From a tribute to natural disasters in China, Japan and New York City to a dark snapshot of post-Stalinist Russia, one would expect to come from Friday night’s concert at Vienna’s Konzerthaus feeling morbidly depressed, not elated and invigorated. The concert, featuring world-class percussionist Martin Grubinger and the talented young conductor Krzysztof Urbański included two very different and very powerful works and was a resounding tribute to the transformative power of music. Both works were a celebration of how brilliant sound and incredible beauty can be inspired by shocking tragedy, repression and destruction.

Krzysztof Urbański © Joanna Urbańska
Krzysztof Urbański
© Joanna Urbańska

Tan Dun’s percussion concerto The Tears of Nature opened the evening. The composer is one of the hottest names on the compositional circuit today, having spanned the gamut of popular composition options in our modern society to resounding success. He has won Grammy and Academy Awards for his film scores (most famously Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), had an opera, The First Emperor, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and has had instrumental works premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang. Last but not least, he composed the medal ceremony music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Tears of Nature was composed for the superfluously talented percussionist Martin Grubinger. It is a richly coloured work which utilizes not only traditional percussion instruments but also non-traditional elements. The opening movement “Threat of Nature” opens with a series of stone tapping sequences over a harp pedal and builds to a long sequence featuring timpani. The composer dedicated it to “all spirits touched by the brutal force of nature in 2008”, a reference to the Sichuan earthquake which killed nearly 70,000 people and destroyed 80% of the buildings in its epicentre. The second movement “Tears of Nature” was inspired by the devastating tsunami in Japan and features the marimba, beginning softly and eerily accompanied by lamenting, plucked cello. Occasional dissonant interruptions by the winds and strings over sustained harmonics in the basses gave the whole movement an otherworldly, melancholy feel. Finally, “Dance of Nature” is a tribute to New York City’s ineffable spirit in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It starts with a whip-crack and whirls the percussionist through a variety of xylophones, drums, gongs and noise makers, sometimes simultaneously.

Though the Vienna Symphony Orchestra lacked a bit of spirit, especially in the first movement, Grubinger’s energy was absolutely infectious and by the middle of the second movement at the latest, we were all sold. Grubinger is an absolute genius, who regularly performs feats which seem technically impossible, always with a smile on his face. He is redefining the image of the percussionist and is especially impressive in how he utilizes piano dynamics. He was richly appreciated by the audience, pulled onto stage for half a dozen bows before he succumbed and played a gorgeous, intimate encore on the marimba, a work by fellow percussionist Evelyn Glennie entitled “Little Prayer”.

After the intermission, Shostakovich’s epic Symphony no. 10 in E minor Op.93 was on the programme, a choice which initially seemed like the musical equivalent of brushing one’s teeth and then drinking orange juice. As far as musical language goes, Shostakovich and Dun are worlds apart. Ultimately though, the red thread that held the programme together was the concept of tragedy and resistance and beauty in the face of it. Much has been made of the programme in the Tenth due to it being Shostakovich’s first symphonic work since his public shaming in 1948 and also his major project following the death of Stalin early in 1953. Although very much in dispute, there is considerable evidence that it references Stalin directly in the brutal second movement, and nobody can deny the prevalence of the composer’s own signature throughout the third and fourth movements, through his recurring musical motif: D, S, C, H (D, E flat, C, B). This theme reappears between a macabre dance, a waltz-like scherzo, contemplative solos and satirical, circus-like percussive noise. Whatever other meaning one cares to find in it, Shostakovich inserts himself through this motive relentlessly, refusing to simply lose himself to the rest of the sound.

The orchestra seemed much more at home in this second half, playing with impressive virtuosity and taking some wonderful risks, thanks to the efforts of the remarkable Urbański. Though barely noticeable in the first part of the evening, Urbański absolutely owned the Shostakovich, conducting without a score and with a maturity which belied his youth. He has gracefully expressive hands and conducts with his entire body, seeming to choreograph the music as much as directing it. His contributions led to an evening of colour, virtuosity and variety. 

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