You have to hand it to those persistent concertgoers who somehow made it through the downpour to UCLA's Royce Hall on Friday night to hear an orchestra that is not exactly one of the most glamorous in the world.
Dedicated record collectors from way back, however, know about the Bamberg Symphony from a plethora of inexpensive Vox LPs from the 1950s. The orchestra still records a lot, including a recent Mahler symphony cycle with its former chief conductor, Jonathan Nott. Jakub Hrusa became the chief conductor last September, and the orchestra has two eminent, veteran "honorary conductors for life," Herbert Blomstedt and Christoph Eschenbach.
It is Eschenbach, a familiar figure at Walt Disney Concert Hall, who is leading the Bambergers on their nine-city U.S. tour — interesting because you never quite know what you might get from this unpredictable interpreter. When he hits it off with an orchestra, sparks fly. And sometimes, as Philadelphia found out a decade ago, no one has a clue.
Bamberg wasn't founded until 1946, and Eschenbach has been associated with it for most of that history. He appeared as a piano soloist with the orchestra in 1965 and as a conductor in 1977. Presumably he knows how far he can push this solid, competent, if not quite top-rank German orchestra in a safe program of Germanic standards.
At first during the Center for the Art of Performance program Friday, Eschenbach could produce only a darkly thick-set rendition of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" Overture that was lacking in dash. Then he and his musicians provided a rather opaque soup of a backdrop in the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 for their peripatetic touring companion, Ray Chen, who was making his third L.A.-region appearance in the last three months.
Whereas Chen's heated virtuoso stance was too hot for Sibelius last month at Disney Hall, his thick, sustained tone was more suited to the orthodox Romanticisms of Bruch. With his usual ebullience, Chen added the Gavotte and Rondeau from J.S. Bach's Partita No. 3 as a solo encore. (Side note for violin buffs: The program said Chen was playing a Stradivarius that was once owned by Joseph Joachim, who coached Bruch on this concerto.)
In the Beethoven "Eroica" Symphony, Eschenbach took us on another of his idiosyncratic rides on a warhorse, trying to shake things up his way. There was real hushed mystery in the transitions, big ritards and huge fermatas, long-held notes at the ends of some sentences. There was tragedy and majesty in the slow movement, genuine dash at last in the scherzo and a whopper of a pause before the turbocharged coda of the finale.
Overall, it was slow, all right — about 54 minutes for the whole symphony. But the pacing worked because Eschenbach could get the Bambergers to generate some intensity on a grand scale, and he succeeded in getting them to play better in general than in the first half, allowing for some imprecision late in the game.
For once, the encore wasn't some randomly tacked-on thing. It was Beethoven's Overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus," a ballet that elsewhere makes use of the same theme that generates the "Eroica's" finale.
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