Benefit Concert of the Federal President of Germany with Zubin Mehta and Pinchas Zukerman
12 Mar 2017
Benefit Concert of the Federal President of Germany in aid of UNICEF
National Anthem of Germany · Speeches by Federal President of Germany Joachim Gauck and Mayor of Berlin Michael Müller (23 min.)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B minor, op. 61 (53 min.)
Pinchas Zukerman Violin
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op. 64 (54 min.)
Pinchas Zukerman in conversation with Aleksandar Ivić (12 min.)
The concerts of the German Federal President – A success story since 1988 (5 min.)
Joachim Gauck makes one of his final public appearances as German Federal President with the Berliner Philharmoniker – as the host of a benefit concert in aid of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund. Two world stars were invited to appear with the orchestra: the conductor Zubin Mehta and the violinist Pinchas Zukerman. The programme includes Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto.
None other than Richard Strauss once called him “the first English progressive musician”: Edward Elgar, born in 1857 in Broadheath near Worcester. Though he grew up in a musical family, Elgar was already past 40 when at the turn of the century he gained general recognition as a composer with compositions like the Enigma Variations and the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Pomp and Circumstance, the suite of orchestral marches completed in 1930, won him in later years the rather dubious reputation of a flag-waving musical patriot. And after the highly respected Elgar died in 1934 – having become the grand old man of British music – younger musicians did not hesitate to subject his compositions to hostile criticism: the former “progressive” was denounced at once as a die-hard. Wrongfully so, as shown not least by Elgar’s violin concerto premiered by Fritz Kreisler in 1910! Without a doubt, the ca. 50-minute composition is built on the musical foundations of the late romantic era, but with what élan and vigour Elgar once again revives all those compositional traditions that were definitively laid to rest with the outbreak of the First World War a few years later. Elgar himself is said to have been very satisfied with this work: “It’s good!” he is quoted as saying, “Awfully emotional – too emotional! But I love it!”
Peter Tchaikovsky, who was known for his self-doubt, was similarly happy with the work on his Fifth Symphony: the piece “gives me great satisfaction”, he wrote to his brother Modest in 1888. At the premiere, however, which took place a few weeks later, the hoped-for success failed to materialise. The Petersburg press felt compelled to criticise the “most trivial effects” in the score of the work – triggering a creative crisis in Tchaikovsky! The Fifth only began to take off as an international triumph after it was successfully performed in Hamburg early in 1889. And now the composer too was reconciled with his music: “What I like most is that the symphony has ceased displeasing me, and I love it anew.” Zubin Mehta, a long-standing friend and artistic companion of the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducts this highly expressive concert programme. The solo part in Elgar’s violin concerto is played by Pinchas Zukerman, one of the greatest violin virtuosos of our time.
Secretive Thoughts, Secretive Art
Elgar and Tchaikovsky: Music as Autobiography
“But I love it”: Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto
Who is the greatest living composer? That provocative question was posed by the press to legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler when he performed in October 1905 at the Norwich Festival. “Edward Elgar” was his spontaneous reply, and it may well have astonished more than a few continental Europeans, given that Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, as well as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, were then very much alive and in their prime. Although those masters could have equally well claimed the honorary title, Kreisler was unabashed in defending his judgement: “Russia, Scandinavia, my own Fatherland, or any other nation can produce nothing like him. I say this to please no one; it is my own conviction. Elgar will overshadow everybody. He is on a different level. I place him on an equal footing with my idols, Beethoven and Brahms... His invention, his orchestration, his harmony, his grandeur, it is wonderful. And it is all pure, unaffected music. I wish Elgar would write something for the violin.”
Kreisler was not about to leave it as a mere wish. He made contact with the composer, confided his dream to him, persisted in his request – and was repeatedly put off. Not until April 1909 did Elgar, by then endowed with an official commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society, begin working in earnest on his Violin Concerto. Self-doubt and recurring bouts of depression disrupted progress, however, and only gradually did the composition take wing. Elgar finally completed it in August 1910, but even then he was toying again with the idea of discarding whole movements: “I am not sure about that Andante & shall put it away for a long time before I decide its fate,” he confessed on 7 February 1910 regarding the second movement. And as late as 23 June he could still say of the third: “I am appalled at the last movement & cannot get on – it is growing so large – too large, I fear & I have headaches.”
Listening to the concerto now – playing for some 50 minutes, it is one of the longest in the repertoire – one can hardly imagine Elgar’s nagging reservations. It fits squarely into the Romantic tradition and boasts an ideal balance between solo instrument and orchestra. The vocally inspired melodic ideas are tinged with melancholy and longing. From the very opening it is easy to understand why Elgar was sometimes nicknamed the “English Brahms”. If one considers that in 1909-10, when this concerto was written, Schoenberg had already ventured into the realm of free atonality with his Five Orchestral Pieces op. 16 and Stravinsky was at work on Petrushka, employing some decidedly “modern” techniques, Elgar’s music may seem almost anachronistic. But such an assessment of this nostalgic late flowering of the cult of beauty in no way detracts from the score’s indisputable mastery. “It’s good!” wrote Elgar to a friend. “Awfully emotional! too emotional, but I love it.”
“The Fatal Power”: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth suggests a composer’s “confession of the soul”, yet it took him a long time to come to terms with his creation. At the end of May 1888, having only just embarked on its composition, he was already struggling: “Now I am gradually, and with some difficulty, squeezing a symphony out of my dulled brain,” he reported to his brother Modest. Oddly contrasting with this statement is the fact that he managed to finish the large-scale work within just three months and, in the meantime, came to view it more positively: “I don’t think I am wrong in saying that it has come out well,” Tchaikovsky remarked to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck shortly after completing it. But when the premiere – conducted by the composer himself on 17 November in St. Petersburg – was not the critical success he had hoped for, he changed his opinion again and even feared that he had “already written himself out”. Only after directing two further performances in Hamburg in March 1889, did he finally reconcile himself to his symphony, declaring: “I like it once more.”
Tchaikovsky lacked the power of self-assertion, instead believing in the inevitability of destiny, “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness”. Because he never spelled out concretely what he meant by “Fate”, one can only imagine how delicate a matter it was for him. He unquestionably felt his homosexuality was destiny: in tsarist Russia it was a crime that could result in years of exile. Only in music could Tchaikovsky give vent to his most secret thoughts and hardships, and it was precisely this situation that gave rise to the radically subjective nature of his art.
In a notebook, Tchaikovsky jotted down a few basic ideas about the Fifth Symphony. He describes the introduction to the first movement as “complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence”. This dark, menacing force is reflected in the opening bars by the clarinet in its low register, sounding pessimistic and downcast. We encounter this theme of fate in all four movements, but in the course of the symphony it undergoes astonishing metamorphoses. The theme’s remorselessness is unleashed in full in the second movement. Its glorious instrumental dialogue almost suggests a love duet – the indication in the score is, aptly, “con desiderio e passione” (“with desire and passion”). But in his programmatic jottings, Tchaikovsky also wrote, “Consolation. A ray of light? – No, no hope”, and he hammers out this “no” musically with a martial variant of the Fate idea, which breaks into the movement twice with incredible vehemence to thwart the romantic idyll.
Even in the following waltz movement, Tchaikovsky doesn’t forget his Fate theme. Towards the end, it is played by unison clarinets and horns, but with quiet restraint, as though defused. In the finale, however, Fate again takes on a completely new form. The theme turns seemingly positive as an energetic march, which at the very end, in the coda, even evokes a triumphal procession. It is not difficult to recognize the demon concealed behind the mask. In this transformation, Tchaikovsky makes use of a tried-and-tested formula from music history – the turn from tragedy to affirmation, from minor to major – which Beethoven had developed in his Fifth, another symphony regularly associated with fate. But is this idea relevant to Tchaikovsky, who here blatantly uses the very same theme to move from darkness “into the light”?
Five years later, the composer would answer this question with his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique”, which is also about destiny. But there the music dies away in the finale. It is extinguished as though the hero’s last hour has come. It may not have been coincidental that Tchaikovsky died only a few days after the premiere. Whether he was the victim of a cholera epidemic or took his own life is still a mystery. Relating this biographical incident to an interpretation of the Fifth Symphony, however, leaves us with a huge question mark after the supposedly victorious final coda. From this perspective, the march rhythm appears forced – major or no major. Fate has revealed itself in all its violence, and protest will be pointless.
Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961. He last conducted the orchestra only a few days ago in works by Béla Bartók and Ravi Shankar. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and replaced an ailing Eugene Ormandy at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Since 1985 (until 2017) he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence: both institutions have named him their conductor for life. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich. Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. An honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family in 2008 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv develops young talent in Israel and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a project of teaching young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Pinchas Zukerman, as a violinist, violist and conductor, plus his commitment to cultivating the next generation, is one of the music world’s outstanding personalities. Born in Tel Aviv in 1948, he first studied under Ilona Feher, then from 1962 under Ivan Galamian at the Juilliard School in New York. First prize at the New York Leventritt Competition in 1967 paved the way for Zukerman’s international solo career. In addition to his work with the world’s leading orchestras, Pinchas Zukerman was, among other things, musical director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for seven years, and also spent many years in charge of the South Bank Festival in London and the Summer Music Festival in Dallas. From 1999 to 2015, Pinchas Zukerman was chief conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada, and since 2009 he has also been principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. His close friends and chamber music partners include Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell and Yefim Bronfman. In 2013, together with cellist Amanda Forsyth and pianist Angela Cheng, he founded the Zukerman Trio. As an educator, Zukerman has initiated several programmes for young artists, including the “Pinchas Zukerman Performance Program” at the Manhattan School of Music and the Young Artist Program in Ottawa, which he still directs. With the Berliner Philharmoniker, Pinchas Zukerman has appeared on many occasions since 1970 as a violinist; his most recent performance with them was in October 2004, when he played Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.
If you would like to support the work of UNICEF for children in need, please visit the UNICEF website in your country and donate online!
The Berliner Philharmoniker are international UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors.