Monday, October 11, 2021

"Thus Fate Knocks at the Door" - The Israel Chamber Orchestra opens the 2021-2022 concert season with works of Ives, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Conductor: Ariel Zuckermann. Soloist: Amir Katz

Pianist Amir Katz (Robert Recker)


Maestro Ariel Zuckermann (courtesy ICO)
Ushering in the Israel Chamber Orchestra's 2021-2022 concert season at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on October 6th 2021, Moshe Neeman (chairman, ICO board) and Raz Frohlich (Israel Ministry of Culture and Sport) referred to "Thus Fate Knocks at the Door", the opening event, as a milestone following so many months of Covid-19 restrictions and unanswered questions. The Recanati Auditorium was then plunged into darkness. When the lights came on, what was visible at the front of the stage was a wind quartet and the ICO's musical director Ariel Zuckermann. However, behind the black curtain was the orchestra's string section and at the back of the hall, a sole trumpeter, all these elements creating the three-layered collage for Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question''. For the duration of this short but disturbing mood piece, the strings play tranquil chords of almost no perceptible beat or meter, totally detached from the interaction beyond the curtain. The trumpet repeatedly poses the five-note motif Ives referred to as the "perennial question of existence,'' while the woodwind quartet responds in a frenetic and ultimately empty search for answers, playing with increasing rhythmic density, decreasing unity and escalating, intense dissonances. When the trumpet asks the question one last time, there is only one answer - silence. The work, written in 1908 when Ives was in his twenties (then revised 1930–1935), shows the brilliant, eccentric, and little-understood anomaly of American music to have been experimenting with many of the new compositional techniques years before his European counterparts. Ariel Zuckermann led his players through the challenging and thought-provoking work with precision and commitment, its musical language, tension and message affecting the audience no less deeply now, over a century from when it was written.


Israeli-born pianist, Amir Katz, today residing in Germany, joined the ICO for Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.25.  A work unusual in a number of ways, it is as if the 21-year-old composer had no patience for the first movement's customary orchestral exposition; he gives the orchestra a mere seven bars of introduction before the brilliant, almost defiant intervention of the soloist, then deviating once more to bring the separate movements together in a seamless whole. The work celebrates the technical advances now making the piano a bigger, heavier, louder instrument (also boasting a glittering new upper register), capable of filling a concert hall with sound and able to meet the modern orchestra on equal terms. Mendelssohn, himself a brilliant pianist, gave the work its first performance and several more after that. Zuckermann's reading of the concerto highlighted its youthful, compelling energy as well as its Sturm und Drang puissance. Katz complements the latter with strength, brilliant passage-work, his signature articulacy and fleet-of-finger playing in the outer movements, turning inwards in the E major slow movement, an intimate duet between piano and strings, to engage in what might be seen as an orchestrated "Song without Words". The pianist takes time to form, to examine and spell out the filigree details that give personal expression to cadenza- and solo moments. As with chamber musicians, Zuckermann and Katz engage in eye contact and close teamwork as melodies and accompanying figures pass back and forth, at one moment standing back, then to re-emerge, as they intertwine to form Mendelssohn's rich instrumental weave and create a delicate sense of balance. The ICO's brass section added to the vigour and lustre of the performance.


For an encore, Amir Katz chose the Intermezzo from Robert Schumann's "Faschingsschwank aus Wien" (Carnival of Vienna) Op. 26. Creating the piece's flowing sound via the steady stream of right-hand background notes interspersed with melody notes, Katz' playing, quick-witted in its rhythmic shaping, was warm in tone, his deft handling of the piece's stormy aspect never coarse, never taking precedence over the Schumanesque subcurrent of reflection and longing. 


Tying in with the theme of the concert, the final work on the program was Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op.67 (1808), a work that has gone down in music history as the "Symphony of Fate".  When Beethoven's secretary/biographer Anton Schindler questioned the composer about the work's opening motif (sometimes referred to as the most famous four notes in musical history) Beethoven is said to have replied: "This is the sound of fate knocking at the door." Musicologist Michael Stuck-Schloen suspects that Beethoven, even if the quote is authentic, may have responded thus if only to get rid of the intrusive Schindler. Does the work's spirit perhaps arise from new philosophical aspects of the French Revolution or is it, indeed, a "chant de victoire", as it was received in France? The composer himself insisted that he was not writing program music. Maestro Zuckermann, conducting with neither baton nor score, made clear the rewards of revisiting this monumental and somewhat enigmatic work, engaging with the fine ICO instrumentalists to present its unprecedented intensity, its lyricism, the myriad of instrumental colours, its suspense and its mysteries. The symphony's impact was transmitted to the audience in the Recanati Auditorium. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach has summed up Beethoven's 5th Symphony thus: "It has no predecessor. No successor in composition." 


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