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Ionarts-at-Large: Minkowski & Pernoo With an Offenbach Surprise

Marc Minkowski is not a conductor known for conventionalism, whether it be his interpretations or the repertoire itself. Guest-conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra (the opera’s orchestra) in its Fifth Akademiekonzert of the 2007/2008 season, he underlined that perception by opening with Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Halka Overture, a lovely little, bubbly curtain raiser that whets the appetite for more music of Poland’s largely forgotten ‘national composer’. Then followed the whacky, oversized cello concerto of Jacques Offenbach.

Yes – Jacques Offenbach wrote a cello concerto, and it’s not just the one-movement Concerto Militaire, seldom enough played in its own right and actually the first movement of the Grand Concerto. The concerto has been reconstructed from fragments that have floated about since the 1940s, but the completion could not take place until 2006 when Jean-Christophe Keck, the publisher of the critical, complete Offenbach edition found Offenbach’s handwritten score in the Library of Congress and an archive in Cologne. Now we know that the Concerto rondo is the finale of this Grand Concerto, and its nickname “militaire” makes more sense as it did when it was applied to the rather un-martial stand-alone first movement.

That first movement opens gently, softly with timpani touches. It quickly swells, hitting a sporting and gay stride until the cello enters – solo – with a double-stop studded opening statement and then giving away to something altogether more hysterical.

The sounds convey one thing before all: Someone who knew the cello, its abilities and possible abuses intimately wrote this to have all the fun imaginable with the instrument. Jérôme Pernoo, the young French cellist that Minkowski brought with him, succeeded in conveying this impression not only about the composer (said to have been the Franz Liszt of the cello), but also about himself.

Given the sometimes ridiculous challenges that this work presents – high register double stop-sequences especially – it wasn’t by means of technical perfection that Pernoo achieved this, but through buoyant joy, verve, and plenty spunk. Listening to him play this concerto, one could not help but expect it to take cellists’ repertoires and concert halls by storm… despite its considerable length (~45 minutes) and the downright silly technical demands it places on the soloist.

Generous and decidedly knowing applause after the first movement was the just reward and about as high a praise a soloist can get nowadays, when applauding between movements is usually scoffed upon as boorish and ignorant. Indeed, my seat neighbors glared into the program notes where three movements were indicated and muttered that this errant applause was “not at all in accord with concert etiquette”. Indeed it was not (nor was the concerto itself) – and thanks be to that.

Very little military attitude in the highly lyrical, flute-twittering and cheery second movement Andante – the only entirely new music in this work. The duo between cello and first violin (Markus Wolf) must surely be among the most immediately and widely pleasing moments in cello concerto history.

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J.Offenbach, Grand Concerto for Cello et al.,
M. Minkowski / Le Musiciens du Louvre / J.Pernoo

Between the artillery and infantry shots from the third movement’s percussion ranks, the cello and the strings put down such an infectious romp that a sort of Beer-hall joviality threatened to erupt in the dignified surroundings of the Munich opera house. Admittedly that might be over-interpreting the smiles and rhythmic twitching of the audience – young and old in equal measure – but not overstate the character of the music. The back and forth between those percussion batteries and the soloist had – in the good sense – moments of absolute hilarity, concluding with a particularly harsh that leaves the cello – metaphorically – limping off stage. Chock full of lust for composing and playing the cello, unbridled fantasy, like an excited puppy blissfully running about the orchestral stage: this concerto cares not about convention, only entertainment. Had a composer of lesser stature than Offenbach attempted this, the result might have been an embarrassing disaster. As it is, there are more moments in this work that made me smile broadly than I can count. A feat not possible had it not been for the willing and sympathetic support from the Staatsorchester.

Pernoo clearly found his vehicle here – a thankful one for everyone, though I suspect that for all its entertainment value also one vulnerable to overexposure. Until then, though, there was and is no reason not to join in the trampling, hollering, and incessant applause the was the response at this performance. The Barcarolle was promptly encored, with Pernoo as soloist extraordinaire.

The second half was given to César Franck’s Symphony in d-minor, which made for interesting comparison with the performance of Riccardo Muti. Now conducting with a regular baton, not the thick, piano-lacquered black wand from his collection of historical ‘instruments’, Minkowski got a much more French sound than Muti from this utterly un-French symphony that is organ-like as Bruckner’s symphonies are, chromatically akin to Wagner-Liszt-Reger, and structurally more like Brahms than anything else. Minkowski – throughout the evening – also elicited an excellent, unusually deep and sonorous sound from the orchestra which played with musicality and humanity that it never reaches under Kent Nagano, whose cold musical photorealism is more akin to a Ron Kleeman or Ralph Goings painting rather than organically unfolding, musical joy.

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