Sunday, 9 October 2011

Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Tonkünstler

Musikverein, 02/10/2011

Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Sharon Kam

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1, op. 11
Iván Eröd: Konzert für Klarinette und Orchester (premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, op. 67

The Tonkünstler have a fairly regular Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening slot during the Musikverein season and though demand isn’t as high as for the Vienna-based orchestras, they are capable of outplaying the Symphoniker (generally considered Austria’s second orchestra). Their young chief conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada owes his big break to them and can usually be relied on to elicit commitment and intensity beyond the call of Sunday afternoon duty. I mention this because their season didn’t get off to a great start last weekend and I have to tell it like it was. But normally I’m rooting for these guys.

Coming less than a week after Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart, the Mendelssohn seemed a bit on the heavy side. The strings were thick throughout with a lot of muddiness in the cellos and basses, and aside from some let-up with the clarinet solo in the final movement, it all sounded too much like Brahms. To open with a piece of this length perhaps wasn’t the best idea either.
Hungarian-born composer Ivan Eröd may have dropped strict serialism in 1970 and never looked back, but I’m sure it wasn’t his intention in this new commission that the orchestra should muddle through the vaguely dissonant bits and crudely up the volume whenever they spot tonal driftwood. Soloist Sharon Kam was much more comfortable with his idiom, and knew what to do to make it sound influenced by, rather than derivative of, Bartók. It may not be high modernism or formally unusual (there’s no question that this concerto conforms to one of Hepokoski’s rotational forms), but the ideas are decent enough and Eröd knows how to write for an orchestra. I do think however that he wrote a better version of this work with his 1980 viola concerto. The first movements share the same key, tempo, opening (solo theme, orchestra tacit), and roughly similar thematic material and treatment. But that work has a more ironic ‘tonality lives’ moment for the orchestra to surge forth with, and when Eröd prefaces that with a quotation from ‘Ging heut Morgen übers Feld’, it makes things more interesting. The clarinet concerto isn’t as memorable.

I had my second gimmicky opening of the weekend with the Beethoven. Orozco-Estrada was confident his da-da-da-dum would stop the entrance applause dead in its tracks and, um, it didn’t. After that it was the routine heroic narrative, which is OK so long as you don’t shoot all your bolts in the exposition, as the Tonkünstler did. Bass lines were muddy and delicate inner voices got lost, most of all the woodwind in the second movement. I’ve tolerated the showman in Orozco-Estrada before because there was always the sense he had it going on upstairs. But this was quite frighteningly suggestive of Dudamel.

Image credit Reinhard Öhner

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