The new Tonhalle Maag will be the Zurich orchestra’s provisional home for the next three years, at which time the ensemble will move back to its old stomping ground: the historic 1895 Tonhalle that is now undergoing a complete refurbishment.

Brett Dean © Pawel Kopczynski
Brett Dean
© Pawel Kopczynski

In a record seven months, the provisional hall was erected inside what once was an industrial site. The facility can seat more than 1220 people and is adjacent to the generous spaces of old factory halls. Its acoustics are exemplary; to avoid the bouncing of echoes, no single wall runs parallel to another, and among other details, 2.5 million tiny holes underfoot ensure optimal circulation of air to benefit the quality of sound transmission. Some 100 tonnes of spruce wood were used for the new hall’s construction, but the impression it makes as a whole is light and airy.

The launch concert was highly memorable musically. It began with a viola concerto by Brett Dean, this year’s Creative Chair, who also played the solo. Commissioned to write the piece in 2004 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Australian composer/violist was clearly in command of its complex machinations.

The first movement, “Fragment”, begins in less than a whisper until the viola, in almost Romantic proportions, poses a sequence of musical questions. Always parrying with the orchestra, Dean was forever pulling it forward. He took what were scripted moments of murkiness into the lightness of his viola, and usually marked the end of longer phrases with a slight pause before moving into a new territory. The second movement, “Pursuit” is indeed a wild chase: “a restless trip for all involved”, Dean has said. With his solo line working in a place apart, he often rose up onto his toes, almost as if to push through a line taken by the other instruments, and in more dynamic passages he even went down in his knees. The last movement, “Veiled and Mysterious” – the most sublime of the three, is “an extended elegy” that also includes a stunning cello solo. Again, the orchestra gives an eruption of sonority, a period of question and answer in turn with the viola. It’s no surprise that the composer describes his music as “one of disjointed virtuosity, full of edges and angles, a kind of hybrid that might have evolved had Paul Hindemith played in a band with Tom Waits.”

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was second on the programme, just as it was in 1895, when the “old” Tonhalle was inaugurated, and a piece by the “modern” Johannes Brahms preceded it. Fast forward 122 years, and Lionel Bringuier again conducted what is widely considered the crown of Beethoven’s creative spirit. 

The Ninth’s first movement was perfectly modulated, the mood oscillating between the demonstrative and the fully playful. Bringuier often raised his head on the downbeat and boosted the strings to pull sing-song into their melodies. In the second movement, the tympanum reigned, and the conductor’s was a gentler hand, until such time as the monumental score demanded that he “lasso” in all the players to strike a fitting ending, which came down tight as a tick. The third movement was something like a bedtime story, alternating the demure with passages brim-full of gusto and adventure. The strings had extended pizzicato sections, while the tympanum, once again, had a chance to shine.  

But the symphony’s Finale was the concert’s golden hour. The four soloists and some eighty members of the professional Zürcher Sing-Akademie seemed to downright revel in their assignments, performing “Ode to Joy” with muscle and colour. Nine celli launched the theme that has come to define this symphony, while the four soloists each carried their sonorous lines above the huge sounding board of the choir. Maximilian Schmitt’s resounding tenor was as clear as a hunting horn, and mezzo Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s smile was as infectious as her voice was stellar. Soprano Christiane Karg and bass Tareq Nazmi, too, gave superb performances. Even though the horn ran into a little trouble in all the excitement, no one the audience failed to be absorbed in what was probably Beethoven at his best.

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