Under the direction of their chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle, the Berliner Philharmoniker said farewell to 2013 with their New Year’s Eve concert. For the January 2014 concert series, they have invited three magnificent guest conductors who could hardly be more different: Semyon Bychkov, Zubin Mehta and Alan Gilbert. The Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov, a pupil of Ilya Musin, was a fan of the Berliner Philharmoniker even when he was a teenager, and even spent a night in police custody after a failed attempt to smuggle himself secretly into a sold out concert given by the orchestra in St. Petersburg. Ever since he stood in at short notice for the indisposed Riccardo Muti in 1985 and – as the press noted – made a “conducting debut of considerable calibre”, he has been a regular guest of the Philharmoniker. Although in his almost thirty years’ association with the Philharmoniker he has conducted a wide variety of works ranging from Joseph Haydn to Magnus Lindberg, his main focus is the works of Russian composers, notably Dmitri Shostakovich. So for his next appearance, one of Shostakovich’s symphonies is again on the programme: No. 11, subtitled The Year 1905, which depicts the events of “Bloody Sunday” in St. Petersburg. As the musical counterpart to this sombre work, Bychkov has set Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major KV 453. Making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the soloist is the 90-year-old Menahem Pressler, founder and pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio.
Zubin Mehta has been connected to the orchestra even longer than Semyon Bychkov. Following his Philharmonic debut in 1961, he was hailed by the press as “a discovery from India”, and as the “up and coming man of his age group”. Prophetic words indeed! Hardly any other guest conductor has worked so long, regularly and consistently with the Berliner Philharmoniker as he has. He has covered all styles and genres: Classical, Romantic, Modern, new music, symphonic, opera, oratorio. And yet, even after all these years, Zubin Mehta manages to surprise again and again with the new: In his last appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 2012, he conducted Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony for the first time with the orchestra. “A performance such as you are likely to hear only once in a blue moon,” raved the critic of the Tagesspiegel. This time, he is conducting Bruckner’s Ninth, a work that he last conducted with the Philharmoniker in 1971. And this is followed by a further series of concerts which include the Six Pieces for Orchestra by Anton Webern, Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist.
The man from New York
Compared with Semyon Bychkov and Zubin Mehta, the native New Yorker Alan Gilbert is still a “newcomer” to the orchestra: His first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was eight years ago. As a stand-in for Bernard Haitink, he made his debut with the orchestra in February 2006. In the subsequent three concert programmes which he conducted with the Philharmoniker, the works of Czech composers played a major role: Antonín Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Noon Witch, and his Cello Concerto, Bohuslav Martinů’s Fourth Symphony and Leoš Janácek’s Violin Concerto Putování dušičky (The Wandering of a Little Soul ). He conducted the latter work as part of Musikfest Berlin at the beginning of this season together with Witold Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony and Bartók’s ballet music The Wooden Prince, a concert which, according to the Berliner Morgenpost, made Alan Gilbert look like a “triumphant victor”. In his concerts at the end of January and the beginning of February, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is once again on the programme with Truls Mørk as the soloist, plus the orchestral work Kraft by Magnus Lindberg. Gilbert, head of the New York Philharmonic since 2009, describes this large-scale piece as a milestone in the work of the Finnish composer.