Bruckner, Aho, Miki, Strauss

The Finnish composer Kalevi Aho wrote a “Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra” – premiered in London in 2012.  This evening, the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz and its music director Markus Poschner brought it to Salzburg’s Great Festival House, with soloist Martin Grubinger.

Grubinger describes himself as a “multi-percussionist,” which seems apt having seen him perform this work.  He and a few stage hands set up what must have been at least thirty different percussion instruments across the front of the stage, and he ran around for over half an hour playing all of them (the orchestra’s own three percussionists each got several of their own to play too!).  I cannot say I am sure about the logic of the concerto: it was oddly tonal, and with so many sounds (not all from European orchestra instruments – some borrowed from other musical traditions) it constantly had something new to say.  But the entire concept escaped me, so I instead focused on watching Grubinger run around and make all this music, which was itself exhilarating.  In that sense, maybe Aho’s logic was only providing a platform for a “multi-percussionist.”  (Figure skating came to mind: I can appreciate the skill and athleticism of a figure skater, but it’s not a real sport – that takes nothing away from admiring the skater, but skating is no more a sport than ballet is, yet whereas no one considers ballet a sport some people insist figure skating is a sport; so I am not really sure this was a concerto, but it was one amazing performance).

After a huge ovation, Grubinger returned to the front of the stage, and he, the stagehands, and the orchestra’s three percussionists removed many instruments, rearranged others, and then brought still more out.  The four of them then performed an encore: another crazy piece for percussion only (lots of percussion only), with the glue being Grubinger (mostly) on the marimba (subsequently identified on the Kulturvereinigung’s website as the Marimba Spirtual by Minoru Miki).  It was all nuts, but so much fun.

The concert opened with the Overture in g minor by Anton Bruckner.  Written when he was almost forty, it nevertheless definitely counts as an early work – he was still the organist of the Linz Cathedral at the time, and had still not composed any symphonies (not even his student ones).  This piece he stuffed in a drawer after he wrote it and never intended it to see the light of day.  There were only two known copies – one ended up mostly in the archives of a nearby abbey (part went missing), and the other ended up with a friend.  It was first published and performed long after his death.  A hint of Bruckner’s future style can be gleaned from the work, but otherwise it is not much of anything other than a curiosity.

After the intermission came Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss.  Poschner decided on an expansive reading – indeed, the other orchestra he leads, the Orchestra of Italian Switzerland (which he has also brought to Salzburg), is barely bigger than a chamber ensemble and so he must luxuriate in having a proper-sized band in Linz.  The problem is that this orchestra was not good enough for his interpretation.  At the opening of the piece, the right and left sides of the orchestra were strangely out of time with each other (not by much, but by just enough to make the whole thing sound warped) and by the time he got them playing all together they just settled into a formless blur.  Their ensemble playing generally came across full but not lush, and the individual lines lacked virtuosity, generally undistinguished mushy playing.  There were also more missed notes in the winds than there should have been.  This is the provincial orchestra of Upper Austria, one province over – and so the logical comparisons should be to Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra to its west and the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria to its east, both of which are far superior to the one from Linz.

But that multi-percussionist…!

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