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Ionarts-at-Large: First-time @ Munich's Isarphilharmonie with the Munich Philharmonic

For Munich having been 'my beat' for so long, it felt shocking that I had not yet been at the new, provisional “Isarphilharmonie” concert hall (bound to be a permanent fixture) that was built on a dime (30-some million Euros, a wild bargain), opened two years ago, and that is being accepted, even loved, by audiences and musicians, and necessary, of course, because the Gasteig – the Munich Phil’s home and BRSO’s secondary venue (for the big-ticket composers) had been closed for renovation and revamping (bound never to take place).

This Wednesday, September 20th, the opportunity presented itself to see and hear the place, with the Munich Philharmonic giving the German premiere of a new piano concerto by Thierry Escaich [pronounced, more or less: “ɛz-kɛsh”] and Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony. Escaich’s Etudes symphoniques for piano and orchestra (co-commissioned by the MPhil and the Czech Phil) operates in the post-Messiaenesque, marginally-spectralist, color-as-composition realm that offers more beauty than structure (the fourth movement, notably titled “Toccata”, apart), and with the pill of contemporaneousness generously hidden at the center of an exotically flavored musical marshmallow. Dreamy, suggestive, rhythmic, colorful: All the boxes are checked. Impressionist here, pointillist there. Replete with classical cadenzas. The subscription audience that decidedly did not come for this piece – they were probably just happy to escape the Octoberfest going on outside – really could not complain.

Seon-Jin Cho (2015 Chopin Competition winner; reviews of Chopin and Mozart here and here), Dima Slobodeniouk, and the Munich Philharmonic navigated deftly though the deliciously inoffensive score. The music may not probe its own existential question of “why”, much less attempt to answer it: it just is. And it is enjoyable. There shouldn’t be a greater compliment… even if the work eventually forgets to be over and might be better if only it were a little tighter.

The same applies, let’s be honest, to the Rachmaninov. Had the scheduled conductor, Semyon Bychkov led the charge, it would probably have been loud. With the calmly leading Slobodeniouk conducting this high-caloric piece, it was sensitive but not saccharine in the first movement, and that movement’s finale not milked but laid out almost matter-of-factly. The Scherzo, which could have been written by Prokofiev on one of his ‘classical’ days, zipped by nicely, and for much of the Adagio, where Rachmaninov enters Tchaikovsky-mode (not for the last time), Slobodeniouk (you just know his nickname has got to be “Slobo” among his sauna-buddies back home) managed to transform sugar into energy and, yes, loudness. But you can’t underplay Rachmaninov all the time, lest it sound silly. The sweetly carnivalesque-pompous finale showed the orchestra in good form in every section and with every exposed instrument: clarinet, flute, first violin, etc. Even Slobodeniouk couldn’t make the work feel short – but his to-the-point conducting was surreptitiously impressive. No small feat, in a work that, especially uncut, meanders enough to make the Amazon green with envy.

The hall, meanwhile, disappeared in the best sense, offering a neutral, neither dry nor wet acoustic experience, with the sound mixing well in the first and second third of the stalls. No Yasuhisa Toyota hyper-transparency. The looks of the black wood panelling are simple but pleasing and the integration with the old industrial building that serves as the auditorium in front of it is very well done. Only filing out is tedious, with exits existing only to one side. But for now, I am more interesting in getting into the place than getting out again.

Pictures courtesy Munich Philharmonic, © Tobias Haase

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