With chief conductor Fabio Luisi at the podium, the short overture from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide started the evening with an exuberant bang. A sweet piccolo set the tone for musical trajectories that are fairly predictable, but infinitely ‘singable’. While the lighthearted melodies promised a pull on the heart strings that was sure to appeal to the sell-out crowd.

Fabio Luisi © Barbara Luisi | Balu Photography
Fabio Luisi
© Barbara Luisi | Balu Photography

French tenor Benjamin Bernheim sang Candide’s “Nothing more than This” to start, a song about the rapture of love. His transitions were smooth, his English diction tight, and his variation of volume just right, though his wanting to fast-forward the tempo was evident in a couple of places. But his overall performance was at its best when, later in the concert, he sang not Bernstein’s “Maria”, whose lyrics every child of the 60s knows by heart, but the little-known “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” that Captain Richard Warrington sings in Victor Herbert’s operetta Naughty Marietta. Bernheim embraced the audience, indeed turned a full circle on his heels to gather up the orchestra; a convincing supposition from a promising tenor.

French soprano Julie Fuchs also did a commendable job of “Glitter and Be Gay”; Cunegonde is a woman “victimized by bitter circumstance” who wants to compensate her shame with the fleeting joys of jewels. Fuchs’ silvery voice and finely-tuned theatrical skills were terrifically convincing. The down-and-out of her ‘sordid role’ was even mitigated some by the conductor passing her a handkerchief from the podium. Like Bernheim, Fuchs is a member of the fine Zurich opera house ensemble and knows to carry the emotive into a dimension far beyond just her notes.

Gerswhin’s Rhapsody in Blue arrived next on the programme, often thought to be a musical portrait of New York City. “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness,” the composer was to say.

The opening is written as a clarinet trill followed by a rising scale, soon accompanied by a trio of sliding trombones. At an early rehearsal of the work − when a virtuoso clarinettist played the upper scale portion as a humorous glissando − Gershwin insisted it stay in, and with as much of a ‘wail’ in it as possible. Sebastian Knauer ably conveyed mood changes in the piece with dynamic playing, his body in the form of a ‘C’ receptor at the piano stool. He mastered the work’s acrobatic and muscular demands with a hearty bravura, but also showed tremendous sensitivity. His frequent contrasting cascades thundered, but Gershwin’s colorful stories were also sweetly nuanced. Chapeau! 

I confess I was displeased that the pianist gave us Summertime as an encore, though. The hackneyed piece can be found in every karaoke bar, and I found it little unfair to ‘rain on the (soprano’s) parade’. Her first song after the interval was − you guessed it – Summertime, nicely sung, admittedly, but enough is enough.

Then came Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a work regularly visited for its undisputedly quick injection of pathos. It builds an uneasy lament in a minor key, an ever-shifting state that swells as the melody begins its journey up what one writer has called a “hesitant climbing of stairs”. By constantly changing meter, Barber also subtly manipulates the basic pulse throughout the work, which has moved the emotions of millions of listeners since it was written in 1936.

Some 85 players strong, the Philharmonia played the piece with great conviction, but as a meditative respite, perhaps, before moving on to crown the evening with Gershwin’s flamboyant An American in Paris, a tone poem for orchestra that introduces realistic noises such as the city’s taxi horns and popular songs. First performed in NYC in 1928, critical assessment of the first performance called it ‘musical buffoonery’, yet in the composer’s words: it was “the most modern music I've yet attempted”. Each of the Zurich soloists were exemplary, and overall, the Philharmonia gave a startlingly refreshing performance. Like a splash of cold water over a tired face, the players pepped up the house to a degree that made many in the audience smile in their seats. Concertmaster Hanna Weinmeister deserves special mention for her demonstrative and clear leadership of the players.

Maestro Luisi was utterly drenched with perspiration after the spirited last Gershwin. Usually more demure and contained in the pit; the athletic nature of ‘An American in Paris’ spurred him onto a new level of action. He sank into his knees, queued the percussion with exaggerated strokes, even lurched forward quite dangerously on the tips of his toes. I have never seen him quite so animated, nor quite as visibly pleased with an audience approval. We all agreed: this was an evening of high colour, the peaked sting of nostalgia, profound pathos, and gay abandonment. This reviewer, at least, kicked up her heels.