Saturday, May 7, 2022

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

“A lack of young musicians, which was particularly prevalent in Berlin when the Wall was still standing,” goes the programme blurb, “gave Herbert von Karajan the idea of founding the orchestra’s own academy: highly qualified young instrumentalists would receive a two-year scholarship and regular lessons from the orchestra’s principal players, as well as playing in Philharmoniker concerts. In 1972, the year of its foundation, comparable institutions were completely unknown. Today, five other orchestras in Berlin alone have their own academies – and about a third of the Philharmoniker’s members are former scholarship holders.” Free to access on their official YouTube channel, the Academy’s concerts, strong on inventive content, are as much promoted and webcast as the Philharmoniker’s own. Starry conductors and instrumentalists, the world’s best, come to inspire and participate. Who’ll not have been impacted by Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s extraordinary take on Biber’s Battalia à 10 last December? “Learn from the pros” is the Academy’s slogan. Interviews with past members, refreshingly frank and vulnerably human, suggest the learning curve is steep and quick, often throwing one in at the deep end. How to listen and adapt to your peers and seniors … how to blend and become a part of the Philharmoniker’s “dark, warm” soundworld … how to overcome nerves and over-preparation … that playing solo showpieces and virtuoso studies, crucial as it is to have those technical skills, isn’t what Bruckner or Janáček, Mozart or Zimmermann, Beethoven or Boulez are about. To be nurtured in such elevated surroundings, in an atmosphere of excellence that’s demanding but sensitive to individual needs and personalities, no expense spared, must be every college graduate’s dream. The Philharmoniker may no longer be the only option, but it was the grand pioneer, setting the model and benchmark.

“[Mixing and juxtaposing] disparate things to create a new meaning.” Highlight of this anniversary concert, in the composer’s presence, was the first performance of Donghoon Shin’s Nachtergebung (Night Surrender), a cello concerto in five linked movements commissioned by the Karajan Academy funded by the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung. Signed to Boosey & Hawkes two months ago, Shin, born in 1983, studied in Seoul before coming to London in 2014 to work with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Currently he’s completing a PhD with George Benjamin at King’s College – though, frankly, paper qualifications aside, I wonder why, given that his track-record readily exceeds whatever benefits a doctoral submission might offer. Citing Anderson, Benjamin, Unsuk Chin, Peter Eötvös and Sukhi Kang as mentors who’ve been influential in his development, he’s won major critical attention and accolades over the past decade, including a Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize (2016), a UK Critics’ Circle Music Award for Young Talent (2019), and, most recently, the Claudio Abbado Prize (2022). Tenures have included Young Composer in Residence with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group through Sound and Music’s Embedded Scheme (2017-18) and Ricordilab’s Composer Laureate platform (2019-22). His music has been performed by A-list orchestras and ensembles, including the LSO (François-Xavier Roth), Philharmonia, Helsinki Philharmonic (Osmo Vänskä), Seoul Philharmonic and Karajan Academy (Eötvös, 2019). Next season sees a new joint-commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Seoul Philharmonic and Bamberg Symphony. Not yet forty, he’s a power to be reckoned with – in Roth’s view “a composer of colour, a composer of new dimensions – I’m very impatient to see what he can achieve”.

In the absence of a score or programme note, based simply on performance, the new concerto, at just under twenty-two minutes, is a tour de force of imagination, sound-fields, dramatic impact, physicality and containment. I ‘Verfall’ (Decay), II ‘Trompeten’ (Trumpets), III ‘Winterdämmerung’ (Winter Twilight), IV ‘Die Nacht’ (Night), V ‘Nachtergebung’ (Night Surrender). Without being told what, one presumes a descriptive or sensorial underlay to the music. Whatever, the interplay of tensions, primal gravity, percussive attacks, flying delirium, edgy confrontations and sudden pools of spiritual balm and consonance, stillness versus action, make for a spectacular, memorably crafted canvas, justifying the widest exposure and recording. Bruno Delepelaire, an alumnus of the Academy, now the Philharmoniker’s principal cellist, excelled in the solo part, as agile and attacking as he could be dolce and caressing, richly toned in all manner of ways. Kirill Petrenko participated to the hilt, the many tricky ensemble and rhythmic moments, danger areas each, co-ordinated, so far as could be judged, with commitment and precision. A high-profile occasion.

The remainder of the programme, ‘white C’ triumphant, focussed on Mozart and Beethoven, Nodoka Okisawa, conducting scholar and Petrenko’s assistant (2020-22), taking the reins for the ‘Linz’ Symphony (K425). Winner of the 2018 Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting and the 2019 Concours international de jeunes chefs d’orchestre de Besançon 2019, where she was awarded the Grand Prix, Orchestra Prize and Audience Prize, she has a relaxed style and an uncomplicated technique while not without temperament or body language, steering the orchestra comfortably, everyone at ease. She phrased and balanced the textures elegantly, trumpets nicely edging hard-stick timpani, dynamics and cadences poetically framed, a Kirill-like concern for detail. Very musical.

Petrenko hasn’t conducted Beethoven’s Fifth with the Philharmoniker before. Using Jonathan Del Mar’s Bärenreiter text, he generated an electrifying account. Rattling fortes, crouching hushed pianissimos, piercing woodwind, antiphonal violins and violas, subterranean cellos and double basses rooting the harmony, errors in previous editions corrected. All repeats – down to the original five-part ABABA structure of the Scherzo, an unexpected bonus. It was a stirring encounter, the beauty of woodwind-playing, the ringing rampant brass of the Finale, the liberation of the kettledrums especially dazzling. It was good, emotional too, to see the young musicians of the Academy in such elite form, living out these famous old notes, their ranks stiffened by their mentors from the Philharmoniker, familiar faces all, everyone pursuing a common aim, Petrenko having no need to yield in realising his vision, kind and caring in gesture and smile. Standing ovation.

Donghoon Shin Cello Concerto premiered by Berlin Philharmonic on 7 May 2022.

For Freedom and Peace – Nodoka Okisawa conducts members of the Berliner Philharmoniker, with Evgeny Kissin, Rodion Pogossov, Daishin Kashimoto & Uladzimir Sinkevich [live Digital Concert Hall webcast].