Review: Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra

In today’s Waterloo Region Record

Thanks to Toronto concert presenter Soundstreams, The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society and a Canada Council grant, a top-drawer string orchestra came to town Wednesday night.

The Perimeter Institute brings some great talent to town, but most of the time international musicians touring in Canada give Kitchener-Waterloo a miss.

Although this event was a late addition to the 2009-2010 calendar, it was nonetheless disappointing to see empty seats at the Conrad Centre. Full houses are the best way to convince skittish presenters that there are audiences in the provinces for their artists.

On this tour, the Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra from Heilbronn Germany has collaborated with Toronto’s Gryphon Trio in a series of concerts programmed to commemorate the fall of the Berlin wall.

Simple Symphony, written by a 21-year old Benjamin Britten, opened the program. The piece is simple in the best sense of the word, and the orchestra trod the line between earnestness and self-parody with aplomb.

Their conductor, Ruben Gazarian, didn’t fare so well.

Extravagantly sweeping gestures and faux-intense messiah poses were comical in their frequency and tragic in their ineffectiveness. The Wurttembergers listen intently to each other, but were left in the lurch whenever they needed a traffic cop.

One of the evening’s attractions was Berliner Konzert by Paul Frehner. Conceived as a triple concerto (piano, cello, violin), the piece was a collection of snapshots, each reflecting on a different event relating to the wall.

Frehner’s colour palette and harmonic dialect are easy on the ears and very expressive. The trio looked as if they had interesting lines but their position at the back of the orchestra meant that for a great deal of the time, they might as well have been miming.

The Gryphons were left on their own for Old Photographs, an excerpt from Constantinople by Canadian composer Christos Hatzis.

It is a piece the trio has performed many times, and for which it obviously has great affection. There was a fantastic sense of push and pull between players. Watching the Gryphons at play made me wish they were afforded a more prominent role in Frehner’s piece.

The Elgar serenade presented after the interval was pleasant enough and the Wurttembergers played well; but considering the length of the program, I could happily have done without an excursion to the English countryside.

An arrangement of Shostakovich’s eighth and most famous quartet followed. Quintupling the forces results in more volume, but it also softens the edges. While the playing was committed and focused, I prefer my dystopian angst served with a bit more bite.

The sound is still extremely dry in the Conrad Centre, but the all-string band was spared the balance problems that go along with shoehorning a full a symphony orchestra into the space.

From the second row, the Wurttemberger sound was remarkably warm. That they weren’t shy to embrace double-wide vibrato on occasion certainly didn’t hurt. The real pleasure, however, was watching an ensemble at the top of their game.

// There wasn’t space to mention it in the review but one of the violists was using a carbon fibre viola – the first time Miss Mussel has seen that in an orchestra. It was visually strange because the charcoal finish blended in with the player’s tail coat but otherwise, no difference, inasmuch as you can hear a difference in a group of 20 players, was detected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *