Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - Berlioz, Brahms & Prokofiev - 10/26/09

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77 - Joshua Bell
Prokofiev: Romeo et Juliet - Ballet Suite

The dreaded last day of the last leg of my fabulous tour had finally arrived, but at least I wouldn't attend just any final performance. I had been drooling outside Berlin's historical Konzerthaus every time I passed by harmoniously proportioned Gendarmenmarkt, and its October program was one of the first things I had checked once my travel plans had become more concrete. Apollo was obviously looking after me because there they were: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Charles Dutoit and Joshua Bell, definitely sounding like the perfect company with whom to make it through the finish line. Of course, the fateful timing also meant that for the first time ever I found myself in the very odd position of only half-heartedly looking forward to a Joshua Bell performance, of no less than Brahms' formidable violin concerto in this case, but time's inexorable march could not be stopped, and at least the cup was half-way promisingly full.
Once there, the evening started on a slightly wrong note as I, along with many others, got (nicely) asked not to take pictures of the Konzerthaus' incredibly beautiful auditorium. After shooting to my heart's content everywhere I had gone during the past two weeks, it hadn't even occurred to me that it would be found objectionable on my very last stop. All the other venues apparently did not mind, maybe out of resignation (Can't beat the camera-toting masses), maybe out of common sense (Why resent free advertising?). This concert hall was probably the most spectacular I had seen so far, not so much for the opulence of its decorations than for the tasteful combination of its soothing colors, white statues and discreet ornaments, all anchored by an imposing silver organ looming over the stage. You felt your mind elevated by just being there.

Such a stunning place deserved stunning music, and everybody on that stage contributed to deliver just that. The first number by Berlioz, especially composed as a concert opener, fulfilled its purpose with brio. Starting slowly but then picking up pace, it quickly created a festive atmosphere.
It may never take the prime spot securely held by Tchaikovsky's in my heart, but Brahms' majestic violin concerto comes an extremely close second. One of the most popular and regularly performed works in classical music, it is also one of those timeless masterpieces that make the pulse of even non music lovers irresistibly go faster. Monday night, we were blessed to have Joshua Bell take full command of it and flawlessly work his way through the relentlessly challenging score, fiercely intense in the more dramatic moments, soaringly lyrical in the more introspective ones, completely freaking out the young, wide-eyed Italian violin student sitting next to me in the process. Bottom line is, if we cannot get Joseph Joachim to channel Brahms anymore, Joshua Bell will do just fine. Even more than fine, actually. One of the many highlights of the performance was a particularly moving Adagio whose ethereally graceful opening melody was eloquently carried out by the oboe before the violin made its subdued, dreamy entrance, taking us all on a short, but deeply thoughtful journey. Quickly shifting gears, the third movement provided spirited fireworks reminiscent of the joyful exuberance of Hungarian folk music and concluding this brilliant tour de force with flash and substance.
After extended and rapturous applause, Joshua Bell came back with something "a little silly" (As he rightfully pointed out, what can you play after Brahms?), but also full of fun and virtuosity: Souvenirs d'Amérique by Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps, which, beside dazzling the audience with its smart, crafty variations on Yankee Doodle, was also a nice nod to my imminent return to the good old US of A.
Full-blown Romanticism was still in the air when the orchestra and its conductor came back for a lively assortment of excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Striking the perfect balance between technical precision and heart-felt sentimentality, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Charles Dutoit kept this beloved ballet score going seamlessly despite playing only chosen parts of it. The superb string sections made sure that the famously gorgeous melodic lines rose and expanded in all their lusciousness, giving the music a true symphonic grandeur. Quite a way to end an evening, and my own Eastern European musical journey.

Mission accomplished! After mentally extending my most grateful thanks to Joshua, Charles and Co for totally rocking my last night out, I had to psychologically prepare myself to abandon this shamelessly self-indulgent dolce vita of feasts for the eye by day and feasts for the ear by night (not to forget those divine hot chocolate and pastry breaks!) and reluctantly fly back to Washington and the real world. The party is over for now, but while I am catching my breath (and paying my bills) on the other side of the pond, I am also making plans for my next expedition. So much music, so little time.

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