It was something almost out of a sci-fi film: concert-goers shuffling by in surgical face masks, spaces between parties like the distance between towels on the beach. But hats off to the Tonhalle Maag for the corona-specific directives it has rigorously adopted. Given the unpredictable virus, it was a privilege to hear the Tonhalle Orchestra perform at all. And to start the evening’s concert, Executive Director Ilona Schmiel thanked the audience warmly for both its faith in the hall’s rigorous protection plan and its unwavering optimism.
As the Tonhalle’s “Creative Chair 2019-20” Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was unable to join the opening concert of the season owing to quarantine restrictions, but his contemplative La Sidone was first on the programme, and marked the work’s Swiss premiere. The nine-minute, largely mystical work bears the Italian title of the Shroud of Turin, in which many believe the dead Christ was laid in the tomb, so questions around death and resurrection are inherent to its interpretation. Originally written in 2006, Pärt’s newer version (2019) features a solo violin, played here by the Tonhalle’s fine first concertmaster, Andreas Janke, whose musical expression was consistently hallmarked by a clean line above the weave of the orchestra. Indeed, his violin asked questions, sometimes even countered what the other players “said”. Close to the piece’s ending, a long silence was followed by a cataclysmic explosion of the timpani and horns, then followed, in turn, by a complete resolve and sense of peace, almost like the staid image of the shroud, and Pärt’s reduction of the sound spectrum to its very essence makes his work all the more compelling. "Arvo Pärt is a living legend. The idea of bringing him here as Creative Chair has less to do with the fact that we are both Estonians than with the fact that he is a great composer, one of the last remaining giants," says Paavo Järvi, the Tonhalle’s Chief Conductor.
In Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major that followed, German pianist Lars Vogt stepped in for Olli Mustonen, detained by corona travel restrictions. Vogt seemed entirely at home, however, even in a few moments of his interpretation that seemed to prefigure the Jazz era. He began the Allegro first movement with its requisite calm, even tenderness, while later, in the increasingly animated and exuberant passages, his sounds were occasionally somewhat murky, given the exaggerated frequency of the pedal. In the middle movement Andante, which sets the piano against the dark powers of the strings, he played interventions with terrific energy and assurance, clearly fully enjoying the drama of being pitted against the whole orchestra, and even ducking slightly on the bench before one turbulent string entrance. At the end of the Rondo, the third and final movement, and having mastered the legion of demands on his fingering, Vogt showed himself a showman again, his arms raised high like a man in the glare of police headlights. The music’s bombast having more or less spoken for itself, his gesture simply served dramatic effect, but it’s theatricality was infectious.
That said, the assurance that the Tonhalle Maag is committed to music as fine as this, while carefully observing corona restrictions, was an encouraging sign, and the audience showed its enthusiasm with resounding applause. It was no surprise, when leaving the hall, to overhear another concert-goer’s remark, “If anybody can play the Fourth Concerto, then it’s Lars Vogt.” Indeed.