|Maestro Shalev Ad-El (jpost.com)|
The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra closed the 2015-2016 concert season with “Vienna –
8.12.1813”. The concert was directed by Shalev Ad-El, who has been the orchestra’s musical director and principal conductor since 2013. This writer attended the event on July 13th 2016 in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
It was Maestro Ad-El’s idea to reconstruct the concert that took place to an audience of some 400 people at noon on that freezing December day in 1813, in which Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 was premiered. Of an unusually short duration (most concerts were four hours long!) with Beethoven conducting with a baton (he was one of the first to do so) the gala concert was hailed as a great success, but not just owing to Symphony No.7; it was repeated twice in the following weeks, with the Allegretto of the 7th Symphony encored at each performance. The event was held as a benefit affair for wounded Austrian and Bavarian soldiers, its celebratory mood boosted by the fact that Napoleon’s conquest of Europe had run aground. In his lively account of the event, Shalev Ad-El mentioned some of the musical who’s who of Vienna joining the 125 players of the orchestra, those including Hummel (violin), Spohr (violin), Meyerbeer (bass drum) and Moscheles, (drum). Beethoven’s teacher Salieri served as a kind-of assistant conductor. Coming from further afield were two Italians - the double bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti and the great guitarist Mauro Giuliani (Giuliani played the ‘cello in the performance). The orchestra was led by Beethoven’s friend and teacher Ignaz Schuppanzigh. At the Tel Aviv concert, the players were seated as they would have been in Beethoven’s time, with the violin sections seated at the front of the stage on either side and facing each other in order to engage in dialogue. Opening the concert with a symphony was also typical of programming at Beethoven’s time.
Conducting without the score, Shalev Ad-El gave an invigorating reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 in A-major opus 92, from the majestic opening movement, also highlighting delicate moments and Viennese melodiousness. The solemn beauty of the Allegretto variations, with their dirge-like theme and haunting insistent rhythm, were followed by buoyant playing of the Presto movement, its dynamic contrasts, echo- and pastoral effects well furnished with Beethovenian surprises and scoring jokes. In all the exuberance and suspense of the final Allegro con brio, Ad-El and his team addressed each musical gesture. Much fine wind-playing throughout added to the pleasure of a performance that, in the work’s gusto, never surrendered to thick, inarticulate orchestral textures.
In the intermission, the Tel Aviv Museum’s cafeteria was temporarily transformed into a Viennese “Kaffeehaus”, with concert-goers enjoying cakes baked to the original Viennese recipes of 200 years ago. No Viennese café would be complete without a jolly medley of light, sentimental classical pieces played live; these were provided by two of the NKO’s violinists, with Ad-El on the accordion!
Back in the auditorium, we heard the Overture to Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Alimelek” oder “Die Beiden Kalifen” (Elimelech” or “The Two Caliphs”), also known as “Wirth und Gast” (Host and Guest) a Lustspiel mit Gesang (comedy with singing) based on an episode from the “Thousand and One Nights”, the work's storyline that of a rich young merchant who becomes the caliph of Baghdad for a day. The overture to the composer’s second opera (written in the so-called “oriental” or “Turkish” style popular in Germany at the time), it makes for a fine concert piece, combining the 21-year-old Meyerbeer’s contrapuntal skills, his taste in Italienate colouring and sense of drama. Abundantly scored with doubled woodwind- and tripled percussion sections, Ad-El and his players gave the piece a richly melodious and hearty rendering.
Then to Beethoven’s “tenth symphony” – “Wellington’s Victory” or “The Battle at Vittoria”, opus 91, a work of doubtful quality, whose composition was encouraged by Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a musician and inventor, mostly known today for patenting the metronome in 1817. Other of Maelzel’s inventions were the hearing trumpet used by Beethoven, the “mechanical trumpeter” and the “panharmonicon”. (Maelzel was also a faker. His “Great Chess Automaton”, discovered to have been operated by a man, was a total hoax.) The panharmonicon was a mechanical organ that combined all instruments of a military band of the time. Each work was on a separate revolving cylinder. Maelzel was keen to add a Beethoven work to its repertoire of battle music. It seems that the news of the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Vittoria in Spain on June 21st 1813 had inspired Maelzel to approach Beethoven to write the work to cater to English taste. Beethoven, however, ended up scoring the work for so many instruments that Maelzel could not build a contraption large enough to perform it and the panharmonicon, merely a curiosity, sank into oblivion. Maelzel and Beethoven had a falling-out over ownership rights to the work, with which their financial collaborations went sour; but, for Beethoven, who probably considered the work an entertainment piece for the Viennese, it had turned out lucrative all the same. It was published in several versions, including one for two pianos and offstage cannons! “Wellington’s Victory” calls for the usual string section, two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, six trumpets, three trombones, timpani and a large percussion section (including muskets and other artillery effects). Instruments located on either side of the stage represented the British on the left and the French, on the right.
Although a critique in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung referred to “Wellington’s Victory” as “ingenious”, insisting that there was “no work equal to it in the whole realm of tone-painting” and the Wiener Zeitung saw Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 merely as a “companion piece” to “Wellington’s Victory” (at which Beethoven was most annoyed), this is perhaps the most universally mocked piece of the Beethoven oeuvre (and of the whole 19th century), having been spoken of as “of a calculated popular appeal,” “noisy,” and a “piece of orchestral claptrap”. What is clear, though, is that it was the product of a commission, written in unabashed appeal to popularity and that it came of a business deal – a crowd-pleaser and not written for posterity. I think many of us in the audience were curious to hear it. With the Recanati Auditorium stage accommodating a large orchestra, including extra percussionists enlisted from the Tremolo Ensemble, the conflict of Beethoven’s only “battaglia” piece was played out to the full, its flamboyant use of brass and percussion evoking the work’s martial program. True to Beethoven’s instructions, the percussionists on the bass drums simulating cannon-fire (and possibly thunder) played with spontaneous independence of the music. As to concert-goers around me humming to the strains of “Rule Britannia”, “God Save the King”, the latter becoming a fugue subject (representing England) and “Malbrouk s’en va-t-en guerre” (sounding to us like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” but representing the French) it was all part of the fun! If hearing Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory” is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, this was the way to do it – in a live performance. There was much to see as the NKO’s playing of it brought out the piece’s temperament and contrasts, making for fine entertainment. Maestro Ad-El’s final concert as the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s house conductor was an event to remember.