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27.2.08

Ionarts at Large: Adés’ "Asyla" and Haydn with the Munich Philharmonic

On January 30th, the Munich audience was exposed to Thomas Adés’ Asyla for the very first time. The work should have been of more immediate appeal to the younger generation that was to be expected at the next day’s Young People’s Concert (same program) – but for the stubbornly conservative audience in Subscription cycle A, Adés’ work was difficultly digested fare.

The music director of the Cologne Opera and the Gürzenich Orchestra Markus Stenz did the only right thing in introducing Asyla to the united, gray, front of skeptics who noticed with some suspicion from the program notes that the composer of the work in question was not yet dead.

Stanz described the work – and he did so with pleasant, sly humor, lowering the audience’s guard. Wisely he didn’t pretend that Asyla was necessarily going to be loved, and instead calmly pointed out that it might take some effort to appreciate it. He expressed his hope and recommendation that the audience enjoy it – which he, to much chuckling, accompanied with gestures that said: “…of sorts, …maybe, …I guess – or not, we’ll see”.

(Only describing the third movement [after the rambunctious first, and the short lamento of the second] as “the best way of turning the Philharmonic hall into a techno club” was answered with anticipating groans.)

He may not have won all, or even the majority of ears over (rather an impossible task with a crowd ready to walk out on MacMillan and even Shostakovich) but he did much to open minds to the possibility of gaining from the exposure to Asyla, a work so aptly and ambivalently named to mean both, refuge/safe haven and insane asyla (the modern day plural of which is more commonly given as “asylums”).

That third movement, with its stuttering, energy-accumulating, headshaking, bemused, and quiet ways has a notion of dancing itself to total exhaustion. (Le Sacre is calling!) When it enters the felt fourth and last movement (which appeals with a beauty that is somehow askew) there truly is a refuge-like feeling.

It is a piece that naturally benefits from live performance (Simon Rattle’s recording is the only comparison) and it was by all accounts played well and with commitment and finally met with very polite applause.

For Haydn’s Symphony No.22 – “The Philosopher” – half the orchestra got to go home early. (I should have liked to hear No.21 – a darling symphony - even more, but it suffers greatly from its lack of a nickname.) The first movement horn and cor anglais parts were played from opposite sides of the orchestra, swapping back and forth their very civil arguments. The whole thing had a somewhat heavy, with some good will you might say: a generous and full, sound.


Like the more famous “Military” Symphony, No.100, it was full of energy and engagement no less impressive than the all-Mozart concert under Thomas Hengelbrock just a few months earlier. Explosive and dainty in turns, flutes chirping and timpani pounding, the fourth-to-last ‘London Symphony’ was nicely varied and full of contrast and then very gratefully received by the audience. A fine achievement for the Munich Philharmonic, the town's orchestra most in danger of ‘glutting’ its sound through an overly one-sided dose of the heavy romantics.

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