movement presto went to the other extreme, performed rather faster than normal, but at a pace that the Orchestra could keep.  The final movement brought everything together nicely.  Honestly, the adult orchestra does not manage to get this level of musicality, in tone, attack, and precision.  Smbatyan conducts without a baton, with his palms left open and facing downwards, almost as though he is petting the orchestra; yet his motions are clear and precise, and the Orchestra followed with no problem.  Currently based in London, Smbatyan has started to appear on more European orchestras’ radars.

The first half of the concert, offering Schostakowitsch’s First Violin Concerto, did not achieve the same level as the second half.  Smbatyan and the Orchestra tried, as did soloist Guy Braunstein, but something did not click.  Braunstein became the Berlin Philarmonic’s youngest-ever concertmaster in 2000 (when he was just 29) and retired at the end of last season in order to pursue a solo career.  During the two faster movements (second movement scherzo and fourth movement burlesque) he certainly demonstrated dexterity.  The slower movements (first movement nocturne and third movement passacaglia) did not offer him the same opportunities, and they emerged more workmanlike than thrilling, even though Schostakowitch’s typical chromatic games should have made them more fascinating.  The performance was not bad, and perhaps better than I had anticipated before the concert, until I discovered Braunstein’s bio during the intermission which caused me to re-evaluate.

I did not manage to find a program until the intermission (the students who were supposed to hand them out got lazy and stopped early, but they left the stash behind somewhere), so I got to listen to Braunstein before reading his biography.  As long as I thought he too was still a student (he certainly looked much younger than 42 – I am used to performers using old file photos for their program profiles but then looking older; seldom is it the other way around where the official photo makes the performer look older than in real life) I was more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; after reading his biography, I was left wondering what went wrong.

Perhaps it came from insufficient rehearsal with this orchestra and conductor, but this was something I could not observe.  Although I had an excellent seat and got a good listen (undisturbed by the audience, which was small but well-behaved), I actually saw very little.  The concert was being filmed for television, and two large cameras with cameramen filled the middle aisle and blocked my view of a good part of the stage.  Different spotlights than usual were left on throughout the concert to illuminate the room, but two of them above and behind the orchestra were unfortunately directed straight into my eyes, so I could not observe very much (I mostly had to keep my eyes closed and just listened).  This means I could not see the interaction between Braunstein and Smbatyan, which might have given me more clues.  I may try to get that seat again for future concerts, though, just for the acoustics (they do not normally film concerts, so the partly-obstructed and partly-blinded view will not often repeat).

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