So, 2023 did not exactly find me in my regular spot on my mother’s sofa, filling my belly with all kinds of (meatless) delicacies. Still, it made up for it by “taking me” to a matinée concert by Thüringen Philharmonie, the first of the four that I was going to attend in the next days. This took place in Eisenach, the birth city of Johann Sebastian Bach, in a quaint medium-sized theatre.
The New Year concerts of the philharmonic of Thuringia, the combined orchestra of the cities of Gotha and Eisenach, took place under the baton of its principal guest conductor, Charles Olivieri-Munroe, and featured the soloist Andrej Gorbachev, also known as the “Paganini of balalaika”.
Olivieri-Munroe put together a perfectly balanced programme for the occasion, a challenging task considering the duration of the event (slightly longer than two hours) and the number of the works performed (thirteen, followed by three encore pieces). From “Light Cavalry” to “The last dance of the virgin”, from “Pizzicati” to “Gallop” and from “Slavonic dance” to “Polonaise”, virtuosic passages and pensive lyricism co-existed, alternated, zoomed in and out and framed each other for a musical experience that befitted the moment and purpose of a New Year concert. A glance through the titles will attest to that.
Fast and slow, esoteric and playful, with strong fortes and compelling pianissimos, with commanding tutti and smooth soli (the latter evident from the very beginning, in the sleekness of the trumpet introduction to the “Light Cavalry”, and the silkiness of its subsequent clarinet solo). This transition between paces, places, and emotional registers was a result of Olivieri-Munroes’s precision in phrasing and his trademark sensitivity to dynamics, which never fail to satisfy (and, no, on this I am not biased).
I admit that I was particularly looking forward to seeing Andrej Gorbachev in action. I had never before witnessed the “marriage” of orchestra with balalaika and, what better time for “firsts” than the first day of a new year? The anticipation was worth it, as the soloist is not just a virtuoso with a command of a varied repertory (including balalaika transcriptions of works like Paganini’s “Carnival of Venice”, and Pablo de Sarasate’s take on Bizet’s famous opera “Carmen Fantasy”), but he is also a showman with a welcome (and welcoming) sense of humour.
During his time on stage, he not only delivered a performance of high skill and musicality but he also smiled, laughed, did a brief dance with the conductor, crossed himself before a very challenging passage (Zygankow), “provoked” the concertmaster to a call-and-response balaika vs violin interaction (Paganini) and killed a(n imaginary) mosquito sitting on the conductor’s shoulder (encore piece, “Mosquitos”).
Musically speaking, Andrej Gorbachev unfolded his virtuosity while not sacrificing the intimacy and sensitivity of parts that demanded pianos and pianissimos, to the extent of allowing glimpses of balalaika lyricism (if you allow me this expression). Despite the initially “paradoxical” marriage, soloist and orchestra worked perfectly together, blending, even.
The orchestra was zooming in and out, other times framing the soloist, others mirroring him, and others retreating to silence, letting the timbre and possibilities of balalaika be highlighted. The seamless co-existence was all the more visible – or audible – at the perfect endings of “Carmen Fantasy” and “Grotesque and reflection” (Trostyansky), both of which made possible by Olivieri-Munroe’s skills as an accompanist.
Of course, as you already know, you cannot have a New Year concert without moderation, task taken up mostly by the conductor himself and delivered in German. Although my knowledge of the German language lays somewhere between minimum to nil, the insights I could gather (directly from the source) revealed a witty and entertaining banter, that brought together information on the pieces, the composers, the soloist, and an imaginary primary moderator who couldn’t make it for the evening (but, don’t worry, Mrs. Stinkfoot’s foot was indeed in good hands).
In the same mood, Lothar Freund’s intervention in the second part of the programme, kept the fun going while at the same time shared information about the balalaika as instrument, and about the soloist (and all this, with Gorbachev’s contribution as an entertainer with a good sense of humour). Being his long-year manager and accompanist, Freund was at the best position to take up that task. Ok, I confess that – exactly due to linguistic barriers – my understanding of the exact happening was limited but the audience’s reaction was enough to ensure that both moderations were engaging and entertaining.
All in all, and after three encore pieces, we reached the end of the New Year morning concert and I have to say that it was an awesome start to my year, musically and otherwise. In a little over than two hours, the Thuringia Philharmonic and all the performers on stage provided a celebration of the new year that reflected a celebration of life itself. With its victories, its dramas, its highs and lows, its frenzy and quietness, its joys and sorrows.
To borrow the title of one of the works performed (by Amilcare Ponchielli), this was a “dance of the hours” that made time dissolve in playfulness and joy, until the pace changed again. As our experience of the hours does, when they become a bit darker. As time does. As life does. And then, joy again. As time does. As life does.
And, amidst it all, the sound of balalaika, with all its associations with the Russian world, played by a performer of partly Ukrainian, partly Russian, and partly Jewish descent, who merged with this German orchestra in a hopeful allegory for the peace that this world (and I am here speaking about the whole world) deserves, and in 2023 we hope that it will see.
P.S.: I cannot finish this text without saying a huge thank you to Charles Olivieri-Munroe for the invitation, Michaella and Aleksei (and my new best friend, the 7-year-old Victoria) for the hospitality, Andrej Gorbachev for generously sharing his humour and positivity, and Lothar Freund for his positive vibes and engaging conversations. Not least, Gina Freund, for her heart-warming personality, the culinary skills, and the time she allowed to give me a lovely tour of her “world”.