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Concert Report/ Ewa Kupiec & Osnabrück Symphonics

img  Tobias

Upon entering the premises of the Onabrückhalle, connected to the city's giltly glowing University building by a delightful garden where, at this still warm and slow-moving summernight's hour, students are lazily sitting in the grass and pedestrians are taking their happily tail-wiggling dogs for a stroll, I can't help but think how far this barely 150.000-tall town has come in giving classical music a voice. The concert hall's more prominent program thrives on acts like Chris de Burgh and Germany's Swing-star Roger Cicero and yet, around this soft core of middle of the road popular culture, conductor Hermann Bäumer has created a scene of ardent fans, who now come flocking into its innards from all sides and directions. Already at the ticket counter, an hour earlier, people were desperately trying to get hold of the last remaining seats – it's anything but certain de Burgh can still count on a similarly enthusiastic reception.

Then again, it's the first concert of the new season and from the handshaking and backpatting all around, one can tell that it is not just a musical performance but a social event as well. On the inside, the Osnabrückhalle has a layered architecture of different terraces and platforms, which allows for discreet eavesdropping and creates a cozy and familiar mood. Especially if, as is the case today, the doors to the smoker's balcony have been opened and you can hear the animated conversations continuing on the outside. Once I've taken my seat in the front row of the gallery, it is, on the other hand, easy to see that this is clearly a hall built with a variety of purposes in mind and not necessarily ideally suited to orchestral music. The sound will prove to be very direct, radiating straight from the stage, which need not be a disadvantage per se but does deprive the Symphonics of the full impact of their dense, sensual timbre.

The hall is close to being sold out and, as mentioned, at least part of the credit for that must go to Bäumer. For the past five years, he has worked with the orchestra and installed it as an ensemble with a reputation of reliability. The program for tonight, too, offers few surprises, but has been cleverly composed and caters to demands for a main course of recognisable, popular works and just a whiff of excitement for desert. There is also a clear thematic connection between the first movement of Mozart's „Symphony no. 40“ and the finale to Beethoven Seventh – a poignant duo of two-note rhythmical outbursts – which binds them together and creates a subtle, night-spanning tension arch of the sort even non-musicologist will be able to uncover without lengthy booklet notes or theoretical introductions.

On the Mozart, meanwhile, the Osnabrück Symphonics still seem to be searching for their groove. Their performance is dominated by a focus on creating a rich sound - there are several moments, where the string coalesce into sonorous sheets of colour – but the dichotomy between tragedy and hope of the work has been replaced with an approach rather aimed at elegant undulation and fluency, which means that there is not much contrast between the individual sections. After the intermission, however, the Beethoven already benefits from the by-now well-rehearsed interaction. The fortes are powerful and precise, the dynamics wide and suspenseful, the performance tight and focused. The second movement opens suspiciously withdrawn, only to lash out with plaintive furore when the piece gains in volume and intensity. In the last section, Bäumer directs the orchestra with the speed of a gamer firing his joystick. One after another, the different sections follow his queues, creating the impression of a confidently clockwheeling machinery.

From my point of view, the real sales argument for the evening, however, is Polish Pianist Ewa Kupiec. Her Schnittke-album was on heavy rotation for a couple of weeks at the tokafi headquarters, spawning the urge to see her perform live. In many respects, Kupiec is an artist's artist: Content to release projects she really loves on her own terms, her approach seems too wilful to yield major label contracts but always intriguing enough to garner the respect and admiration of the initiated. Her actions on stage are down-to-earth and controlled rather than remote and glamorous. And yet, once her fingers have made contact with the keyboard, she turns into a different being. Hunched closely over the instrument, she has the looks of a sorceress, whispering to the Piano and listening intently to what it is telling her in reply. While her hands are tapdancing on black and white steps in a bid of competing with Fred Astaire, her body remains in a concentrated position, as though disconnected from its extremities. In the thundering rhythmical repetitions of the first movement of Shostakovich's second Piano Concert, she exhibits the same granitically crunching force as on the aforementioned Schnittke recording from last year - you'd never expect this determined strength from such a frail-looking being.

With its seamlessly seaguing ambiances and violent mood swings, the Shostakovich is, of course, the ideal work for her intuitive approach. Kupiec is one of those instrumentalists who can truly collaborate with a full-sized orchestra and at the same time sweep it along on the strength of her imagination. Both aspects are apparent tonight, as she is all but drowned out in the extrovert moments when the entire musical action consists of brutally hammering out the same intervals and every single musician is playing at the top of his physical abilities. And then again, in the dreamy second movement, it is her romantic response to the otherworldy opening of the Osnabrück Symphonics, which teleports the music to a space of transcendence and transformation. You can actually hear and feel this transformation taking place in everyone present, including the audience which has by now notably shifted to the edge of their seats. It is thanks to this two-way communication that the last minutes turn into the loud and demonstrative finale which probably made the composer distance himself from the work almost upon publishing it – and into an immediate favourite with the crowd, who are bursting into a fitful frenzy at the end.

Rushing to catch my train after the last note, I hasten through the empty staircase and lobby of the hall. Everything is quiet now, but inside my mind I can still hear it reverberate: The voice of classical music which has grown from a whisper to a roar in Osnabrück.

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by Kasskara

Homepage: Ewa Kupiec

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