Opus Magazine

March 27, 2016

Eschenbach at the Philharmonic

by Oded Zahavi

Opus Magazine

 Music Review/ Eschenbach at the Philharmonic 


By Professor Oded Zahavi 

 I will say nothing about violinist Ray Chen’s instrument (a Stradivarius), or about his sponsor (Giorgio Armani), or his blog (haven’t read it), or the fluent Hebrew he demonstrated when he introduced his encore (a Capriccio by Paganini). Truth be, there is not much to say either about his performance of Brahm’s Violin Concerto at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s subscriber’s concert which I attended on Saturday night. 

 Chen played well. He produced a loud, beautiful sound, with perfect technique, stylish understanding and due attention to the dialogue with the orchestra and, yet, none of this was enough to arouse in me great emotion or particular interest. Brahms had a tendency to write symphonies in the guise of concertos: complete orchestral works with deep tonal, expressive layers provided by the orchestra, structural breadth and coded connections between movements. 

 In the performance I heard, as during the entire concert, it was the orchestra and the conductor who stood out. Oboist Dudu Carmel (Brahms wrote for the oboe one of the most beautiful parts in the symphonic repertoire, which is heard at the start of the second movement of the concerto), horn player James Madison Cox (where were the days when IPO subscribers had to make do with a much lower level of playing), flautist Yossi Arnheim, the viola and bass sections and the other members of the orchestra, under the vigorous direction of Maestro Eschenbach, succeeded in stealing the limelight from the soloist. It seems to me that, in order to make an impression in such a concerto, the soloist has to have a larger-than-life personality. He needs to be someone with infinite depth, passion or wisdom, someone who has something new to say about this work. In the case of yesterday’s soloist, his uniqueness featured only in program  profile. 

 Mahler’s 4th Symphony is a gem. He gives us a spectacular spectrum of instrumental and vocal tonal colors, one enchanting melody gives way to another just as beautiful, the “emotional map” is clear and Mahler seems to have almost renounced the irony or unexpected contrasts that characterize his early symphonies. It also seems that the attempt to create majestic  exaltation and glory, which characterizes his later symphonies, is absent from this score. This is a bare symphony which represents a major challenge for the orchestra and conductor. 

 Eschenbach understood that the IPO is an orchestra that could meet this challenge successfully. He enabled the encounter between Mahler and the Israel Philharmonic to take place almost naturally. He chose very effective tempos, produced a performance that was flexible in terms of rhythm, avoided over-sentimentality and offered a persuasive range of strengths of sound. There were no superfluous bars or directional hesitations and the orchestra responded to him joyfully. The strings and, in particular, the first violin section (under the direction of David Radzynski who also played his solo parts beautifully), performed their challenging part with brilliance and perfect intuition. Arnheim, Carmel and Cox were joined by clarinetist Ron Selka and bassoonist Daniel Mazaki in leading the orchestra. 

 An orchestra is a complex, diverse “musical instrument.” In recent weeks, I heard the Philharmonic tackle Luca Lombardi’s complex modern work, a dark, chimerical symphony by Prokofiev, a violin concerto by Sibelius and, now, Brahms and Mahler. Each of these works required from the orchestra a different sound approach, different stylistic emphases, a dynamic range, sound production and varied tones. The orchestra showed it was up to this challenge and communicated this well to the audience. 

 Loose thoughts

 If you think that musicians are critical, think again. I was accompanied to yesterday’s concert by my friend Eli, a talented, active architect. As soon as we entered Heichal Hatarbut, he drew my attention to the ugly iron frames of the windows that look onto Habima Square (which also require urgent cleaning), to the loose metal pieces and lack of screws on the entrance doors to the gallery, the neglected handrail, and the over-powerful lighting on the second floor.  It is surprising and sad to note to what extent we have become used to these little flaws. 

 The sound of applause after the first movements of a multi-movement work has become the rule but what surprised me yesterday was a new custom: a long and particularly loud wave of coughs flooded the hall at the end of the second movement of both works. It was as if the audience’s great effort to restrain itself burst out in a catharsis full of coughs and sneezes.

 The program: the wheel was invented long ago. It is high time to revamp the program and its concept and bring it up-to-date. Program models do not lack and the Internet is full of examples of intelligent, interesting articles on music.

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