Monday, 1 June 2015

Dresden highlights

Continuing from my last post, about my visit to the Dresden Music Festival…

I said I’d heard some terrific concerts. Start with this one: The Dresden Festival Orchestra, a group created by the Festival, playing Mendelssohn (The Hebrides), the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and the Schumann Second Symphony, Ivor Bolton conducting. (Link provided for my American readers, because he’s better known in Europe.)

faust blogThe first highlight there was the violin soloist, Isabelle Faust. I hope it won’t embarrass her to read this (assuming it comes her way), but if I were much younger, maybe I’d follow her from concert to concert, sitting in the first row and taking it all in. She came out, comfortably dressed in flat heels, a sweater and a skirt. At first she maybe sounded tentative. “Hmm, what’s this tonight? Beethoven? OK, here goes.”

But she quickly caught her stride, and began playing the piece as if she’d known it when she was born, and then reinvented it sometime last week. So fluid, so thoughtful, so free. And by the last movement, entirely irresistible. A gliding, floating dance.

And then for her encore she played a tiny wisp by Kurtag, right on the edge of silence. Not your normal soloist.

Vibrato only at the climax

As for Schumann — what I haven’t yet said is that this is a period instrument orchestra. And, as I teased in the last post (without giving specifics) unique.

Why is it unique? Because it plays period instruments with as big a sound as the Berlin Philharmonic. Neither I nor Bolton, nor the Festival’s Intendant, Jan Vogler, could think of another orchestra that does this. (If there is one, all three of us would love to know.) Of course it doesn’t make a huge sound all the time. Its pianissimo is greatly hushed.

But when it plays big, it plays big. And that happened in the Schumann. Try to imagine the slow movement, with all the earthy richness of gut strings. (Which were heard with a wonderful hush, evoking maybe rich soil, on windless day, at the start of the Beethoven slow movement.) Plus earthy winds, and the sound of the orchestra as much layered as blended.

And now the phrases — shaped, in all their Schumann unexpectedness, with such vivid life — head toward a climax. Winds so pungent. The violins sing out. This is the big sound. A true romantic surge, as we expect it today. And for the first time (or at least the first time I noticed), the violins play with vibrato, which lifts the music to an even more thrilling place.

I’m sure that many people won’t believe me, but this — at least on that evening — has to be one of the finest orchestras in the world today. Completely blew me away. But they don’t play much, and as Bolton told me, at this point they shouldn’t. I was full of schemes to make them famous (well, to do what I could toward that). But Bolton didn’t want that. Most of the time the musicians play in other orchestras, mostly in Germany. One of the reasons they’re so good in Dresden, he said, is that it’s special. If they play too much, it’s not special anymore. So keep it small, at least for now. Refreshing integrity.


Two more striking performances. A concert by the Deutsche Streichphilharmonie, a youth string orchestra, with musicians as young as 11, ranging up to 20. Again I think many people won’t believe me, but this group — under its conductor, Wolfgang Hentrich — did things I haven’t heard many professional orchestras do. Play with completely seamless legato, for instance, and with a deeply burnished sound. And with what sounded like perfect unanimity. No slackers in this group, nobody marking time, nobody less than 150% committed.

And having fun. I won’t claim there weren’t technical problems here and there, mostly when the violins played fast and high. Nor did the music they played — simplish Sibelius pieces, for instance, or the early Mendelssohn D minor violin concerto, or Grieg’s Holberg Suite — seem terribly difficult. But still. That golden sound, that gorgeous legato. I could go to my former hometown orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, or my present one, the National Symphony, and never hear those things. So bravo to the kids. Hentrich has much to do with it, I’m sure. He’s the concert master of the Dresdner Philharmonie, and so of course he knows strings.

Though there’s something else. The players typically join the orchestra very young, and stay in it till they reach the top age. So the membership is stable, and kids coming in can learn to fit in, right from the start.

And there was also Orawa, exuberant music by Wojciech Kijar, a Polish composer best known for film scores, who died a few years ago. What fun this was! Kind of a minimal piece, with driving rhythm, and expertly written for the strings, so that places that on paper might look simple jump out, when they’re played, in vivid color. This, Hentrich told me, was the kids’ favorite piece. Which wasn’t surprising news. I can imagine youth orchestras elsewhere eating this music up. And professional orchestras, too.

And for a different audience…

For the young, smart, creative class audience, the people (like someone I met in Dresden) who listen to indie rock, singer-songwriters, and EDM. People, in other words, who aren’t listening to classical music, but whom we’d love to attract. And whom we have to attract, because, if the smart-music audience in past generations included many people who listened to classical music, the people I’ve just described are a big part of the smart-music audience now. They’re people with a real sense of music as an art, and with wide curiosity about many forms of it. If we can’t get these people adding classical music to all their other tastes, then we won’t, in the future, have any solid core of artistic listeners. Because, moving into the future, the smart and curious listeners who mainly choose classical music are vanishingly few.

So: the concert for those people was given by Pekka Kuusisto, the Finnish violinist whom (as I said in my last post) I raved about here when he played a recital in Washington, accompanied by Nico Muhly. The program? Music by Nico, Arvo Pärt, and Philip Glass, plus, threaded through all that movement by movement, the D minor Bach partita, played as if Kuusisto had (shades of Isabelle Faust) just made it up on the spot. And then, as an encore, improvisations on Finnish folk songs, sung and strummed (as if the violin were a kind of ukelele).

In Dresden, his concert wasn’t called a concert. Instead it was billed as “The Pekka Kuusisto Project.” And it started with folk-song improvisations. But now they’d lept out of any format defined by a standard violin recital. Kuusisto played an electronic instrument, and messed with its sound, using electronics to double, triple, quadruple himself, with expert lighting setting the scene.

And then came the meat of the program, the Sibelius concerto, played with piano, not orchestra, but with Heini Kärkäinen surging through the piano part, that hardly mattered. The piano didn’t come off as second best, a concession to a space smaller than a big concert hall, and to a chamber-music budget. Instead it just focused the piece, transformed it for its new surroundings.

But that wasn’t all. There were two dancers, a Finn doing ballet, and another Finn doing flamenco dance (making Finnish flamenco an unexpected new cultural hybrid). In some short remarks to the crowd before he played, Kuusisto modestly disclaimed any thought that this was a Pekka Kuusisto idea (despite the title of the concert). The dancers, he said, had been doing their show already, using his recording of the concerto (absolutely stunning, with Leif Segerstam conducting). So he’d simply asked if he could join them.

That was a good idea. The concerto became a performance piece. Kuusisto played to the dancers and with them, and also with and to the pianist. Especially in one extremely nonclassical moment, when — having said in his earlier intro that the concerto had lots of folk music in it — he played a rhythmic passage in the finale while tapping his foot (as if the music were bluegrass), playing right at the pianist, locking eyes with her, as if they were jamming, finding a groove.

The crowd went wild, my Dresden friend (she who loves singer-songwriters, indie rock, and EDM) included. While the music Kuusisto played was classical (even the improvisations fit into a soundworld familiar from lots of new classical music), it didn’t come off as classical music. Just music!

This is one of the ways classical music is finding a new groove. In the old days, if you played the violin, you played the violin repertoire. Now — and I trust in the future — you do what Kuusisto seems to be doing. “Here’s my violin. What should I play on it? What music do I love?” Classical music would be an obvious choice, because there’s a lot of it written for the violin. But anything else — and classical music in brand-new forms — is completely allowed.

Here’s a video, from the Festival, of Kuusisto improvising after his concert with Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital.

I found it when I looked on YouTube to see if there might be videos of the Festival Orchestra and the Steicherphilharmonie. And I must say, with all respect to my new friends in Dresden, that I was confused by what I found.

The Festival Orchestra played, as I’ve tried to say, one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever heard. And what did I find on YouTube? A snippet, not much more than a minute long CHECK, of them rehearsing the orchestral accompaniment to a popular Donizetti aria, “O luce di quest’anima.” Rehearsing without the singer! And this got put up on YouTube.

Along with less than a minute of a lecture/demonstration I attended, in which the orchestra played fragments of the concert program, while Ivor Bolton and Jan Vogler talked about the music. Here, at least, you’ll get to hear the start of the Schumann finale, which will show you the orchestra’s big, rich sound, and give you at least an idea of how well they play.

But nothing more? No video from the concert itself? There isn’t any video. There isn’t even an audio recording. The Festival isn’t a high-budget operation, and recording may be expensive. But with an orchestra this good — an orchestra, moreover, that Vogler himself created, just three years ago — wouldn’t you want to document your success?

The Streicherphilharmonie concert also wasn’t recorded. All I could find of them on YouTube was less than a minute of yet another lecture/rehearsal, done at the Festival, in which Hentrich talked and the musicians played, for a small afternoon audience. If the camera had panned just a bit to the left, you would have seen me.

Maybe there are rights issues I don’t know about, which keep these videos short. But still, and with all respect to my new Dresden friends, the Festival should be much better presented on YouTube, especially considering the wealth of performances from other places we all can find there.

Original Content: Dresden highlights

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