02 Mar 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Zubin Mehta

Martin Grubinger

  • Edgard Varèse
    Intégrales (12 min.)

  • Peter Eötvös
    Speaking drums, Four Poems for percussion solo and orchestra (24 min.)

    Martin Grubinger drums

  • Martin Grubinger
    Planet Rudiment (6 min.)

  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
    Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, op. 35 (55 min.)

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    Martin Grubinger in conversation with Philipp Bohnen (13 min.)

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    Zubin Mehta in conversation with Noah Bendix-Balgley (10 min.)

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    Zubin Mehta named honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker (8 min.)

For a long time, percussion was somewhat neglected in European art music. Because although timpani, drums and cymbals were always able to boast of impressive highlights in the orchestra, they otherwise lived a shadowy existence – often merely giving the beat. Changing this was the express goal of the multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger, whose spectrum ranges from eruptive cascades of sound to delicately-honed bell tones. Above all, it is thanks to him that more and more concertgoers are discovering percussive sound worlds in which the athletic commitment of the player, the physical presence and power of the sounds and the richness of colour of the range of instruments available combine to form fascinating, physical and sensuous music. Not for nothing is the aura of extreme sports an indispensable element of the art of drumming.

For his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Martin Grubinger performs the concerto for percussion and orchestra Speaking Drums, composed for him by Peter Eötvös. The title of the work is self-explanatory as the soloist is required not only to drum but also to speak and shout. “I’ve seen and heard this with Indian drummers,” Eötvös explained in an interview in 2016. “They drum what they say. That is, they speak a certain text and they play drums at the same tempo, in the same rhythm. This makes it very colourful, but also very expressive, as if they were telling a story with the instrument. I took on that approach for my piece.” The texts come from Sándor Weöres, who has written many nonsense poems that fulfil purely a rhythmic function, and Jayadeva, a 12th-century Indian poet. “All the texts”, says Eötvös, “have impressive rhythms. Translating them for percussion and orchestra is a pleasure.”

The concert, conducted by Zubin Mehta, opens with Edgard Varèse’s Intégrales, which offers not only the most virtuosic, refined sound, but also stirring rhythms, as the voices of the four woodwind and six brass instruments are strikingly contrasted with 17 percussion instruments in the hands of four players. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphonic Suite Scheherazade, which gives musical form to various episodes and imagery of the Arabian Nights, also offers refined orchestral sounds: “The Sea and Sinbadʼs ship, the fantastic story of the Kalandar Prince, Prince and Princess, the festival at Baghdad and the ship that breaks against a cliff surmounted by a bronze horseman” (Rimsky-Korsakov).

The Liberation of Sounds

Music by Edgard Varèse, Peter Eötvös and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

“A total shock” – Varèse’s Intégrales

Hardly another composer of the first half of the 20th century advocated more vehemently than Edgard Varèse a new way of thinking about sound and expanding the materials it utilizes. Although he was thoroughly conscious of tradition in many respects, he made no bones about the radicality of his approach: “I became a sort of diabolical Parsifal, searching not for the Holy Grail but for the bomb that would blow up the musical world and admit into the rubble all the sounds that – even today – have been called noise.” Starting in the early 1920s, his most important allies in carrying out this project were the percussion instruments with their infinite possibilities: “Some call them noisemakers; I call them sound producers.” Varèse was directing attention to the potential of an instrument section which, except for the timpani, had languished in the shadows for centuries in Western art music. Particularly its untuned representatives (e.g. drums, cymbals and triangle) had long been relegated chiefly to an ornamental or dramatic function. This was based on the conviction that its intense colours were nearly impossible to integrate into the sound of an orchestra and, moreover, would quickly fatigue the ear.

Intégrales, composed in 1924-25, calls for eleven wind and a whole arsenal of diverse percussion. This unusually constituted ensemble was designed not for homogeneity and blending but rather for contrast and differentiation.

“Teaching the drum to talk...” – Eötvösʼs Speaking Drums

Among the composers who have been fascinated by the physical power and energy of Varèse’s music is Peter Eötvös. In a 2006 essay on the French-American sound pioneer, the Hungarian quoted a remark from his writings that also seemed relevant to his own work: “The percussion must speak ... It must transmit its energy into the whole orchestra.” Six years later Eötvös began a work that would embody the idea of speaking percussion. He was inspired by the musical practices of jazz – musicians who accompany their playing with a type of Sprechgesang – and those of world music – the combining of speech and drums in India.

The basic idea of Speaking Drums is presented at the beginning in a kind of magic ritual, which is not without a certain comical quality. Following a forceful opening gesture – an accelerating drum roll produced not by the percussionist’s hand movement but by bouncing the drumsticks on the drumheads, causing them to vibrate – the soloist begins to teach the percussion to speak. The basis for the text is an experimental poem by Sándor Weöres (1913–1989), which mixes neologisms with actual Hungarian words: “panyigai panyigai panyigai ü panyigai ü” or “naur glainre iki vobe gollu vá”. Each of these first words is directly followed by a reply on the field drum or snare drum. They imitate the speech rhythm and word accentuation, transforming these into music. After the ball has bounced back and forth a few times, the soloist falls silent and the two drums carry on the speaking “dialogue” without the aid of the human voice. In the further course of this three-movement work, the interaction between words and sounds grows increasingly complex. At times language and playing are combined in synchronization, then brought back to virtuosic dialogue.

In Speaking Drums, the timbral variety and colour spectrum of the percussion universe can be experienced directly, along with their differentiated modes of application. The percussionists of the relatively small orchestra are already employing 19 different instruments, while the soloist’s extensive musical apparatus comprises more than 20 percussion instruments and, according to the score, is to be set up in front of the orchestra. The work demands from the soloist both extremely precise execution of the notated sounds and a high degree of improvisatory skill.

“Orchestrally conceived” through and through – Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade

Unlike Eötvös, who was already studying composition at the academy in Budapest by the age of 14, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a self-taught musician. After graduating from the College of Naval Cadets in St. Petersburg, he embarked on a military cruise lasting nearly three years.During his free time on board he read Berlioz’s influential treatise on instrumentation. Not until he was over 20 did the young naval officer finally decide to pursue a career in music. In 1871, he was invited to join the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory as professor of instrumentation and composition; he also led the orchestra class.

In his symphonic suite Sheherazade of 1888, Rimsky-Korsakovprovides an impressive demonstration of his art of instrumentation. The composer’s musical fantasy was stimulated by The Arabian Nights: a beautiful young woman, Sheherazade, evades certain execution by means of her storytelling gifts. For 1001 nights, she entertains Sultan Shahryar with wondrous tales. They are so gripping that, night after night, the merciless ruler postpones his vow to put Sheherazade to death the next morning until, finally, he renounces the barbaric resolution altogether.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical translation of this literary material is remarkably imaginative. It opens with a theme, presented by the strings, low wind and brass in unison, whose brusqueness and severity represent the pitiless Sultan. After a brief pause and some luminous high woodwind chords, we first hear the captivating voice of Sheherazade, embodied in the warm, expressive tones of a solo violin. In a free recitative, accompanied solely by harp chords, she leads her listeners into the maritime world of Sinbad the sailor, with whom the first movement is associated. This recitative-like passage serves as a “connecting thread” in the further course of the suite. For example, the solo violin also introduces, or interjects commentary into, the musical narratives of the inner movements.

The two protagonists confront one another again at the beginning of the virtuosic last movement. Two peremptory variants of the Sultan’s theme are each followed by the solo violin’s increasingly intensified reply. But in the further narratives – the musical evocation of an oriental street fair and a storm at sea – Sheherazade seems to succeed in placating the cruel ruler and finally changing his mind. In the movement’s slow coda, we hear the Sultan’s theme transformed – divested of all aggressiveness and severity – as the cellos play it pianissimo between the solo violin’s soaring cantilenas.

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Richard Evidon

Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961. 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. He last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 2017 in works by Elgar and Tchaikovsky.

Martin Grubinger was born in Salzburg in 1983 and studied at the Anton Bruckner Private University in Linz and at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. Even as a teenager, he attracted attention at international competitions, including at the World Marimba Competition in Okaya and the EBU Competition in Norway. Technical perfection, a joy of playing and musical versatility characterise this multi-percussionist. His repertoire includes solo works as well as chamber music programmes with his Percussive Planet Ensemble and solo recitals. In 2016/17, he was artist in residence at the Elbphilharmonie; he also had residencies with Camerata Salzburg, the Philharmonie in Köln, the Vienna Konzerthaus and Tonhalle-Orchestra in Zürich. Orchestras Martin Grubinger has performed with to date include the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Munich, Dresden and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras and the BBC Philharmonic. In the USA, he has given guest performances with, for example, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. In addition, Grubinger has appeared as a guest at many well-known festivals. Commissioned compositions such as Avner Dorman’s Frozen in Time (2007), the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra by Friedrich Cerha (2008) and Tan Dun’s percussion concert Tears of Nature (2012) play an important role in his collaboration with orchestras. Since the 2015/16 academic year, Grubinger has been a lecturer at Zurich University of the Arts and, since the 2018/19 academic year, professor of classical percussion/multi-percussion at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. A winner of the “Bernstein Award” of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival as well as the Würth Prize of the Jeunesses Musicales Germany, he appears in these concerts as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.

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