International concert tours are very expensive and financially uncertain ventures, especially for larger ensembles. One way to insure at least a reasonable expectation of public interest and good attendance is to hook up with a big-name soloist and get him or her on the bus with the backup band. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra has taken leave of the idyllic Swiss mountains to spend most of October touring the eastern United States. Coming along for the ride – and featured more prominently in most of the publicity – is the celebrated American guitarist Sharon Isbin. Good idea, in theory. Classical guitar and chamber orchestras are a good fit, and the possibilities are endless. But this turned out to be another concert where the yawns of the first half served as a prelude to a far superior close.
Just what is it with German dances? Some of the greatest composers – including Mozart and Beethoven – have left some of their most forgettable compositions in this genre. Now I find out that Schubert had also fallen into this dancing abyss. Just as many people get riled up when you criticize a famous musician for a bad performance, some cannot accept the fact that the gods of classical composers were capable of writing some clunkers. Maybe Brahms was right for burning some of his works. I doubt that, if a little-known composer named Ignaz Noodlemeister, from Lower Fredonia, had published "Five German Dances and Seven Trios with Coda," we'd ever hear it. Written in 1813 when Schubert was 16, this is an immature and derivative work that might be fun to play but is more appropriate for a high society dance than a concert hall. The orchestra gave a respectable and accurate reading, although there was a very anemic and amateurish-sounding viola solo in the second trio of the first dance.
Unfortunately, I have to resurrect the old conundrum of playing well-known works ad infinitum. People want to hear them, musicians enjoy playing them, and for the most part their popularity is musically deserving. Last year I heard a performance at Duke by the English Concert. When I saw that they were going to play Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, I groaned – but it turned out to be one of the most thrilling, ear-opening, and revelatory musical experiences I had ever had. It can be done. But it wasn't, in Page Auditorium on October 11. Sharon Isbin and the Zurich Orchestra chose to play two of Vivaldi's lute "concertos." The quotes are there because these were originally for violin(s), lute, and basso continuo. These are works that have been recorded and/or played by nearly every guitarist who ever put fingernail to nylon string. For programs of this type, I do my best to approach the music with virgin ears, but that is easier said than done. I've pondered a more eloquent and elegant way to say this, but I was simply bored. Isbin came out, played, bowed, and went home. There were some deficiencies with the sound that added to the bland mix. The volume of the guitar needed to be turned up. A good deal of the soloist/tutti conversation was muddled, and the reading became a one-sided shout. If you're going to use amplification, which she did, well, then use it. The guitar was also set too bass-heavy, so there was very little brightness to the guitar's sound, which would have helped its projection. These concertos are not showcases for the instrument, so this was not the way to hear a good representation of Isbin's artistry; and there was a detachment, almost a haughtiness that was palpable – I didn't hear any joy or pleasure in her playing.
But this was actually the Zurich Chamber Orchestra's concert and tour, so I don't want to ignore them. The group of 24 string players represented the diverse culture of Switzerland. Judging by the names only, they are a mix of German, Italian, French, and Japanese musicians. Howard Griffiths, "artistic director & chief conductor," as he is listed, is a gregarious and flamboyant conductor. At first, I found him to be almost comical, but his style eventually seemed to suit the needs of the players and the music. The orchestra was alone for the second half, and they finally got to show their musical stuff. Written expressly for this orchestra for this tour, Fabian Müller's "Labyrinth for String Orchestra," can almost be subtitled "modern music without tears." Its wonderful string writing, melodic cells that keep evolving, and just a few hints of unusual effects made this a work you want to hear again. This could – and should – make it into the general chamber orchestra repertoire.
Aside from the obvious biggies like the "New World" Symphony and the glorious Cello Concerto, I have come relatively late to the music of Dvorák. So far, I have found each "new" work to be like discovering a beautiful gem. The E major Serenade for Strings is one of those in the middle as far as familiarity is concerned, although this was the first time I'd heard it in concert. Great music brings out greatness, and it was obvious that the players emotionally blossomed for this work. I will use a quote directly from the program: "Dvorák's music has the sound of a composer at peace with himself and content with his life." But it's a sound and feeling that he wants you to experience. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra expressed this completely.