Where have all the smiles gone?
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto, op. 61
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10, op. 93
Kolja Blacher (violin)
Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar, Diego Matheuz (conductor)
D. Matheuz (© Priska Ketterer)
For their final Easter Festival concert the young Venezuelan orchestra presented us with contrasting fare.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto showcases the soloist rather than the orchestra. Kolja Blacher, who was leader of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1993 to 1999, is now amongst other things leader of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Whilst his playing was certainly technically as perfect as one could wish, one was left with the impression that no particular personality had been stamped on the piece, neither by the soloist, orchestra nor conductor. The first movement lacked soul and expression. The Larghetto was certainly most tenderly portrayed; but the work really only came into its own in the helter-skelter Rondo where the faster speed suited the young accompanists. Most fascinating to hear was the unusual cadenza with timpani accompaniment, written according to the composer’s piano version of the concerto.
One wondered how a young bunch of fiery Latins from the Southern Hemisphere would cope with the chill of Soviet Russia. Sadly, the answer is that they did not. After an eerie well-paced opening, the first movement of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony suffered from sluggish tempi and a distinct lack of expression. There was a liberal sprinkling of lip faults, hardly surprising, considering the double or sometimes treble woodwind, six trumpets, eight horns and six trombones. The vast forces assembled on stage gave the tutti more than a wholesome volume and were often thrilling. The Allegro’s opening swagger brought back the orchestra’s enthusiasm for the score with impressive ensemble. The Allegretto seemed however to bore them, entries were somewhat tentative, the principal woodwind lacked character. The orchestra was happiest when hammering out D-S-C-H, Shostakovich’s initials which the composer used as a theme throughout this work. In the final movement the leader played a fine solo on a marvellously mellow instrument, not credited in the programme. Kolja Blacher in the first half of the concert played on the Stradivarius “Tritton” dating back to 1730; the leader’s instrument in the Shostakovich was no less fine. Whilst the work’s finale came to its proper climax, both orchestra and conductor had failed to make sense of the whole.
The orchestra is probably on par with the leading youth orchestras such as the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra or the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and a few others. What appears to have gone is a sense of the fresh and new. Before they were like a spring breeze: all smiles and adventure, relishing the astonished audiences who could not believe that kids from the streets of Caracas were capable of music making like this, adding racy encores of South American composers (or in this concert Khachaturian) and doing some frolicking themselves. All this has vanished: smiles are few and far between then and now. One can sense that they have trodden on many of the world’s great music stages. The novelty value has, sadly, vanished for them too.