West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Concerto No.1 for Timpani and Orchestra
The Rite of Spring
Wieland Welzel (timpani)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 9 January, 2019
Venue: Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin
In a venue that will soon become his second home when he assumes the role of chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko here inspired the Bundesjugendorchester (German National Youth Orchestra), this year celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, to impressive things.
The Symphonic Dances from the Shakespeare-based West Side Story (first staged in 1957), as compiled by Irwin Kostal (1911-94) and the soon-to-be-one-hundred Sid Ramin (co-orchestrators of the show), supervised by Leonard Bernstein, was a terrific choice to open the concert, music of exhilarating dynamism and tear-jerking lyricism, and here given with an attack and sensitivity that was a timely reminder that music has no boundaries and that musicians resist pigeonholing: here was a Russian conductor (as operatic as he is symphonic) and German teenagers living every note (and finger-click) of this marvellous music: ‘Mambo’ was cumulatively exciting (the title shouted without inhibition) and ‘Somewhere’ (introduced tenderly by viola and cello) deeply heartfelt. Elsewhere volume contrasts were wide and sometimes subito, with detailing, articulation and shading painstakingly achieved, but not at the expense of music-theatre; swing and sentiment nicely balanced to signal the ultimate Romeo and Juliet (Jets and Sharks, rival gangs) tragedy.
Step forward Wieland Welzel (principal timpanist of the Berliner Philharmoniker) for the Timpani Concerto by Chicago-born William Kraft (he is now ninety-five), for many years a percussionist and then the timpanist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, also a conductor (assisting Zubin Mehta when he was music director) and a composer of film-scores.
Kraft’s Timpani Concerto (1983) – listed as No.1, but there appears to be no successor – might be described in terms of style as modern-conservative, aggressive and sinewy in the first movement, the large orchestra (including percussion, piano, celesta and harp) put to busy and dramatic use, the soloist required to use fingers and palms (timpani as tom-toms) as well as sticks. Eerie atmosphere informs the second movement (ethereal strings a first-cousin to Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.2), the drums signalling ominous rolls, near-the-rim sounds, as if with brushes rather than sticks – a timbre change – and the Finale is informed by a whirlwind of activity as well as more-enchanted, tinkling, colours. If you didn’t know that this is a Concerto for the named instrument (five of them), then it could be heard as a loosely-structured three-movement Symphony in which the composer overdoses on timpani; however, it’s musically attractive and concise (twenty minutes) and Wieland Welzel gave a brilliant account, not least of the virtuosic cadenza on the last lap. (Following which, I have no idea what his encore was!)
The Rite of Spring had been pertinently set up (Bernstein a constant champion of it, the orchestration including two sets of timpani), Stravinsky’s century-old but still new-sounding ballet score, here introduced by a confident bassoon solo – the girl responsible cued gracefully by Petrenko. His approach overall might be described as Impressionistic and anti-showpiece, a reading focussed on musical values – attention paid to clarity, timbre and organic activity, with folksong and decorations nurtured, and when fortissimos arrived they were the more crushing for having been graded towards. The end of Part One was a white-knuckle-ride, whereas (following too long a gap, for brow-mopping purposes) Part Two – less seamless, emphasising frenzied surges and slow-burn processionals – opened as a study in sepulchral pianissimos … and by the time the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ was reached we were dancing on the edge of the World. There may have been the odd infelicitous moment but there was no doubting the players’ talent and the high level of preparation, Petrenko in charge, clear-sighted and avuncular.
There was an extra, a rowdy envoi, certainly Shostakovich, I am pretty sure from The Bolt.