Under conductor Riccardo Chailly and with violin soloist Nikolaj Znaider, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig brought music of its fair city to Symphony Hall and transported an enraptured Celebrity Series audience there. You wish you had been along for the ride.
Albeit the oldest civic concert orchestra in the world, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig is no relic of times gone by. Its current tour marks the 25th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution: the “Monday Demonstrations” begun on October 9th, 1989 in Leipzig led to the fall of the Berlin Wall one month later. Gewandhausorchester and their then-Kapellmesiter, Kurt Masur, were part of this: appearing on West German television, Masur spoke of being ashamed of the actions taken against the demonstrators and the entire orchestra issued a statement supporting Masur and calling “for a sensible, meaningful dialogue.” That November date was already fraught in German history: Kristallnacht, 1938. For Gewandhausorchester, November 9th, 1936 (two years prior) was the date of the destruction of the statue of Felix Mendelssohn, former Gewandhauskapellmeister, which stood in front of the Gewandhaus. (That memorial was reconstructed in 2008 and now stands in front of the west door of the Thomaskirche.) The timing of this American tour is a deliberate nod to this history and the ensemble’s interactions with larger cultural events. It is also a testament to the orchestra’s endurance through times of trial, their continued engagement with the world today, and their persevering commitment to all music—so-called degenerate or otherwise. Last night’s selections bore strong associations with GO: compositions by Mendelssohn and the Beethoven violin concerto which Mendelssohn catapulted to success when he conducted the 13-year-old Joseph Joachim as soloist in London, 1844 (redeeming this music from its less than stellar reception at the Viennese premiere in 1806). Even Znaider’s encore was J. S. Bach. As he said announcing it, “We are all Leipzigers.” And we were.
The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26 (1829 – 1830). Expressing his experiences of the Hebrides Islands, the music takes one of its two names assigned it by the composer from a cave on the southwestern shore of the island of Staffa, part of the Inner Hebrides. This performance was fully controlled and beautifully balanced as Chailly and the whole orchestra came together to play as though it were chamber music (a refrain throughout the evening). Their warm sound and the transparency they brought to this music contributed to making this a truly elegant reading.
Violinist Nikolaj Znaider came onto stage for Beethoven’s Concerto in D, Op. 61 (1806). Znaider’s entrance was subtle; his sound seemingly grew out of the orchestra’s. The Allegro vivace resembled the tuneful stylings of a lark, while in the Andante he delivered plummy pizzicato notes the likes of which I have hardly heard previously. This graceful reading of a ubiquitous concerto placed the music ahead of any personal need to draw attention. Having nothing to prove, they gave a gorgeous performance filled with warmth, camaraderie, and kindness (to music, themselves, and audience).
Recalled to the stage multiple times, Znaider encored with the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s Second Partita for Solo Violin.
Chailly and Gewandhausorchester concluded the planned portion of the concert with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D, Op. 107 “Reformation,” (1829 – 1830). Written for a religious commemoration of the tercentennial of the Diet of Augsburg, which led to the formal profession of Luther and of Protestantism, this symphony ends on a chorale of Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A mighty fortress is our God,” paraphrasing Psalm 46) and includes the musical “Dresden Amen.” The four-movement work also reaffirms Mendelssohn’s own belief in the power of music. The Allegro vivace featured the wind section prominently in this scherzo movement, then the third movement Andante showcased the lovely solo playing of Stephanie Winker, principal flute, who introduces the hymn. In the concluding Andante con moto Mendelssohn turned the orchestra into one gigantic organ and the Gewandhausorchester completely realized this brilliant piece of orchestration.
Hardly any wonder Chailly was recalled to the stage, and we were treated to a pair of encores: Mendelssohn, “Intermezzo“ then the “Wedding March” both from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61. While the second might seem an amusing or a trite choice, it was played here to perfection, with a transparency allowing all parts to shine through, and played by all with tenderness, care, and love.