Saturday, 7 September 2019

Elbphilharmonie Gala - Gilbert connects Brahms and Varèse via Bernstein, Ives and Unsuk Chin

Alan Gilbert with the Elbphilharmonie

The Opening Concert of the 2019-2020 season of the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, started with typical flourish, Alan Gilbert conducting Brahms's  Symphony no 1 in C minor op 68, Unsuk Chin Frontispiece for Orchestra Bernstein's Symphony no 1 "Jeremiah", Charles Ives The Unanswered Question, and Edgard Varèse's Amériques.  Not a programme for the faint of heart, but executed with great panache! He certainly   seemed relaxed and in his element.  He came to fame conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon and first conducted this Hamburg orchestra, now called the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, 18 years ago. Gilbert has always belonged in Europe, even though he conducts a lot of American repertoire. With the NDR Elbphilharmonie, he can reach audiences who are open minded enough to pay attention.   This programme was also intelligently planned, with enough musical knowledge holding it together, even though it might have seemed sprawling in theory. Yes - plenty to connect Brahms with Varèse !

Johannes Brahms is an emblem of the Elbphilharmonie. Though he went on to fame and fortune elsewhere, he remained at heart a Hamburg homeboy, retaining a no-nonsense North German spirit.  Even in Vienna, that tough Norh Sea/Baltic soul made him individual.  He began working on what was to become his Symphony no 1 when he was twenty-two, completing it twenty-one years later, as he matured. Thus the influence of Beethoven,  Gilbert's approach emphasizing the classical structure and poise.  Horns called forwards, as if reaching out towards distant horizons, before passages evoking hymnal, which develop into fervent anthem, growing richer and more emphatic as the work proceeds. From early Brahms to Unsuk Chin, with whom Gilbert has been associated for many years (he's probably one of her finest interpreters). This was the world premiere of her Frontispiece for Orchestra. It's spiky, bristling with incident. In the second section, Chin's exuberance gave way to stillness, strings stretching languidly, the whole gradually growing  more affirmative - darker, circular figures rolling with forward movement.  Gilbert then conducted  Leonard Bernstein's Symphony no 1 "Jeremiah". This first half of the concert thus formed a cohesive arc - Brahms's first and Bernstein's first, both experimental in their own way, both composers finding themselves, influenced by their backgrounds. Based losely on the Book of Lamentations, the first movement, "Prophecy", suggests foreboding, fulfilled by the second, "Profanation", which is wild and tubulent, unruly figures led by woodwinds, whipped into frenzy by staccato figures and wailing brass.  In the final "Lamentation", the soloist, here Rinat Shaham, intones in Hebrew, her voice rerverberant with vibrato (properly employed).  In the last page, portent is replaced by greater lightness - the voice lighter and purer, textures open ended, with strings shining, supported by winds and brass. A melody (violin and strings) draws the piece to conclusion. 

Chales Ives's The Unanswered Question the first part of the Two Contemplations, is more frequently performed as a stand alone,  as it was here, as "frontispiece" before Varèse's Amériques.  Like so much of Charles Ives’s work, it's extraorinarily experimental, especially considering that it was originally written in 1908 by a composer who rarely got to hear his own music performed.  Though the instrumentation is spare, the work opens out, like a Tardis. There are three separate mini-orchestras, a string ensemble, a woodwind quartet and offstage solo trumpet : a prophecy of Ives's masterpiece, anticipating hs  Symphony no 4.  Beginning and ending in silence is part of the concept - music without boundaries. It's not really a miniature, but leads on to other things. In this case, the pairing with Varèse's Amériques was inspired. This was effectively the composer's opus one, marking his arrival in America, decisively indicating "new worlds".  Here, Gilbert conducted the better-known 1927 version,  rather than the crazier but fun 1921 version Simon Rattle did recently in London.  It's a mistake to think of Varèse's Amériques as little more than noise. There's method in its apparent madness. The cacophonies represent the sounds of modernity and freedom : sounds put tohgether in collage, to create a sense of the teeming energy of a big, modern city (that's where the klaxons come in), Structually the piece operates in large blocks, each section operating on multiple levels, all of them in motion.  Think of skyscrapers, with many storeys, filled with people and machines, below the streets, trains and infrastructure, above, in the skies, moving objects of many kinds. Varèse's Amériques is a seminal work, connecting to futurism, cubism and other innovations in Europe, while breaking completely new ground in terms of music. Its influence cannot be overestimated.  Ives would have been thrilled to have his music side by side with Varèse - both of them prophets unacknowledged in their time.  A bit like Jeremiah !  Listen to the concert HERE.


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