One of the strands of the Belgrade Philharmonic’s 2017-18 season has been the theme of “Earth” and the two main works in their concert with Japanese conductor Eiji Oue brought this theme to an appropriate conclusion, the first encompassing the Earth and its music and the second taking us into space. First, however, came Oue’s compatriot Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings. This is an early work of the composer’s (dating from 1957) and a very significant one: Stravinsky, visiting Japan, heard a recording of the Requiem by mistake, liked it and paved the way for further commissions for the young composer. Takemitsu had largely distanced himself from Japanese music but some elements of the Japanese tradition were woven into the musical fabric of the Requiem such as the idea that sound needs to have space to breathe. The work was a showcase for the Belgrade Philharmonic’s excellent string players, who gave a fine performance of this mainly slow, solemn and beautiful piece.

Eiji Oue © T. Ilijima
Eiji Oue
© T. Ilijima

Next came Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman’s percussion concerto Frozen in Time with soloist Simone Rubino. This is a hugely ambitious work, aiming to represent the geological history of the Earth and the different musical traditions in different regions. The titles of the three movements refer to prehistoric continents: Indoafrica, Eurasia and the Americas, and the music of each draws on the music associated with them. Italian percussionist Rubino had an array of instruments placed in a square around him so that sometimes he was facing the audience and sometimes he was facing the orchestra. It was exciting to see him move from one instrument to another and suddenly produce sounds very different from the preceding ones.

The concerto opened explosively and the first movement continued in a predominantly forceful manner, including references to Indian and South-East Asian music as well as a stunning display of African drumming. The second movement evoked the Western musical tradition and presented the elegance and poise that had been absent from the first. Some of the melodic content alluded to Mozart but there were also hints of the intensity of Romanticism and even the music of the Far East. The finale threw together all sorts of styles of music (popular and classical) associated with the Americas, north and south, and wrapped everything up by referring back to what had gone before. This was no mere hotchpotch of different styles but a carefully structured and concentrated piece (it lasted in total a little under half an hour). It seemed to be an exuberant celebration of music from around the world. Rubino’s virtuosic playing of the complex score seemed to energise the orchestra. He enthused the audience who gave him a rousing reception, and he rewarded them with an encore: Piazzolla’s Libertango in a version for marimba.

Eiji Oue, Simone Rubino and Belgrade Philharmonic © Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic
Eiji Oue, Simone Rubino and Belgrade Philharmonic
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

If the concerto encompassed the Earth (or most of it), the second half of the concert took us out into the solar system with Holst’s The Planets, and this was a masterly performance of the ever-popular suite – except for the end. “Neptune, the Mystic” was simply not mystical enough. Perhaps the acoustics of the Kolarac Hall had something to do with it, but it was too loud. Maybe there were too many singers in the Academic Choir Collegium Musicum – rather than fading into nothingness they were still clearly audible when the conductor indicated that the piece was over and invited applause. This was unexpected as all the preceding movements had been first rate. Right from the beginning Eiji Oue pushed the orchestra to bring out the aggressive rhythms in “Mars”  in a thrilling but disturbing manner. The unhurried and peaceful “Venus”  was a complete contrast with fine orchestral solos. “Mercury” was light, airy and delicate and suggested the fleet-footed messenger of the gods perfectly. Oue brought out the humour of “Jupiter” in one of the jolliest performances of this movement that I have heard, until the big tune emerged which was one of the most hymn-like, surprisingly as presumably few of this orchestra will be very familiar with I vow to thee my country. “Saturn”  was atmospheric with fine rhythmic and dynamic changes. Oue conjured up an exuberant, magical “Uranus”, bringing to mind the Sorcerer’s Apprentice that I heard the same orchestra perform a few months ago. I was expecting to float out into the outer reaches of the solar system with a mysterious “Neptune”; sadly it seemed too earth-bound.