Last night I saw a concert at the Duesseldorf Tonhalle, home to the Duesseldorf Symphony Orchestra. The program (g) was Ravel, ter Veldhuis, Glazunov, and Scriabin.
But before I spend a few words on that, I thought I’d talk about the building itself, the Duesseldorf Tonhalle. Built in 1926, it was once the world’s largest planetarium. The problem is, a planetarium dome is a terrible thing to put over an orchestra — it reflects sound in ways that create "ghost knocking" effects at points within the building.
People somehow lived with this until 2003, when the local government hired the Dutch acoustic-consulting firm Peutz and the architects at Hentrich-Petschnigg Partners to find a solution. The solution they found, shown in a diagram from from this article (g/sub) in the journal Bauphysik (Construction Physics), is below. I don’t know exactly what the arrows mean, but it looks cool, doesn’t it?
The dashing engineer/architect duo coated the inside of the dome with a layer of acoustically-transparent metal panels (they hide the red portion in the above diagram). The panels conceal a complex network of reflectors which solve the acoustic problem. Hanging from the top of the dome, in a circular opening about 15 feet wide, are a series of shiny, bepimpled oval-shaped metal objects.
All of it — the rhomboid panels covering the entire top of the dome, the metal eggs clustered at the apex — glow with an ethereal aquamarine light. The overall effect is extraterrestrial. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the eggs had slowly descended and opened to reveal glistening, Giger-esque creatures.* And the acoustics are damn good. I’ve seen several concerts in the pre-renovation Tonhalle (which was prettier, since the interior of the dome was coated in burnished wood), and the sound is now clearly better. Although the friend I went to the concert with heard some creaking noises coming from the panels. The aliens, probably.
Oh, where was I? The concert! That’s right! First up was Part 2 of Ravel’s refulgent Daphnis et Chloe Suite. A difficult piece, but they pulled it off pretty well. Not to carp or anything, but I thought the brass was a bit too dominant. Then came something completely different: the ‘Tallahatchie’ Concerto for saxophone and orchestra by the contemporary Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis, or Jacob TV for short. Jacob TV, a committed tonalist, started in rock music, but now straddles the line between pop and classical music, sometimes creating elaborate multimedia shows.
What’s your take on contemporary classical music that sounds pretty, you’re asking? Happy to oblige! I try to be ecumenical when it comes to the tonal/atonal debate. Let a thousand flowers bloom — composers should use whatever medium calls to them. Immediately dismissing tonal contemporary music as ‘reactionary’ is just snobbery. On the other hand, a lot of it’s pretty dull. I can think of many tough, spiky contemporary pieces that are more soulful than any given stretch of Michael Nyman tootling. Birtwistle, Maxwell-Davies, Ligeti, and Stockhausen at his best come to mind. Not to mention Anton Webern, the ineffable diamond-cutter. Every music lover should wear a black armband on September 15 to commemorate his accidental shooting at the hands of an American soldier on that day in 1945.
But back to ter Veldhuis. The ‘Tallahatchie’ concerto was pretty to listen to, in a film-music way. The first movement, a slow, dreamy evocation of a river’s rhythms, featured a spare, yearning solo line above shimmering chromatic string chords. The second movement was a series of moto perpetuo motives for the saxophone with syncopated accompaniment in the orchestra. It held my interest, but didn’t really grip me. Too Nyman/Glass-esque, and with the signature faults of those composers — no real tension between the soloist and the orchestra, and insufficient thematic development.
The next piece was a German premiere of a saxophone concerto by Glazunov which I’d never heard of, and which was pleasingly autumnal. Marsalis played with a wonderful quicksilver tone and just enough well-judged vibrato to tingle the spine. He played a bebop piece as an encore, with spontaneous accompaniment from a bassist in the orchestra.
The piece de resistance was Prometheus, Poem of Fire by that fascinating nutcase Scriabin. Prometheus, his last work for orchestra, isn’t performed very often, because the full version actually calls for a "light-piano" which illuminates the concert hall with fields of particular color during the performance. Scriabin himself enjoyed the gift of color synasthesia — the perception of sounds as colors. Thanks to the renovation of the Tonhalle, it was actually possible to realize the piece. Different sections of panels above our heads did, in fact, light up in various colors during the tone-poem. And during the finale, the entire audience was bathed in intense white brilliance. Scriabin has always been a bit too confused and soupy for my tastes, but I have to say, it was a pretty impressive experience.
Overall, it was an adventurous program. If you live anywhere near Duesseldorf, you should absolutely make the trip to the next concerts on Sunday and Monday. After all, when’s the next time you’re going to be able to experience a "light-piano"?
* What happens when the aliens descend? I, of course, would have been the guy who sits, transfixed by the eerie spectacle, while the other concert-goers run screaming for the exits. This would either result in me being accepted into the aliens’ sticky-but-fascinating community, or flayed by their razor-sharp molybdenum tentacles.