The Year 1996 – Continued
The return of Mariss….and an Epic Tour
1996’s fall season got off to a great start with a late summer Festival Tour to London, Edinburgh and Lucerne. Due to Mariss Jansons’ continued recuperation, the tour and associated concerts was conducted by Manfred Honeck, who was soon to be appointed principal guest conductor.
As I reported in the last blog post, the tour was very successful and a great start to the fall season. Before Mariss Janson’s highly anticipated return in November, we still had the normal concert activity, and in the weeks leading up to his return, we were treated to some excellent music making with the likes of Paavo Berglund, who had become a regular favorite with the orchestra. He visited the orchestra for two weeks in September, and the first week featured Christian Eggen as piano soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, followed by Sibelius’ Third Symphony and Tapiola. Christian Eggen usually did some conducting with the orchestra – particularly contemporary music and film music, but from time to time soloed with the orchestra. He was a fantastic pianist, and acquitted himself well in the Mozart. Good as the Mozart was, and it was fiirst rate, it was the Sibelius works that were the highlights of the concert.
Paavo Berglund was one of the foremost interpreters of the music of Sibelius, and when we as an orchestra performed a Sibelius symphony or tone poem under his direction, it always felt like we were “present at the creation.” Both works were given first-rate performances, particularly Tapiola. I remember Paavo Berglund rehearsing this particularly work very carefully – it is one of the more difficult works of Sibelius to bring off, and his due diligence paid off.
The following week featured music of the Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen, Johannes Brahms, and Carl Nielsen. Kokkonen’s Metamorphosen for 12 strings and harpsichord opened the concert, followed by Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, with Jard van Nes as the alto soloist and the men of the Oslo Philharmonic Choir providing the choral accompaniment. The concerts concluded with Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, the “Inextinguishable“. This was the first time I had the opportunity to play this wonderful symphony, and I am glad that the orchestra had the opportunity to play this symphony twice, as I have not had the opportunity to play this symphony since.
The Nielsen was the only work on the program that had timpani, which was alright with me as I had plenty of time to prepare and coordinate the final movement with my assistant, Trygve. This is the symphony that requires two timpanists in the final movement, one at each side of the orchestra. I had the “A”set of Hingers – with my Leedy-Anheier 25 inch as the top drum, and Trygve used the “B” set – with the 31 inch Light chain. We made sure that we played through the part together several times before the first rehearsal, and it was a good thing that we did, as both rehearsals and concerts went smoothly.
The biggest challenge for me was getting that second movement, with its constant pitch changes – the timpani part follows the bass and cello line – but I managed quite well and was generally satisfied with the results. It was quite the experience.
Pinchas Steinberg, the son of the legendary William Steinberg, was next up with a pair of concerts devoted to the music of Webern, Mozart, and Gustav Mahler. Webern’s Five Orchestral Pieces opened the program, to be followed by Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 with Christian Altenberger, and concluded with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G minor. The soprano soloist in the final movement was Solveig Kringlebotn.
We had worked with Pinchas Steinberg before, and the orchestra seemed to enjoy working with him. These concerts went well, and the soloists did a fine job. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was (and is) always fun to play, especially the “opening of the gates” near the end of the third movement.
Concerts under Andras Ligeti, Mario Bernardi and Bjarte Engeset followed, and then the much-anticipated return of our charismatic music director took place.
After Mariss Jansons’ dramatic physical collapse onstage in April, the sixty-four thousand dollar question was “How long was he going to be sidelined?” We all figured that it would be October at the earliest, and perhaps November. The administration kept in touch with Mariss over the summer and into September, with Mariss dutifully reporting on his progress. As a matter of fact, one stop on our summer festival tour was Lucerne, not far from where he was doing his rehabilitation. I do know that some members of the orchestra and administration visited him there and reported back that he was in the best of spirits.
As it turned out, Mariss informed the orchestra that he would resume his activities at beginning of November, just in time to prepare the orchestra for its Far Eastern tour. The tour promised to be epic in scale – not so much in length – three weeks, but in ground covered. We were scheduled to visit Japan to begin with, and added several countries that we had not yet visited – Taiwan, South Korea, and a concert in Beijing. This was certainly most exciting! Mariss had decided (on his doctor’s advice) to build in a safety factor. For this tour, Mariss asked Bjarte Engeset, who had become a frequent guest conductor with the orchestra, to act as his musical assistant and attend all rehearsals and concerts and perhaps conduct a concert or two on the tour. Mariss would conduct the majority of the concerts, but his health scare persuaded him to take it a little easier than in previous years. He was originally supposed to conduct the final concert of the tour in Beijing, but his doctor persuaded him to turn that over to another conductor and return home early in order not to overdo things. As a result, it was to Aleksandr Lazarev that the orchestra turned to replace Mariss for that concert. It turned out to be a good choice.
In any case, Mariss received an ovation when he stepped onto the podium to lead the first rehearsal in preparation for the tour. We were overjoyed to see him. He looked great, and had lost none of the boyish enthusiasm that was part of his charm. And he continued to work hard, although he promised to slow down, a promise that was sometimes hard to keep – Mariss being Mariss. (He tried hard, though.)
The tour program was as ambitious as ever. Music of Beethoven, Shostakovich, Respighi, and Brahms would make up the major works on the tour with a Rossini overture thrown in. I have to be honest and admit that I do not remember playing any Rossini overture on this tour, but a check of the OPO’s concert archives for this period tells me that we did.
Leif Ove Andsnes was the piano soloist for the tour and was scheduled to perform both the First Piano Concerto of Shostakovich and the Fourth Piano Concerto of Beethoven. (NB! – the Shostakovich concerto features a fairly extensive part for a single trumpet, and Jan Fredrik Christiansen, our principal trumpet player did the honors.) Brahms was represented by the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, while Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55 – the “Eroica” would open the programs that would included the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 and conclude with Respighi’s Pines of Rome. In other words, a typical Mariss tour program. Mariss never in my association with him did things by halves!
I earlier mentioned that the tour would last three weeks. We would begin in Japan, and conclude the tour in Beijing, with concerts in Tapei, Taiwan and Seoul, South Korea in between. For this tour, I took the Hingers – the larger three drums of the “A” set – with the 23 inch Stotz-Anheier timpano as the top drum. I had Premier heads on all of them – clear on the top drums, and Premier hazy on the 31 inch. Sal Rabbio had recommended that I try this combination, as he found Premier heads to work well on the Hingers. His advice turned out to be spot on.
The tour began when the orchestra, along with staff, instruments and dress clothes left Oslo on November 15th, and it ended when we arrived back in Oslo on December 21st. As I mentioned earlier in this blog, we were to give concerts in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and a single concert in Beijing. Since we as an orchestra had previously performed in Japan in 1988, and 1993, it was somewhat familiar ground, although we loved playing there as we were always well received. Seven concerts were on the itinerary this time in the following cities: Takamatsu, Fukuoka, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo (two concerts in Suntory Hall) and Fujizawa. Then it was on to Taipei, Taiwan for two concerts at the National Concert Hall. Our next stop would be to Seoul, South Korea for two concerts, and then we would travel to Beijing for a single concert to close out the tour.
Mariss Jansons was in very good form. He conducted ten out of the twelve concerts. Bjarte Engeset, who was engaged as an assistant conductor for the tour, helped out at many of the rehearsals, and conducted the concert in Fujizawa, and Alexander Lazarev conducted the concert in Beijing, which was the plan before we left. Mariss really achieved some deep interpretations during this tour, particularly during the Brahms’ First Symphony, and the Beethoven Third Symphony. Respighi’s Pines of Rome was one of Mariss’s war-horses, and it went off triumphantly.
Japan was lovely as usual. I particularly enjoyed Takamatsu. There is a lovely park, called the Ritsurin Park. It is so peaceful, and beautifully maintained. The Japanese pine trees are so beautiful. and there is a tree that is shaped like a giant turtle with a crane on its back. The “crane” has its “wings” extended, as if it was about to take flight. Truly impressive. Taipei was only okay. The hotel was quite comfortable, and I particularly enjoyed the all-glass elevator cars that ran along the interior of the main court. The National Concert Hall, where our two concerts were played, was included in the huge complex dedicated to the memory of Chang-Kai-shek. It reminds one of a “little” Tienanmen Square”, although it is only “little” in relation to Tienanmen, which is the largest outdoor square in the world.
Seoul, South Korea did not impress me so much. It seemed to be nondescript, and the air was rather polluted. This last was a common problem to most of the Asian countries we visited, particularly Beijing, China. In Beijing, pollution was very bad. Even though it was sunny throughout most of our stay there, the sky was pink with the fog of pollution. If one looked hard enough, one could make out where the pollution ended, and the blue sky began.
The Forbidden City was impressive. It was the home of the last ten emperors of the Ch’ing dynasty. It is now called the “Palace Museum”. The film “The Last Emperor” was made there. However, despite its impressive size and decor, I think that what we in the orchestra enjoyed most was the visit to the Great Wall outside Beijing. The part that we visited was in the mountains, and we were indeed fortunate to have a day of crystal-clear albeit, cold, weather. We could see for miles! The country is most impressive, as is the wall itself. The air was crystal clear, with no pollution in evidence. What became evident in China the longer we stayed, was the fact that the vast majority of the people live in abject poverty. Most of them live in one-room houses, particularly in the country. The area where there is business in Beijing is quite ultra-modern, but there are large areas which correspond to conditions prevalent in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the West. The contrast was amazing.
I mentioned that Mariss really achieved some memorable interpretations during this tour. His interpretation of the “Eroica” was for me the highlight of the tour, with an almost Szell-like intensity in the second movement. His performances of the Brahms First Symphony also grew in stature as the tour progressed. And of course, he always brought the house down with the Pines of Rome.
Bjarte’s concert in Fujizawa went very well – it featured the Brahms, and our final concert of the tour – Beijing – was most interesting. Aleksandr Lazarev conducted this final concert, as it was decided by Mariss and his health team not to overdo it by going to China after an already strenuous tour. (Mariss later told us that plane travel took a lot out of him, and he decided that “one more concert” – in Beijing, would be one too many. We bid farewell to him after the Seoul concert, and welcomed Aleksandr Lazarev upon arrival in Beijing. The program in Beijing was ambitious – almost too much. Rossini, Shostakovich, Brahms, and Respighi! Talk about having a two meals n top of each other. I am not sure if the program was dictated by the sponsors or not, but we felt that it as little strange followings Brahms’ First with “Pines of Rome.”
The venue was not particularly impressive – a nondescript auditorium with a stage that was just big enough to hold the orchestra. I remember the sound console being actually at the rear of the stage and almost crowding me. If I had to play a work requiring a fifth timpano, it would not have worked. (Incidentally, the photo of the timpani that I used for the header background above was taken at that concert.)
The concert went well enough and the audience was appreciative. Still, it was the Great Wall and the Forbidden City that were the highlights of our visit to Beijing. All in all, a good conclusion to 1996!
Enjoy a performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” with Mariss and the Oslo Philharmonic, recorded by the NRK just prior to our1996 Far East Tour.