RTÉ NSO and Nathalie Stutzmann – love at second sight

The NSO’s new principal guest conductor hit it off again with orchestra and audience

An Bord Bia's website includes a page on how to boil an egg. The instructions take up exactly three lines. Playwright Eugene Ionesco's To Prepare a Hard Boiled Egg stretches the subject to a minutely detailed, hilariously straight-faced four pages, wandering off into cautions about not trying to cook the egg directly on the stove, asides about saucepan sizes and the likely location of a tap, and it even names the teeth you use to bite into an egg.

In the end, of course, any single set of egg-boiling instructions will produce different results when followed by different people. The task may be simple but there are still lots of variables.

That’s life.

And that’s conducting, too. Put any two people in front of an orchestra to conduct the same 10 seconds of music, even the same bar, and the results will be surprisingly different.

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Quite apart from all issues of musical intention and conducting competence, there's the inescapable fact of chemistry in the pairing of orchestral and interpretative personalities. This shouldn't be any more surprising than the fact that if any of us were to take the same train journey in the company of Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Enda Kenny, Theresa May or Angela Merkel, we would have radically different experiences even though the carriage and the terrain would remain the same.

Chemistry

Orchestral managements worry about chemistry, not just between conductors and players, but between the efforts that are made on stage and the nature of an audience’s response to them.

When French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann appeared for the first time with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra last February, she scored a hit on both fronts. The orchestra liked her – I've even heard the phrase love at first sight used – and the audience for her programme of Wagner and Mahler had a special time too.

She returned on Friday with a different aura. Her appointment as the orchestra’s new principal guest conductor for a two-year term from next September was announced during the week, and the appointment was also brought to the audience’s attention before the start of the concert.

The incisive and dramatic opening of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture signalled music-making of a cut and thrust that nothing on her previous programme had called for. The delicacy and intimacy that had marked so much of her music-making last year was well-evidenced in a well-integrated performance of Brahms's Double Concerto.

Balanced and blended

The two soloists were Israeli violinist Itamar Zorman, who took joint second prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2011 (a year which saw no first prize awarded) and German cellist

Leonard Elschenbroich

, who has become a regular and welcome visitor to Ireland. They balanced and blended so well that they created the illusion of some kind of mega-instrument, a hyper-cello of Brahms’s imagining that could only be made flesh through two instruments and two players.

Stutzmann’s approach in the concerto and in the evening’s final work, Brahms’s Second Symphony, was direct and to the point. She’s a mostly unfussy conductor, who doesn’t just make sure that the main musical argument registers clearly, but also pays rewarding attention to fine detail in what you might call the orchestral undergrowth. The one musical idiosyncrasy of note came through the few occasions she chose to pull back the tempo in a ruminative way, creating an effect not unlike that of a train braking unexpectedly on a straight track miles away from a station.     Her appointment is welcome on multiple grounds. Her performances are good, her popularity with the orchestra was evident on Friday, and the public gave her a rousing reception.

Great contralto

She is, of course, still more celebrated as a great contralto – a genuine deep and dark contralto, not a mezzo soprano – than as a conductor.  Her track record ranges from new music (Laurent Petitgirard wrote the title role in his opera

Joseph Merrick, dit Elephant Man

for her) to the world of period performances. She took part in John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Pilgrimage and in 2009 she founded her own chamber orchestra, Orfeo 55, with which she has recorded Bach, Handel and Vivaldi as singer and conductor.    She is by some distance the most distinguished musician to have entered into an ongoing relationship with the NSO and she brings a professional and musical allure that the orchestra badly needs. To put the matter into brute numbers, the number of hits for her name on amazon.co.uk is 694 (on amazon.fr it’s 827). Her predecessors as principal guest conductor were

Hannu Lintu

(108 hits) and

William Eddins

(13), and the previous principal conductors were

Alan Buribayev

(31),

Gerhard Markson

(70) and

Alexander Anissimov

(184).

Watch out for her next appearance with the NSO on Friday, September 29th.

Conor Biggs makes Shubert fizz at the NCH

Belgium-based Irish bass Conor Biggs and his piano partner Michel Stas continued their long journey through Schubert's songs at the NCH's Kevin Barry Recital Room on Sunday afternoon. Biggs's are no ordinary concerts. He introduces the songs with charm, wit and insight, and also with a lively critical perspective. His manner suggests he would make a first-rate broadcaster.

The performing style is intimate, more like a presentation to an interested club than a regular public concert, and it really suited the mostly lesser Schubert of Sunday’s programme.

I hadn’t heard Biggs in the renovated Barry Room before. His singing benefited from the livelier acoustic, and Stas surely appreciates the new piano, though I still find some of his playing a little rough.

Biggs suggested that the performance of Adelwold und Emma (at more than 25 minutes, it's Schubert's longest song) was probably an Irish première. The only Irish Times mention of it I can find is in connection with Hyperion's pioneering recording of all the songs, so perhaps it was.

Who knows, there may be more Irish premières in the next concert on April 23rd.