Lentz, Shostakovich, Zimmerman, SSO, Sloane

On Friday night to the SSO. The program was:

Steven Sloane conductor
Tabea Zimmermann viola

LENTZ Monh for viola, electronics and orchestra AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE

Tabea Zimmerman is a terrific player and easily the best violist I have ever heard.  I have been looking forward to her visit here ever since 2005 when Wolfgang Fink, the artistic administrator of the orchestra, mentioned to me that a visit was in the offing.  I had complained to him about a concert where Richard Gill was the conductor and Roger Benedict, the SSO’s principal viola, played Berlioz’s Harold in Italy on the grounds that that was just a bit too much local product for the one concert.  Regular readers of this blog may know that as a subscriber I am sensitive to being given short or budget measure.  I’d have been happier with Richard Gill (if they must, but that’s a topic for another day) and some big name soloist, or Roger Benedict, but supported with a really good conductor. In passing I had mentioned that I had heard Zimmerman play not long before in Beijing.  (You have to keep your end up with these arts administrators.)

My heart had sunk just a little when I saw that she was playing a newly-commissioned work by Georges Lentz.  Why couldn’t we hear her play some mainstay of the (not particularly large) viola repertory? (I know that’s a bit tough on Ms Zimmerman as it means she’ll spend her life touring the world and playing about 3 pieces only, but heck, I won’t get many times to hear her and sometimes the audience has to come first, right?) My heart sank again when I read in the program note that the piece was mostly slow and quiet (or words to that effect).  On both counts I was wrong.

To take the second count first: although you might call Lentz’s music slow and quiet, this is not the kind of slowly measured but essentially arhythmic or rhythmically abstract measured time that is my bugbear in much modern music.  The title of the piece apparently means “stars,” and its texture was one of myriad details like moonless night sky far from the city.  There was always something engrossing going on, and even if the big pulse was slow, events within it moved faster, like an updating of the semiquaver pulse in Bach, but also at varying duration levels.  Peter McCallum has described this well in his SMH review as “a carefully calibrated rhythmic sense, with layers moving at radically different time rates.”

The big thing I remembered about Zimmerman’s playing was her projection.  This is something common to many big name soloists.  It is hard to say what this exactly consists of – it’s not just a question of volume because a lot of the music was so quiet.  Some of it could be the instrument.  Lentz also procured projection at a quiet volume with quite a lot of sul ponte playing – that overtoned buzzy sound which is produced when the bow is drawn over the string closer to the bridge.  (It’s often used to denote “sinister,” or, for example, used for the opening of Vivaldi’s Winter.)  There was only one really big loud moment (mostly loud because of the percussion), after which, like driftwood left behind by a receding wave, for a moment only Zimmerman and 2 other violas played.  The other two were Benedict and Anne-Louise Cornerford, the regular principals, and at this point they seemed to be playing scordatura violas – that is, violas tuned differently to enable them (in this case) to play lower than a viola usually goes.  (Certainly, I saw them change instruments just after.)

That’s just one interesting little point about the piece, but the orchestral writing had many other felicities and fascinations.  Lentz has played in the SSO since 1990, but it is not simply experience which shows here, but also imagination.  The electronic part of the music (another potential bête noire for me) was digitally manipulated harp and not at all jarring or disproportionate.

So back to the first count.  Definitely, to coin a phrase, Zimmerman could play the Nokia phone tune and it would be compelling. But I am glad that Lentz’s piece had her very superior advocacy.  She played the premiere in Lentz’s home town in Luxembourg in 2005, so it wasn’t just something learnt out of duty for this tour.  The really telling question, unlikely to be even asked in my own concert-going experience given the relative infrequency of viola concertante works in the repertoire, is whether the piece would make such an impression in somebody else’s hands.

The second half was the Shostakovich 8th Symphony. Amazingly, this was only the second ever performance by the SSO (the first was conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite in 1985). That’s presumably because Shostakovich wrote 14 other symphonies, though it does make you wonder about the following bit of puffery in the SSO’s concert blurb:

The opening lament of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony has been described as music ‘which by the power of its human emotion, surpasses everything else created in our time’. Intense, grief-stricken, bitter and one of the essential works of 20th-century art, Shostakovich’s Eighth is a requiem, secretly dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s war on his own country.  

I guess the quotation marks mean that somebody said it, a bit like the now customary use of inverted commas in headlines for anything which in the body of a news story is otherwise said to be “alleged.”  As for the rest of the program attributed in this blurb, it is a symphony written during the war after the propaganda triumph of the Leningrad symphony (No 7) but without the big finish (which may also be another factor in its less-performed status).  Earlier in the week the SSO was offering discounted tickets, which I now regret not taking up for Wednesday’s performance.  Which is to say that I enjoyed the Shostakovich (especially, I think, the rather subdued passacaglia and the quiet ending), but I have exhausted my critical stamina on the Lentz. 

Speaking of which/whom, Lentz came up from the stalls at the end of the first half and took a bow as composer, looking (as composers tend to) just a little bit nerdy and rumpled. It was good to see he’d slipped into something less comfortable at interval and taken his usual place towards the back of the first violins for the Shostakovich.

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