Friday, May 26, 2017

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

Last night I heard the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the third orchestra I have seen so far on this trip--tonight will be the fourth, the Orquesta Nacional de España. One thing I notice with all these orchestras is that with very few exceptions they all dress very formally. Every male player is in white tie formal dress and the women are in formal evening gowns. The exceptions? The Reina Sofia chamber orchestra was in "casual formal" and the conductor last night was all in black while the soloist was black tie. A bit odd.

So, last night was in the Sala Sinfónica at the Auditorio Nacional. The hall was about 90% full. Here are a couple of photos:

Sorry for the quality: iPhone 5, low light. Just enjoy the gritty verismo! The evening called for three different sized orchestras: small classical orchestra for the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 that opened the evening with pairs of winds, one tympanist and eight first violins, the rest of the strings accordingly.

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The second piece was the Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra by Tchaikovsky and for it a place was made for the soloist and the orchestra slightly modified. But the big change came in the second half when the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky was played. This is for a large orchestra:

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I hope you can make them out: in the back are two tympanists playing a total of nine tympani, plus four other percussionists. There are eight French horns, six trumpets, three (I think) bassoons and two contrabassoons, a few trombones and tubas, three flutes and two piccolos, more strings (ten firsts, I think) and so on. You can make a lot of noise with that much power! I just decided to check online to see how close I am re the instrumentation. Here is what I find:
piccolos (2), flutes (3), alto flute, oboes (4), English horn, clarinet (E flat), clarinets (3), bass clarinets (2), bassoons (4), contrabassoons (2), French horns (8), piccolo trumpet (D), trumpets (4), trombones (3), tubas (3), timpani (8), bass drum, triangle, antique cymbals, strings.
Missed the alto flute, English horn (actually, I saw it, but forgot to mention it, it has a prominent part),  the piccolo trumpet and, yes, the triangle!

Now to the music. The Beethoven is a lovely piece showing a lot of the promise of his later symphonies. He didn't complete it until his 30th year, so it is in no sense a juvenile work. The orchestra played with conviction, aplomb and total command, just as one would expect. The young French cello solist, Gautier Capuçon, I was not familiar with, but he is a superb player. His upper register was brilliant and perfectly tuned. The performance was excellent. At the end, after many bows, the soloist played an encore, but it was rather different from the usual, where the soloist pulls some bon bon out of their solo repertoire. This encore was performed with accompaniment by the cello section of the orchestra. I'm afraid I couldn't make out the composer or the whole name of the piece--it was "Chanson de something"--but it was lovely and lyrical and beautifully played. A nice touch, I thought.

Then, intermission. I'm not sure how many bars are in the hall, there are several different entrances, but the one I went two had two extremely harried women serving cava like there was no tomorrow!

The second half was the Rite of Spring and it was a performance that will stick with me for a long time. I just realized that I have been listening to the Rite for around fifty years! The piece itself, premiered in 1913, just had its hundredth anniversary. It may have been the first classical piece I ever heard as way back in Grade 9, our English teacher played us this very odd piece in class one day. I have the feeling that it might have been the Rite. Then, in 1970 or 71 I bought the Boulez/Cleveland recording that had recently been released and listened to it a lot. But last night I heard things that I never noticed before. I have to underline, if there is some music you think is very good or very important, then you really have to hear it live, an actual performance. Recordings, while good in their way, always seem to miss the existential reality of the music with those little misalignments and tiny flaws that tell you that you are hearing the Real Thing, being played right in front of you by Real Musicians.

The performance was stunning, largely because of the music itself, but also because an orchestra, these days, can play this music with real authority. The score is fearsomely complex and poses huge challenges to both musicians and conductor. Oh, the conductor last night was Andrés Orozco-Estrada, a young Columbian conductor who is music director of the Houston Symphony, principal conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the London Philhamonic. How do these guys do it?

Most unusually, for me at least, the orchestra played an encore after the Stravinsky. Again, I missed the name of the piece and composer, but I think it was by a Columbian composer and was a calm and lyrical piece that settled us down after the Danse sacrale of the Stravinsky.

So, great orchestra, great music, great concert. In fact, I am inspired to do a whole series of posts on Stravinsky and the Rite. The thing about this piece is that it is very, very good. It is so incredibly powerful and not because of the large orchestra and loud percussion--those are saved just for the big climaxes. No, the reason it is powerful is because of the astonishing invention. No matter how many times you have heard this piece (I think I have heard it a hundred times at least) it is just as powerful--or more so! For months and months Stravinsky sat alone in a tiny 8x8 foot room in Switzerland, just him and a piano, struggling to write this piece. What an accomplishment.

The only possible envoi today would be the Rite of course. This is a hundredth anniversary performance at the Proms in 2013 introduced by Tom Service and conducted by François-Xavier Roth. The performance itself starts at around the 6 minute mark:


Will Wilkin said...

The Rite of Spring is definitely one of the greatest pieces of music ever created! There is so much primal impulse running through it, yet perfectly orchestrated and both modern and ancient at once.

Bryan Townsend said...

That sums it up pretty well!