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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Concert Review: Beethoven Lives on Broad Street

David Zinman brings new life to the Fifth Symphony.
Iconoclast: the conductor David Zinman. Photo © 2011 Berlin Philharmonic/DavidZinman.org
On Friday afternoon at the Kimmel Center, conductor David Zinman brought a fresh perspective to one of the most well-traveled works in the repertory: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. This is an important work to the Philadelphia Orchestra, who started their long history by playing it way back at their first concert in the year 1900.

Mr. Zinman, an American conductor and music director of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, is known for his iconoclastic approach to Beethoven. He uses Jonathan del Mar's critical edition of the scores (published by Bärenreiter in the late 1990s) and takes a vigorous approach to the music. At this concert, Mr. Zinman's conducting stripped away years of aural varnish and debate about performance practice, revealing the bright tone colors beneath.

Although some conductors take a wild, unpredictable approach to the Fifth (in the name of "interpretation") that was not the case here. True, Mr. Zinman does emphasize the unfamiliar aspects of the score, making the part for double basses prominent, and elevating Beethoven's harmonic writing to the same level as the core melodies. And he adds some fanciful details that are entirely his own, most notably an extended "fantasia" oboe cadenza played by Philadelphia associate principal Peter Smith. But none of these ideas subtracted from the totality of the work.

Tempos were brisk, but never rushed. The Philadelphia players bit incisively into the famous four-note rhythm that dominates the entire symphony. The slow movement, with its complex set of variations became a vast, entertaining juggling act. The third movement, with its two contrasting ideas, featured robust playing from the trumpets and cellos. The beginning of the finale, where the trombones seem to "jump in" spontaneously, elevated the whole performance. Mr. Zinman conducted without a score, and everyone knew the piece cold. But they played it as if it were new music being brought before the public for the first time.

This modern, invigorating approach to music-making was also suited to the first half of Friday's program. The concert opened with the Orchestra's second-ever performance of Ash, a tone poem by Michael Torke. Like Beethoven, Mr. Torke builds his work around simple, obsessive rhythms--in this case a pair of six-note phrases that served as a rhythmic foundation for the entire piece. He created rich tonal colors, painting with brass, strings, and even synthesizer in the course of a hypnotic 15 minutes.

Mr. Torke's piece was followed by William Walton's Viola Concerto, a work that allows that instrument the rare opportunity to take the spotlight The solo part was played by Choong-Jin Chang, the Philadelphia Orchestra's principal and leader of the viola section. Although the warm tones of the viola are central to the string-heavy "Philly sound", Mr. Chang clearly relished his chance to stand up front. He offered smooth, fluid playing that demonstrated every tonal color of this underrated instrument. 

Mr. Zinman showed impressive grasp of Walton's structure, bringing affirmation in the final pages.  Over the course of two slow movements and a dancing central scherzo Mr. Chang and Mr. Zinman made a compelling case for this complex, yet lyric work. The Concerto ends (unusually) with a blow-by-blow quotation of the opening of the first movement, creating a circular effect. The wonder was not that Walton chose to create a solo concerto for the alto member of the string family, but that so few other composers have followed suit.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.