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Women in the driving seat at the Elbphilharmonie

Por , 16 diciembre 2018

“Women drivers!” is what some male chauvinists of yesteryear used to call out in exasperation, referencing as much their actual existence as their supposed lack of highway skills. Well, two classy female motorists were very much in the driving seat during this concert of extremes given by the Hamburg Philharmonic: Alondra de la Parra and Camille Thomas were making their debuts as conductor and soloist respectively.

Alondra de la Parra
© Erika Mayer

The driving itself had begun somewhat cautiously in the first half. Stravinsky was always up for surprises: in 1913 he had already shocked the musical establishment in Paris (including Saint-Saëns) with Le Sacre. Then, seven years later, in one of his famous "backward glances", he served up an example of musical time travel, seeing the 18th century through a 20th-century lens. As ever the best salesman of his own talent, he created a suite from his new ballet Pulcinella (for which Picasso designed the sets and costumes) and revised it twice, in 1949 (the version de la Parra chose to conduct) and 1965.

If you take the fizz out of Stravinsky, you end up with only half a composer. Whether or not the main work had swallowed up so much rehearsal time, there was little exuberance in this performance. Rasping cellos and double basses in the concluding Minuetto-Finale emphasised the astringency of Stravinsky’s reworking of the Baroque originals (falsely attributed to Pergolesi), but there was not much evidence of the commedia dell’arte traditions on which the composer drew. He might have scowled into the camera more often than not during his lifetime, but he was not without an impish sense of fun. Speeds were often on the sleepy side, making the Serenata second movement sound more like a Notturno and the oboe solo recalled Bach rather than any of his contemporaries. Carefully played Stravinsky has little to commend it.

By the time the concerto arrived, the traffic on the road was being negotiated more confidently. The Cello Concerto no.1 by Saint-Saëns may be modest in terms of scale and virtuosity, but it exhibits all the elegance and craftsmanship which one of the greatest of all French tunesmiths could command. Thomas projected her solo line with commitment, never forcing her tone, and displayed a commendable evenness and awareness of classical style which paid homage to the composer Saint-Saëns most admired – Mozart. In the finale, where the thematic material of the first movement is picked up again, the dynamics were often scaled right back, creating a sense of intimacy and a satisfying resolution in the cantilena which leads up to the final bars. Between them, conductor and soloist steered this veteran limousine perfectly. In her generous encore, Jacques Offenbach’s Les larmes de Jacqueline, a piece that Jacqueline du Pré loved to play, the warmth of Thomas’ phrasing was a particular delight.

Which work starts off with an ear-splitting gong and all the orchestral apparel imaginable to make you think you are about to witness one of the greatest Cecil B. DeMille spectaculars ever? Most people would probably not think of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who wrote scores for six Mexican films in the last five years of his life before dying, a victim of alcoholism, at the early age of 40. A year before his death in 1940, he composed the music for La noche de los mayas (The night of the Mayas), which was later turned into a four-movement symphonic suite.

In the second half of this concert, de la Parra was visibly in her element. Where earlier she had been very self-contained, here she cut a dynamic figure on the podium, urging her players on in a performance of considerable electricity but also exceptional sensitivity. In this piece rhythm is all: even when it is being gently tapped out on a tumkul (a log drum) half-way through the first movement, it underpins the entire structure. There is indeed much to do for the percussion department, here involving 13 players (led by a female principal) operating several exotic instruments such as bongos, congas, metal rattles, guiro and a caracol (conch shell). They all have a moment of elevated glory in the final movement ("Night of enchantment"), when there is an extended and improvisatory cadenza. Now imagine a gigantic machine-hall stacked full of the most amazing apparatuses, and all the whirring, clicking, plopping, hissing, scratching and squeaking plus the pounding and beating of the heavy gear that follows. Then, when the full orchestra enters, there are distinct echoes of Le Sacre. Keeping this 16-cylinder hypercar magisterially on the road, de la Parra accentuated the mesmerising quality of this music which derives from the rhythmical repetitiveness as well as the immense complexity of competing structures and textures. Even Stravinsky didn’t write a score requiring this level of sound. Those in search of a novel aural experience – and indeed concert promoters too! – please note.

****1
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“de la Parra cut a dynamic figure on the podium in a performance of considerable electricity”
Crítica hecha desde Elbphilharmonie: Großer Saal, Hamburg el 16 diciembre 2018
Programa
Stravinsky, Suite de Pulcinella
Saint-Saëns, Concierto para violonchelo núm. 1 en la menor, Op.33
Revueltas, La noche de los mayas
Offenbach, Les Larmes de Jacqueline, Op.76 no.2 (Encore)
Intérpretes
Alondra de la Parra, Director
Camille Thomas, Violonchelo
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
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