This concert of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra was part of “The American Dream” theme this season, focusing on American composers and musicians, as well as European artists who for one reason or another travelled or worked stateside. The respected David Zinman led the orchestra in an interesting programme, offering next to Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony an absolute rarity with Bohuslav’s Martinů’s Violin Concerto no. 2, composed and premiered in the US. The American presence was further ensured by the Two Fanfares for orchestra from John Adams.

David Zinman © Priska Ketterer
David Zinman
© Priska Ketterer

While Adams never intended his two orchestral fanfares from 1986 to be paired. Tromba lontana and Short Ride in a Fast Machine were published as a grouping and are often programmed together, including now by the composer. Tromba lontana was commissioned by the Houston Symphony and features two antiphonal solo trumpets to the back of the stage, whose gentle calls soar above the serene orchestral canvas and clockwork rhythmical pulse. Short Ride in a Fast Machine on the other hand is more extrovert and direct, more “fanfare” in the proper sense, and was composed for the Great Woods Festival of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The dominant woodblock and trumpets create a rhythmic straightjacket which contains the orchestra, garnering an enormous amount of tension until the woodblock finally silences and the fanfare can break free.

Zinman’s pulse was on the slow side in Tromba lontana but the crescendo was deftly held and boasted excellent trumpet solos, contrasting with a faint hint of unease in the humming brass section. He kicked up quite a storm with Short Ride, though always kept an eye on the road, drawing remarkably transparent and vibrant playing from the ASO.

Considering its direct appeal as well as the quality of its writing, it’s surprising Martinů’s Second Violin Concerto – which only became ‘second’ after an older one resurfaced in the 1960s – isn’t performed more often. Martinů had fled the Nazis and settled in the USA when he composed this concerto at the request of fellow-émigré Mischa Elman, who premiered it with the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky in 1943. For a composer who had earlier in his career resolutely chosen different musical paths it is surprisingly romantic, covering a wide emotional range in its three contrasting movements.

It had the strongest advocate in the young Czech violinist Josef Špaček, who moved to the US to complete his training at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. He is concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and is increasingly in demand as a soloist. Belgian music lovers may remember him as a finalist of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2012. There are plenty of technical hurdles in the concerto, including a short cadenza in each movement, yet Špaček dispatched all with effortless panache. He subtly illuminated the tough and serious first movement with shafts of light, convincingly sweetened his tone for the lyricism of the intermezzo-like Andante moderato, and gave a dazzling display in the exhilarating finale. Zinman ensured strong playing from the ASO, never letting the attention slip, whether in the sunny introduction of the Andante moderato, or the stern buildups in the first movement.

Špaček clearly conquered the Antwerp audience and announced with a smile the composer of his encore: Eugène Ysaÿe, delighting us once more with a riveting account of the Danse rustique from his Fifth Sonata.

Zinman’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” was elegant and polished, relying on the warm and transparent sonority of the ASO, but emotionally too controlled and contained. With unhurried tempi there were fine moments like the bittersweet mood of the Allegro con grazia Waltz, rendered with great finesse, or the tenderness evoked in the first movement’s Andante, featuring the superb first clarinet from Benjamin Dieltjens. Instrumental solos were on the whole first-rate, the secure brass well blended in the ensemble, yet in spite of much wonderful playing to admire the big thrills were missing and this was a Pathétique that failed to move. Even the final movement lacked impact and strangely with a battery of eight double basses the lower strings hardly registered except in the very last moments.

****1