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Concert Review/ Gustavo Dudamel & Berliner Philharmoniker & Glorious Percussion Ensemble

img  Tobias

Watching the Berliner Philharmonie slowly fill up with people is one of those glorious sights which never ceases to impress. Standing in the centre of the lobby, you're placed inside a living installation with myriads of stair cases and balconies of gracefully shuffling bodies entwining in M.C Escher-like visual contortions. Everybody is going somewhere, everyone is serving some kind of mysterious duty in the workings of this elegant machinery. It is a zero-gravity-zone, especially in the early hours of the evening, when the concert is still an hour away and women in goldenly glittering dresses are toasting to impeccably dressed gentlemen, while families with children are having a Bretzel and a Bionade (a popular German drink) in the cafe. Within the sensual undulation of this living organism, you don't just walk, you float. Then, as by some unspoken agreement, the crowd dissolves, bodies aspire upwards towards the balconies, sucked into the intestines of the main hall by a creative magnetism. The concert is about to begin.

Sofia Gubaidulina is one of the spectators herself. The physically tiny but musically colossal composer, now fast approaching her 80th birthday, is sitting just a few metres away from me, a simple audience member just as excited about the prospect of hearing her work performed as anyone else. It proves the point that music, in its ideal form, is about communication and about feeling the response to your creation first-hand – after the gig and after she's absorbed the waves of applause showering down on her, the members of the Glorious Percussion Ensemble and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Gubaidulina will thankfully take in congratulations from the spectators, shake hands and enjoy a little chat in Russian. Right now, however, she is quiet and concentrated, introvert and immersed in the subcutaneous climax of the preparations, her gaze directed at the stage, whose set-up promises a varied and multilayered performance.

In fact, merely observing the way the instruments are positioned reveals a great deal about what's to come. There are two huge traditional Chinese Gongs to the very left and right of the podium. Five giant Japanese drums at the outer edge of the stage are delineating the border to the audience. The conductor's pedestal, meanwhile, is surrounded by a circle of Marimbas and Metalophone. The seats for the Philharmoniker are located behind this compartment, suggesting two contrasting camps fruitfully conversing or possibly even conflicting with each other. For the duration of the entire concert, the Percussionists at the front will shift from one group of instruments to the next, with temporary alliances and coalitions forming between them. While the cool Anders Haag and the contagiously excited Robyn Schulkowsky, all smiles and visibly thrilled to be a part of this, are manning the Gongs in constant eye contact with each other, their partners Anders Loguin and Mika Takehara are mainly responsible for the plethora of small-size toms, shakers, woodblocks and tambourines strategically strewn across the scenery. Norwegian Eirik Raude seems to be operating slightly more on his own parole, even though that impression must probably be attributed to the fact that he is shielded from sight by friends from where I'm sitting.

Once the music gets underway, a series of thematic patterns and motives emerges. There are contrasts between the intimacy and pointillist qualities of the smaller percussion instrument's micro-sounds (all hail to the acoustics of the Philharmonie for making them sound as transparent as the symphonic movements) and the full-bodied, bass-heavy sound-sheets of the orchestra. There are allusions to Jazz, marching bands, classical development and all but unfiltered episodes of pure sound. Frictions between primitive, playful, primordial noises and equally refined and complex textures. Tensions between agitated sequences and almost static passages. Nuances between almost complete silence and furious climactic outbursts of condensed power. „Glorious Percussion“ is the result of a philosophic quest: Gubaidulina has gone back to the origins of music, virtually traveling in time to the point where it all began. To her, the drum is the seed. She is not interested in analysing its sonic potential, even though there is a naive exploratory zest behind some of the events and techniques (such as Loguin throwing a shaker in the air and catching it full-flight). Rather, she juxtaposes its most archaic emanations with a stylised tradition that has grown from its core over a period of thousands of years: What has remained?

For all its conceptual angles, „Glorious Percussion“ is however, above all, a piece of emotive force in the live situation. In fact, things get so heated up that one of the Philharmoniker's percussionists sends the top of one of his mallets shooting to the roof of the hall and back onto one of his Timpanis again – visitors to tonight's concert are thus getting one note more for their money than originally intended. With the ensemble members observing and treating their instruments with a charming curiosity, the outer performance is one of observing a workshop in action. Their carefully measured thrusts on the giant drums send physical palpatations through the public. When they all assemble for a sequence of quickfire Marimba-action in one of the most obviously enticing passages of the piece, their hands shooting across their instruments in metronomic precision, on the other hand, they look astutely like the classical penchant to Kraftwerk's „Roboter“ - especially fitting as Gustavo Dudamel, whose occasional rigid horizontal arm movements as part of his passionate on-podium dance routine, have all the bearings of a breakdancer in an old-school electro-club. And yet, technical virtuosity is never a means to an end here. „Glorious Percussion“ is all about listening to the pure, undifferentiated sound of the drum again. It should seem only consequential that the work should not end with the traditional orchestral climax in its finale, but only after the last, oscillating frequencies of the huge Gong have died down. There is magic in both worlds, Gubaidulina seems to say and the unanimous applause at the end seems to support her idea.

After the break, Shostakovich's twelvth Sypmphony makes for a complimentary sensation rather than a counterpoint. The Philharmoniker are full-throttle on this one throughout, almost militaristic in the brass-heavy passages and feverish in the more quiet sections. And yet, there is a transcendental quality shining through in some of the String parts, when ethereal harmonics are pulsating in the air like a force of nature. The music of course inherently implies this cogwheel-like propulsion, with the symphony circling the same few motives for its entire duration and different movements flowing in- and out of each other, essentially creating a similar single-movement sensation as with Gubaidulina's work. Just as in the first half of the programme, it is Dudamel who is keeping things together, preventing the Shostakovich from turning bland and pompous on the one hand or cheesy and cliched on the other. Slowly, but surely, the musicians are entering a zero-gravity-zone, lifting off on the strength of nothing but their inner interaction. Whether or not the composer has overdone it in the score is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the orchestra unstoppably moves towards the grand finale – watching the Berliner Philharmoniker playing themselves into a controlled and focused frenzy is still a glorious sight which never ceases to impress.

By Tobias Fischer

Pictures by Kai Bienert

Homepage: Berliner Festspiele
Homepage: Berliner Philharmoniker
Homepage: Gustavo Dudamel

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