Tuesday 16 January 2018

Junge Deutsche Philharmonie in Birtwistle, Herrmann and more in Cologne

Junge Deutsche Philharmonie (photo Achim Reissner)
Junge Deutsche Philharmonie (photo Achim Reissner)
Herrmann, Liebermann, Gershwin, Birtwistle, Bernstein; Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, Ingo Metzmacher; Kölner Philharmonie
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Jan 7 2018 Star rating: 4.0
A jazz-inspired concert that had a packed house at the Kölner Philharmonie enjoying every beat and wanting more

Continuing his despatches from Cologne, our correspondent Tony enjoys the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, in a jazz-inspired concert at Kölner Philharmonie on Sunday 7 January 2018, with Bernard Herrmann's Taxi Driver - a night piece for orchestra, Harrison Birtwistle's Panic (with soloist Xavier Larsson Paez), Rolf Liebermann's Concerto für Jazzband and Sinfonieorchester, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (with soloist Alexandre Tharaud) and Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’.

Members of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie - admirably led by their konzertmeisterin, Annika Fuchs - found themselves on fire (and flying high) in a thoroughly entertaining, polished and engaging performance that would, I feel, be hard to beat by any youth orchestra in the world.

They were safely under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher who, incidentally, conducted the première of Hans Werner Henze’s sixth symphony in 1994 and three years later conducted the première of his ninth. From my point of view, that places him in the top league.

Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver got the evening off to a good and invigorating start putting some fizz into the bottle straightaway. Written for the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s 1976 film of the same name, directed by Martin Scorsese and set in New York City following the Vietnam War, the film starred Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is considered culturally, historically and aesthetically significant by the US Library of Congress who selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1994.
Featuring the alto saxophonist, Xavier Larsson Paez, his raw, aggressive and virtuosic playing was simply thrilling to listen to. An extraordinary-talented musician, he began his studies on violin and saxophone in his home town of Ciutadella de Menorca, Spain, graduating in saxophone gaining the Extraordinary Prize at the Conservatory of Liceu, Barcelona. Currently, he’s studying for the Konzertexamen and a Master of Contemporary Music at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz, Cologne.

But more was to come from this Young Giant who has a promising career ahead of him as he was also the featured soloist in Harrison Birtwistle’s inspired work, Panic, the second item on the programme. Already, I didn’t want this concert to end.

A dithyramb for alto saxophone, jazz drummer, wind, brass and percussion Panic was composed in response to John Drummond’s request for a work to be performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 1995 (his final bow as Proms director) at the Royal Albert Hall showcasing the English-born saxophonist, John Harle, an Ivor Novello Award winner.

Birtwistle called the work a ‘dithyramb’ which in Classical Greek means a choric song in honour of Dionysus, whose wild exuberance runs riot. The sax soloist, as chorus leader, is identified with the mythical god Pan, literally ‘spreading ruin and scattering ban’ - a line taken from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Musical Instrument’ in which Birtwistle prefaced the score.

Composed in 1995, the title refers to the feelings of ecstasy and terror experienced by animals in the night at the sound of Pan’s music. The chaos wreaked by Pan is exemplified by the conflict between the orchestra and the saxophonist together with drum-kit. And the chemistry between Xavier Larsson Paez and Daniel Higler (drums) was electric and rousing to the core. So young! So talented! But that goes for all of the members of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie.

At times the two rebel against each other and branch out adopting tempos independent of the orchestra. It’s within these bars that I found the most thrilling of an 18-minute work calling for intense and energetic playing. Exhilarating - it made me panic deep down inside with pure excitement.

In fact, seeing this work on the bill encouraged me to attend the concert. This is only the second time that I’ve heard Panic and, really, the work needs more exposure. That’s for sure. I think it would go down well at any major European jazz festival or, indeed, pop festival. Get in there JDP?

In contrast, Swiss-born composer Rolf Liebermann’s Concerto für Jazzband and Sinfonieorchester, dating from 1954, gave members of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie plenty of room to shine especially the quintet of saxophone players who syncopated themselves through a rip-roaring score which also incorporated a couple of pianos (Bechstein, I hope, who are based in Cologne - they even placed an advertisement in the programme) and a well-stocked percussion section featuring a myriad of instruments ranging from the big bass drum to the side drum and from timpani to bongos - and even a harp. Without a shadow of doubt, the work’s an extravaganza of sound and was skilfully executed by the young bloods of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie.

The second half of the programme opened in style with a lovely rendering of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman in 1924) featuring the Parisian-born pianist, Alexandre Tharaud. A master of the keyboard, he played effortlessly capturing the essence and subtlety of Gershwin’s wonderful and well-loved score which combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects.

The work received its première in the concert ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’ held on 12th February 1924 in the Aeolian Hall, New York, by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin at the piano. As such, it established Gershwin’s reputation as a serious composer and has become one of the most celebrated of all American concert works. This performance by the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie at Kölner Philharmonie featuring Alexandre Tharaud did it justice and would take some beating.

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ - which became a landmark in American musical theatre - completed a well-planned programme. A marvellous score and, indeed, a marvellous musical, it knocked them for six when premièred on Broadway in 1957 and did the same when it arrived in the West End at Her Majesty's Theatre a year later following its European première in Manchester earlier in the same year.

The ‘Prologue’ - highlighting the rivalry between two teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks - set the scene. A stylish opener to the ‘Dances’ it witness members of the orchestra playing with verve and enthusiasm while getting that metronome-style click of the thumb-and-finger spot on complementing well the syncopated score of this movement which is full of life, vitality and everything else in between which quietly gives way to that lovely adagio setting of ‘Somewhere’ focusing on the dream ballet when, briefly, the two gangs are united in friendship. Here the strings of the JDP excelled themselves in some warm and rich playing.

However, throughout the piece the orchestra played thoughtfully and intelligently and judging by their body language were enjoying every minute and every note of Bernstein’s fine and melodic score. The upbeat movements of the ‘Scherzo’ and the ‘Mambo’ were in stark contrast to the more sultry and moody sounds of the ‘Cha Cha’ in which the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, meet and dance together for the first time while in the ‘Meeting Scene’ pulsating music accompanies their first words spoken to each another.

Bernstein (whose centenary of his birth falls this year) ups the game in the ‘Cool Fugue’, a vision of an elaborate dance sequence in which Riff leads the Jets in harnessing their impulsive hostility while cooling themselves down. And in the climactic gang battle ‘Rumble’ the two gang leaders, Riff and Bernardo, meet their end.

The ‘Finale’ - another fine and sensitive adagio movement - witnesses Maria crying out with her big number ‘I Have a Love’ which develops into a procession recalling the vision of ‘Somewhere’. Strong, heart-breaking and emotional stuff all round, the orchestra, under Maestro Metzmacher, tapped into that strength and emotion to produce one of the finest renderings of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances I’ve ever heard. Really, I cannot wait to hear the orchestra again. I want more! Therefore, Cologne here I come!

In fact, I did get more as the orchestra turned to Bernstein’s old pal, Aaron Copland, for an encore and treated the audience to the upbeat and lively movement of ‘Hoe Down’ from Rodeo conceived as a ballet in 1942 and choreographed by Agnes de Mille, the niece of film director, Cecil B DeMille. A pioneer of dance, she was instrumental in developing the narrative aspect of dance and made innovative use of American themes, folk dances and physical idioms in her choreography of musical plays and ballets.

What a brilliant ending to a fabulous night in the comfort of the Kölner Philharmonie. Wunderbar!
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

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