The concert season in Winterthur was ushered in with welcome refreshment on the grand staircase of the Gottfried Semper’s Stadthaus. The neo-classical building houses the city’s concert hall, one whose stage has been modified with an acoustic shell to make for a more consistent sound. The mix of classic and contemporary then is no stranger to this iconic building.

Douglas Boyd © Alan Stratton, Medialane
Douglas Boyd
© Alan Stratton, Medialane
The opening concert began with Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas, a seldom-heard overture that alternates dramatic bursts at high volume with delicate almost straight-laced sensibilities. When the composer saw Victor Hugo’s play of the same name, he criticized it as “completely terrible, and beneath all dignity” and was seriously non-plussed about writing this overture, convinced he was commissioned to do so only because “more tickets will be sold if my name is on the programme”. In Winterthur the jolly, if rather superficial, work was played competently by a constellation of some 50 fine players under the baton of Douglas Boyd, but the work itself showed a little too much frolic and party dress for my taste.

Anticipation of the evening’s next piece, Fazil Say’s Sinfonische Tänze, was feverish, in no small part because it had been commissioned through a generous grant from a local philanthropic foundation. Say enjoys a long association with Winterthur in a double role, both as composer and as concert pianist. In solo concert he typically includes one or two of his own works, which feature irregular rhythms and experimental sounds in a genre considered halfway between the Occident and the West. Most of us in the hall expected to hear “Western instruments played in a way that doesn’t sound Western” in this new orchestral work.

Sadly, that just didn’t happen. Indeed, there were a few dervish-like moments in the first dance, a few slides on the strings, occasional flutes “whining”. The musicians are to be commended for holding so tightly to their scores, and the solo oboe and clarinet and horns, particularly, shone their lights over the whole.

The second dance (of four) began with a starburst of syncopation, but the regularity of the four-beats-a-measure and such predictable phrasing put my nose out of joint all too soon. By the time the drill of the drum began, I felt like one does in the dentist’s chair. The Occidental came across in the sliding strings; then one instrument after another seemed to mock various sounds of the aviary, and at one point, all was duly peppered with the scratches on a small dried gourd. But there was nothing to grab onto here, no pulp or system; it was simply a patchwork of decorative impulses. By the third movement, I saw the programme in the most simplistic light: if it’s dark, make it light; if it’s soft, make it hard. It seemed episodic, lurching between the poles of structure and − forgive me – something unravelled.

Predictability and repetition marked all four of the dances; overall − the musicians’ competence and tenacity exempted − this was a disappointment. Even the conductor somehow felt party to its tenor. Usually alert and graceful, his body more than once broached semi-collapse on the podium like a balloon losing its air. And the audience’s robust applause at the end of the first dance was not matched again at the end of the others. By then, the seemingly loose score had just gone on too long, and the deadpan faces proved it.

Fortunately, Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht, cantatas for solo voices, choir and orchestra, was far more agreeable. Set to a text by Goethe, the work was first performed in Leipzig in 1843. Its story revolves around Druids who are practising their age-old pagan rituals in the face of intolerant and dominating Christian forces. The Zürcher Sing-Akademie gave a stellar performance. Rarely is a choir capable of imparting as distinctive a character profile as when the singers here called up the Devil to trick and frighten away the Christian clergy. Further, their “Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch; So reinig unsern Glauben” (Unclouded now, the flame is bright!) was as compelling as anything the whole evening offered, in no small part owing to an superb soprano section. Well cast, too, the evening’s four soloists included the baritone Ruben Drole, whose powerful projection in the most commanding role, fell on our shoulders like a stunning golden shroud. Just so, the Musikkollegium players shared a golden hour, and not surprisingly, on the podium, Douglas Boyd justifiably stood straight and tall.