First Session, Beethoven Violin Concerto, Op. 61 in 3 movements
Alexandre Da Costa strode on stage and took up his position, with an understated Rockstar vibe, standing before the audience resplendent in a subtly sparkling black coat and tie. He held his Stradivarius gently, presenting it face-out towards the audience as though it were a gift, before performing what almost seemed a ritual undoing of coat buttons to prepare himself for playing. As the orchestra started playing he seemed to look around himself in satisfaction, attending to every phrase, clearly not just waiting for his time to shine.
And when he did, what a beautiful tone leapt from his violin. This is the first time I’ve heard a ‘Strad’ live and I have a controversial opinion: I think they’re pretty good. Of course, any and every guest playing a principal solo violin part is going to have a ‘special’ instrument of some sort; I know my own lack of knowledge well enough to understand the power of expectation bias. Could I have discerned a Stradivarius from a $50 violin? Honestly probably not, at least not when played by such a master as Da Costa. It was definitely a thrill, though.
What I can talk about is the way that he played: interestingly, amongst many other things ADC performs something called “Stradivarius BaRock”, bringing a sense of what Beethoven and others might have written had they been composing today. Much of what that name brings to mind came through in his attack on the instrument, particularly in the cadenzas, in opening and transition phrases, in the way he moved about the stage and even the way he used audible inspiration almost as a grace note to lead into particularly strong passages. Even the rest of the orchestra seemed to be greatly enjoying themselves, smiling and occasionally craning their necks to see around their fellow players in front to watch ADC play.
I must stress that the rest of the orchestra were no bit “players” themselves by any means; the performance as a whole was tight and flowing, with an appearance of easy grace. As you can imagine though, with ADC up front the focus was very much on him and his violin in this, Beethoven’s only Violin Concerto.
This first session ended with a bonus performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – dedicated to his ‘new best friends’ George and Kathy Deutsch – which was quite unexpected and entirely superb.
Second Session, Sibelius Symphony No.1, Op. 39
Wow. This one really snuck up on me! Through the first couple of movements I was thinking that I would have preferred the Sibelius to have been performed before the Beethoven, but by the time we got to the third I appreciated the programming that much more. Where the Beethoven had tripped relatively lightly and playfully along, the Sibelius rather thundered through, building its way up through your boots to sink its hooks deep in to your flanks and then to transport you bodily through the rumbling emotions of the piece, the sense of the deep and profound Finnish winter holding you securely and doing with you as it wished. The sudden and understated ending of the last movement provided a final shock of abandonment which resonated through the auditorium until broken a full 5 seconds later by a smile on stage and a downing of bows.
There was a definite weight to this that wasn’t there in the Beethoven, each piece doing very different things. The role played by the timpani, the background rumbling rising here and there to an overwhelm of sound; the uneasy murmuring of the cellos; the clamour of the brass; the frequent shift of the basses from bowing to plucking which served to heighten the tension. Where the Beethoven had more of the air of a triumph, the Sibelius had more of the air of an epic, and an epic calculated to drag you from your slumber and cast you in to the snow, there perhaps to wrestle a reindeer or two. I’d say bear but that sounds a bit Russian and while you could feel elements of Tchaikovsky, it was very definitely its own self; this was no imitation, no stylistic borrowing. Finland and Russia share geography and weather, but their peoples and their cultures, and hence their music, are entirely unique.
There’s something about these evenings, about a symphony orchestra in full flight, that I really enjoy. Sometimes some chamber music from a trio is quite nice, and other times something modern and experimental can really make you think. But for those times when you want to be taken away, you simply can’t beat a symphony orchestra, and Zelman Symphony is a fine orchestra indeed. To round out the theme of this evening of Rockstars: on my way there I was listening to a nice bit of KoRn in the car. On my way home, I put on some System of a Down. Beethoven and Sibelius were not at all out of place in the middle there. There’s a reason that Metallica have now done two performances with a symphony orchestra, and I think we can expand this a little. The Zelman line-up for 2020 is pretty full already, culminating in what looks to be an amazing Symphonic Song Cycle based on ‘No friend but the mountains’ by Behrouz Boochani. So what do we think of the idea of a Zelman Metal tour in 2021? I don’t know about you, but sign me up!