One hundred and five musicians make up the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, or The Bavarian State Philharmonic. Calling itself a touring orchestra, it covers a wide swath of South Germany with concerts, and on Feb. 12 it stopped in at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
The Bamberg did not downsize for the opening Don Giovanni overture of Mozart and consequently instead of tripping along, it sounded heavier than heavy. The 68-piece string section didn’t shine at all, but the woodwinds were exceptional with confident entries and bright sounds. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach kept the orchestra and public waiting four minutes before making his entrance, at the beginning of the concert and after intermission. An unfortunate lapse of concert etiquette, I thought. People around me became very irritated.
Things improved with the entrance of the young Australian violinist Ray Chen, dressed immaculately in an Armani suit especially tailored to look attractive and at the same time assist in ease of playing. The concerto Chen played was Mendelssohn’s E minor beauty (Op. 64), his last completed orchestral work. What a magnificent work it is and how brilliantly Chen played it.
Chen opened strongly. His technical brilliance never in doubt, he launched into the sobering first theme giving lots of feeling and warm tones that were enrapturing. I was put in mind of the great Yehudi Menuhin, whom I heard play this same concerto many years ago. The similarities are striking: the lightness of tone, depth of feeling and youthful vitality are all present. Chen’s top notes are crystal-clear; he takes care to make them so. And in the difficult first movement cadenza he was sheer perfection.
The first part of the Andante was a superb rendition of the “song without words”; the soloist put everything he had into it. Chen’s playing was magical. Repeating the gorgeous melody his tone became lighter and sweeter; his varying of the “song” idea was an artistic and thoughtful treatment all his own.
The fleet, tripping scherzo finale, so typical of Mendelssohn, was well-handled by our soloist, technically and musically, despite its rapid speed. Chen didn’t skip or miss a note in this giddy passagework. I am confident I have never heard this work so brilliantly interpreted in all my concertgoing years. After much clamoring for the young artist at the end of the concerto Chen played the Caprice No. 21 by Niccolo Paganini, but it was anti-climactic. The concerto was all he needed to make a lasting impression.
The second half of the concert was given over to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Mahler conducted the first performance of his Fifth Symphony in 1904 using the Gurzenich Concert Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, and later that year conducted a run through with the Vienna Philharmonic. It lasts 70 minutes and is scored for a very large orchestra with nearly every section doubling in size, except for the strings which in the Bamberg Symphony already totaled 68 players.
As time was a constraint for me I had to leave early but the three movements I heard were superbly played. Eschenbach, at present conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., led his forces with the discipline of Karajan, bringing each section in with the gentle wave of his left hand. It was a grand experience to have an orchestra this size play the Mahler with such eagerness and enthusiasm.