On Tuesday night, the Midland Performing Arts Society presented a remarkable concert by Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra at the Midland Center for the Arts.
Coming up soon to his tenth year as Music Director of the Tonhalle, 68-year-old David Zinman led this relatively young orchestra that he has rebuilt to world-class status with a seasoned confidence that was clearly mirrored in their attitudes and playing. Zinman has earned a reputation for that kind of building, as witnessed by what he did previously in his thirteen years with the Baltimore Symphony, whose recordings with Zinman are still highly acclaimed.
The Tonhalle, Switzerland’s oldest and historically most prestigious, has a history that is dotted with great conductors, including music directors Hans Rosbaud, Rudolf Kempe and Christoph Eschenbach, and guest conductors of the stature of Richard Strauss himself. So, the marriage of conductor and orchestra has inevitably led to the resurgence of an extraordinary musical force. Zinman insists he approaches his partnership with the Tonhalle as a “we” rather than a “I and you,” and it shows.
The concert began with an 8-minute work that alone was worth the price of admission. Zinman’s reading of Honegger’s little known but sweet voiced work “Pastorale d’ete” was nothing short of breathtaking. From the barcarolle-like rocking opening from the lower strings, Zinman somehow coaxed some of the most lyrical playing of the night from the quietest passages of this work. The subtlety of expression was at once delicate, expressive, and graceful, even reverent without being mystical.
Somehow Zinman, without ever turning a single page in his score, crafted an almost perfect reading of this Delius-like piece. It piece ended as it began, with a whisper so personal it seemed directed to my ear alone and into my heart.
The first half ended with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes joining Zinman and the Tonhalle, pared down to chamber orchestra size, in Mozart’s 9th Piano Concerto, named the “Jeunehomme.” Andsnes’ reading of this earnest little piece was technically clean and polished, with a staccato-like touch that at times mimicked the action of the fortepiano for which the piece was originally written.
His pianist abilities dazzled the audience, and he seemed to have great pleasure in the piece, manipulating tempi for effect, pushing faster here, pulling back to begin a phrase there. If the second movement was perhaps more Romantic in feeling than the 21-year-old composer might have conceived, Andsnes and Zinman showed that such an approach can work well. They infused a clarity and fluidity that did the Classical melodies justice. By contrast, the Finale was devilishly fast, showcasing Andsnes’ dexterity and agility to great effect.
After intermission, the full post-Romantic-size orchestra literally filled the stage for an emotionally gallant journey through Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben.
Program music such as this is intended to tell a story. Thanks to Zinman’s vision and the orchestra’s passionate reading, the audience not only heard the familiar hero’s tale, but we met the characters and felt as if we had known them all our lives. The playing was confident, with a sense of urgency that never went over the top, and an eagerness that was never mistaken for capriciousness. Zinman’s lead was seamless, and he seemed always in command of every aspect of the performance, no matter how insignificant.
The concertmaster’s solos were deliciously plaintive and evocative, but it was the principal second violinist whose facial expressions and body movements played out the work’s massive emotional range, from engendered hope, through inspiration and tragedy, to triumph and exhilaration, to final redemptive peace. Watching her so deeply moved by the music and the performance, while hearing the soaring musical drama unfold, seemed a microcosm for the depth of expression the orchestra gave, and a fitting metaphor for the Tonhalle’s own journey.
The repeated and well deserved curtain calls elicited an encore, a rollicking ride through Wagner’s Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, which served as a suitably robust dessert for such a sumptuous orchestral feast.