Dan Ettinger made his conducting debut with the WA Symphony Orchestra over the weekend with Argentinean piano soloist Ingrid Fliter. The rather conservative program consisted of romantic Russian and German warhorses but the unconventional interpretations from the guest artists kept me bolt upright all evening.
Ettinger is an Israeli conductor and protégé of Daniel Barenboim (as is WASO’s principal conductor Asher Fisch) and is currently chief conductor of the Stuttgart Philharmonic. The program opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and on Saturday night Ettinger’s bravura propelled the orchestra to a bracing finale and drew shouts of excitement from the audience. It was a good start.
Ingrid Fliter joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1, a youthful, virtuosic work that surprisingly hasn’t been performed by WASO for over forty years. Fliter made a nervous, fidgety arrival on stage. I’m not sure if I found her quirky mannerisms (wiping the keyboard, avoiding eye contact, using a score rather than playing from memory) refreshingly authentic or a distraction. Once she began to play however her focus was unwavering and Mendelssohn’s’ cascading scale passages were delivered with fiery, foot pounding assertiveness.
By contrast the Andante was full of yearning as Fliter put to good use her capacity to spin a delicate melody line over a throbbing internal pulse (she is renowned for her Chopin interpretations). Ettinger and the orchestra supported her attentively; the cellos and basses made tender duet partners and the high strings wrapped a soothing cloud around her solo line.
The final movement had an almost cheeky impetuosity as Fliter exploited Mendelssohn’s emotional architecture with cat and mouse phrasing and climatic leaps from her chair. Fliter’s encore was unsurprisingly a Chopin waltz which she imbued with unexpected twists and turns, again employing a nervous energy interspersed with dripping lyricism.
Ettinger unveiled a version of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 after interval that was full of surprises. The famous opening Fate statement was elongated Bernstein-style, with Ettinger slowing the horns even further for a ponderous descent at the end of the phrase. Instead of sounding arresting it became mournful, an effect enhanced by the waltz following immediately after which was whisper-soft and also very slow.
This was a Tchaikovsky of Mahlerian proportions, a sprawling symphonic poem. The dreamy passages interspersed with the Fate theme throughout the first movement became caricatures. First a cartoonish woodwind section then a ghostly timpani-driven processional followed by a serene dusky twilight. The brass were impressively versatile, thrusting forward or adding a cushioned warmth to the sound.
In the second movement the deep inhalation and exhalation Ettinger drew from the string phrases was spell binding. The pizzicato in the third movement was spookily slow and soft, a foil for the enormous soundwall of the final movement, where nothing could stop the train wreck as Ettinger wound the pace up notch by notch to a blistering finale. I wasn’t convinced by all his ideas but Ettinger’s boldness was delightful. And the orchestra demonstrated an impressive suppleness as they faithfully followed his experimentations.
This review was first published by Limelight Magazine, April 2018.