Last night was Yutaka Sado’s debut at the Berliner Philharmoniker. If the stories are to be believed, it was his stated dream when he was in sixth grade one day to conduct this orchestra . His dream surely came true last night, as he tried, with a little help from Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, to blow the roof off the Philharmonie. This was prefaced by an extraordinary performance of Tōru Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call time, for five percussionists.
It's rare to find an image quite so fitting, but this juxtaposition, of Time and Shostakovich, really sums up last night's performce.
Men like to bash things in anger at times, and we occasionally thrill to the sound of the blood pumping in our heads. But regular readers will know that I resist modern Western culture’s demand always and instantly to be gratified. It was fitting, therefore, to wait for the thumping Soviet march of Shostakovich; to be led there by a supreme exercise in control. Percussion, in a way perhaps more accessible to the watcher, to the listener, than with other musical instruments, is force controlled. It is striking, literally, on various levels of delicacy, intimacy even, in order to give emphasis to what we may happily and not inappropriately think of as the Big Bang.
The performance of Takemitsu’s piece made the best imaginable use of the entire sound space of the chamber, defining the score in terms of location as well as in pitch, volume, and tempo. Truly, it was a four-dimensional performance, with the five percussionists answering each other across the orchestra. There was a cosmic eeriness to the score, assisted ably by the dressing of each of the percussionists as, apparently, psychedelic dentists. The audience was brought to the edge of its seat, but whether to listen the more carefully, or in preparation to run, I am not sure.
The harnessing of so much power is like the coiling of a spring. Let it go, and the energy flies everywhere. Sado conducted Shostakovich like a man physically emptying the music onto his players. He breathed every note. The percussionists, restored to white tie and tails, took up the cudgels and batted back the volleys from his baton with the sound of artillery fire. Not for the faint of heart, this. The audience was roused and genuinely, for once justifiably, impressed. Sado had conducted the essence of the masculine, in all its reason and studied control, and also in its violence.