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Hope, MacMillan, and the Munich Philharmonic

Proof that good connections and aggressive management, astute choices of repertoire and collaborations are at least as important as talent in manufacturing a career is the rise of Daniel Hope. The violinist, one of whose greatest distinctions it was to have been Yehudi Menuhin’s last student (his mother was Menuhin’s assistant) and regular collaborator, was still a child when he played Bartók’s 44 Duos for Violin for German television (and a subsequent 60 concerts) together with the grand old master.

available at Amazon
F.Mendelssohn-B., Violin Concerto, Octet et al.,
D.Hope / ChOE / T.Hengelbrock

available at Amazon
A.Berg, B.Britten, Violin Concerto(s),
D.Hope / BBC SO / P.Watkins

His popularity in Germany and the UK stems not the least from his work with Schnittke and the London Royal Academy, membership in the now retiring Beaux Arts Trio, projects with Klaus Maria Brandauer, Sting, and Uri Caine. Most recently a book about tracing his heritage (“a search for Hope's roots in Europe, Africa and beyond, weaving the disparate strands of his ancestry – prosperous assimilated German Jewish families who became refugees from Hitler, a young Irishman who sought his fortune in South Africa…”) was a most judicious move that garnered much of that all-important publicity.

Now he has an exclusive contract with the Yellow Label, Deutsche Grammophon, – and is in the company of violinists like Hillary Hahn, Gidon Kremer, and Vadim Repin. All superb artists that few experts would suggest Hope to be on the same level with. I, for one, had never been all that impressed with the recordings I had heard of Daniel Hope and only thought him “quite good”. My impression became much more favorable when I heard him twice at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC with the Beaux Arts Trio where he displayed musicality and chamber-playing instinct, rather than just serving as a ‘violinist patch’.

Still, his signing with DG was more than a mild surprise. I’ve not heard the first result of this collaboration yet (the Mendelssohn Concerto, Octet, and arranged songs with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Thomas Hengelbrock), but all the more eager was I to hear him in concert again, now as a soloist.

The opportunity provided itself when the Munich Philharmonic, conducted by composer James MacMillan, took on a nicely challenging and interesting program of Giovanni Gabrieli choruses for eight to fourteen brass instruments, Britten’s Violin Concerto, and his own “Vigil” Symphony. After the bright and impeccable brass pieces had been gotten out of the way, Hope displayed that Britten. With a nice tone, clarity, accuracy, and inner tensions, there was little to take issue with except perhaps the pianissimos which were not all evenly beautiful.

There was a movingly lyrical touch that Hope gave to the concerto, whether above the timpani pounding away (Beethoven’s spirit calling) or amid the brass glory in the unbound joyous energy of the second movement. (No influence of the impending war in Europe to be heard here.) The great Elliot Carter, 99 years old and still kicking, very aptly called the concerto the English pendant to Prokofiev's and Shostakovich's.

There is a dark brass front towering over the end of the second movement (“Vivace”), just before the pizzicato studded cadenza, that briefly has a Shostakovichian, threatening quality. But even that is not in any way war-like – and leads anyway to the glorious transition to the Passacaglia of the final movement. The brass continued sumptuously, Hope with contemplation. This was clean, impeccable, and a little more than that, too. Emotionally riveting it was not, but with the Britten it did not need to be for great effect. The concerto needs first and foremost to be played beautifully to work well, and that it was beyond any doubt.

I was much enamored with the difficult but enjoyable, profound but listener-oriented music of James MacMillan when I heard his “Seven Last Words” live (more so than listening to it on record) with the Choral Arts Society of Washington. “Vigil”, the third part of his 1997 triptych “Triduum”, and consisting of three movements: “Light”, “Tuba Insonet Salutaris”, and “Water” received its German premiere with the Munich Philharmonic and it fascinated more listeners than it disturbed, although it did that, too, and plenty.

Out of silence appear sounds of dim color like bulbs that are then violently interrupted with percussion. There follows a soft orchestral passage before another, dark and brass colored, bulb with growling phrases grows. The phrases become shorter and then longer again, all awhile brutal sounds alternate with light, lofty lines: This stop’n’go strategy dominates MacMillan’s first movement, veering between dark and tender, snarling violence and gentle touches. The Philharmonic at the Gasteig was filled with eastern sounds, shy shimmers of metal, ominous swells and ever recurring moments of portentous silence -- silences so complete that the ticking of my automatic wrist watch seemed embarrassingly loud.

available at Amazon
J.MacMillan, Triduum III - Vigil,
O.Vänskä / Glasgow BBC SSO / Pendrill, Wallfisch
BIS 990

available at Amazon
J.MacMillan, Triduum I & II - The World's Ransoming, Concerto for Cello,
O.Vänskä / Glasgow BBC SSO / Pendrill, Wallfisch
BIS 989

A brass quintet’s chorale introduces another orchestral clash (again providing a link to the Gabrieli pieces first heard), there is more ‘storm and retreat’ going on before the brass lets it rip in the Easter proclamation Exultet – “(et pro tanti Regis victoria) tuba insonet salutaris.” ("...Sound the trumpet of salvation!") The violent climaxes before the celesta create a false (?) sense of calm and idyll only to be – again – violently and wildly interrupted at random intervals.

These interruptions were taken as a cue for many audience members to demonstratively leave the hall, with the third movement not even under way. These fair-weather listeners thus sent to the exit in scores, the third movement – “Water” – proved even and flowing at first, more passive, dark with calm brass passages, lots of col legno additions by the strings which only now entered the action in this work. There is an elemental, raw power that sweeps before it the listener into the cacophonous climaxes in “Vigil”. It compelled this listener to a happy, inner and delighted laughter about the work’s audacity but also about its effect on others (either completely enraptured or uncomfortably squirming in their seats). After about 16 minutes of darkness in the first two movements (despite the misleading title “Light” of the first), light only comes into play in “Water” where its refractions blink and shimmer to the surface amid the many sounds swirling about. Mad gallops toward the end of the third movement sent yet another wave of listeners out of the hall – and during the work’s end over faint, silver touches you could hear those patrons just outside, discussing angrily what they had just been made to listen to.

It was a fine day for good new music and a courageous triumph for the Munich Philharmonic (which offered professional, if not great, playing). But it was also a monument to the lack of curiosity of much of its clientele. The Munich audience had proved by virtue of its absence that it will only pretend to be interested in modern music to a certain extent… and that programming a “modern, little known composer” like Britten (that’s sadly his status among many attendees) with a contemporary piece and some obscure renaissance prelude is far too much for them to respond to. As rich as the cultural environment is in Munich, and as much as it prides itself in its diversity, it cannot deny a certain provincial attitude that is often coupled with a plain ignorant and dismissive attitude of all (cultural) things Anglo-Saxon and, indeed, foreign. Give the subscription holders of the Munich Philharmonic their Strauss (either), Mozart, Brahms and they shall be happy. Give them Britten and they won't come - or come and leave mid-concert. A pity.

Undeterred, laudably, the Munich Philharmonic will offer Thomas Adès’ Asyla from January 30th to February 1st. James Macmillan will also conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's second symphony, as well as his own second piano concerto and Stomp (April 3 to 6).

Directly Related: From today's (01/13/08) New York Times comes this article about Daniel Hope and his book: "How's the Family? Fascinating" by Matthew Gurewitsch.


Akimon Azuki said...

After reading this juicy post (nice snarky remarks about Munich audience there), I just happened to glance at the New York Times website/music section and interestingly enough, they have a freshly published article about Daniel Hope, his life, his book and all that jazz...

jfl said...

Ha! Good timing, ey? Thanks for pointing it out - I'm glad to be able to link to it.