Bamberg Symphony Opens Season With Panache

On paper, the season-opening concert of the Bamberg Symphony on September 28 was a winner unheard and unseen, before it ever took place: György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Bohuslav Martinů’s First [sic!] Violin Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmermann, and a newly arranged orchestral suite from The Cunning Little Vixen as the main course. Sign me up! Indeed, I did sign up and traipsed up to the northern Bavarian hinterlands to hear this delectable traversal of 20th century Central-Eastern Europe music by the Bamberg Symphony, that sneakily Top-Five German orchestra.

The band itself has Czech roots, having once been assembled from the westward fleeing remnants of the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague. Now it is nudged back to these roots by its newish Czech chief conductor, Jakub Hrůša. It is building on these, with performances like that of the Hrůša-concocted Vixen-Suite which, in contrast to existing syntheses, takes into account music from the entire opera and presents them–for greater dramatic comprehensibility Hrůša argues–in chronological order.

In most orchestral concerts, any piece by Janáček would be the daring bit, surrounded by box-office appeasing and bean-counter-soothing evergreens. Here it was the main ingredient and the most easily digestible bit on the fare. (In fairness, this was the second of two season-opening concerts; the first featured slightly more conservative selections for the mainstream subscription crowd.)

The Cunning Little Vixen is a marvelously charming, endearing opera full of great music and even greater emotional effects. With a concert performance by the Cleveland Orchestra last year still in my ears–the otherworldly sound of the perfectly-synced opening spiccato and col legno figures of the strings and the splendid cast of singers–this pared-down version suffered in comparison. Just the orchestral bits don’t quite capture the spirit of the opera. And while the playing of the Bamberg Symphony under Hrůša was excellent, indeed the best of the night, that last degree of total refinement or tonal warmth was not in evidence at Bamberg’s fine Joseph Keilberth Hall. Hrůša constructed his Suite in a modular way to make it fit anywhere on a program; this version certainly was the full Monty. Alas, the promise of greater dramatic comprehensibility wasn’t particularly obvious: On this first exposure at least, it just sounded like more of the Vixen. Which is a still good start, I suppose, the music being so enchanting.

Decidedly less enchanting but, at its best, totally engrossing, is Ligeti’s Atmosphères, which can sound like vast sheets of steel, chalk, and slate sheering up against each other. It’s music that shimmers before your eyes. It’s variously a sea of curious tug-boats or ancient oak trees snoring. It’s one of the few works that has always managed to satisfy hardcore avant-garde tastes as well as those of the more open-minded orchestra audiences (more interested in music than ideology) alike. The Bambergers’ metallic, dry tone seemed apt; the orchestra was well steered and dynamically nuanced but not particularly hushed or for that matter atmospheric.

The main draw of the evening may not even have been to hear those get-go Bambergers, magnificent though they can be, but to listen to Frank Peter Zimmermann in an absolute concert program rarity: Bohuslav Martinů’s First (rather than the reasonably rarely performed Second) Violin Concerto. Rippling along swiftly, Zimmermann, the thinking man’s violinist, navigated it with aplomb and a folksy touch. The concerto demands much of the violinist, who has to power through it almost non-stop without ever giving much back. Double stops en masse, but scarcely a lyrical phrase to seduce the audience. There’s accumulated energy and rambunctious reluctance, and friendly frenzy on the plus-side–even a dancing lightness that Zimmermann effortfully wrested from the score. But not outright fun for either performing or listening parties, by the looks and sounds of it.

There is, in fairness, a point to hearing it live that suggests why it is so rarely heard in the first place. That said, it very much beat hearing some concerto-staple for the umpteenth time. Not only ought every audience have the opportunity to judge for itself whether it likes this or that worthy rarity, it ought to support properly adventurous programming. Incidentally East-Coast corridor audiences will have a chance to do just that: Frank Peter Zimmermann will perform the Martinů’s First Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Manfred Honeck November 15–17 in a program otherwise featuring Waltzes and Polkas by various Straussians and Dvořák’s Carnival Overture. (Zimmermann also has just performed (and recorded) it with the Berlin Philharmonic under Jakub Hrůša, which is available in their digital concert hall.)

To make sure that the evening didn’t accidentally let up and introduce simple sugars, Zimmermann continued with the musically complex carbohydrates by adding as an encore the third-movement Adagio (Melodia) from Bartók’s fiendishly difficult Sonata for Solo Violin. Not fun, outright, but fitting, demanding, impressive, and just what the doctor (you know: the one who’s supposed to fix boring, cowardly programmed classical concerts) ordered.