With Touring Berliners, Young Stand-In Maestro Stands Out In Brahms 

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Lithuanian-born conductor Giedre Šlekytė led Staatskapelle Berlin in two concerts at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. (Photos courtesy of The Royal Conservatory Koerner Hall; Lisa Sakulensky)

TORONTO — When it was announced a year ago that Staatskapelle Berlin would appear in two concerts in Toronto as part of a North American tour, there were serious doubts about whether its longtime general music director would be able to make the trip. Daniel Barenboim has been in poor health for several years and rarely ventures beyond his home in Berlin. Sure enough, in mid-November came word that Barenboim would not be coming and that his place would be taken by no fewer than three conductors: Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Philadelphia and New York, Jakub Hrůša in Chicago, and Giedrė Šlekytė in Toronto.

Nézet-Séguin and Hrůša are figures of international stature, but who is Šlekytė? She is a 34-year-old Lithuanian-born conductor with a wealth of experience, especially in the opera house, and after last weekend’s concerts in Toronto, her management’s phones should be very busy. Quite simply, she is a major talent and one of the most exciting conductors I have seen or heard in years. On the basis of what I heard in Toronto, she should have been booked for every concert on the current tour.

Staatskapelle Berlin is one of many excellent orchestras in Berlin, and it is also the oldest. It began as a court orchestra in 1570. Since 1991, it has been led by Barenboim, and together they have made dozens of tours and a lot of recordings. With Barenboim, the orchestra has recorded all the Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Bruckner, and Mahler symphonies — and more besides. Many of them are first-rate, and I have a special affection for their recordings of the two Elgar symphonies. Like the Vienna Philharmonic and Staatskapelle Dresden, Staatskapelle Berlin is primarily an opera orchestra — it is the pit band for Staatsoper Unter den Linden — but appears regularly in concert, too. Make no mistake about it, this is an orchestra of the highest quality, and with Giedrė Šlekytė on the podium in Toronto it sounded wonderful.

Staatskapelle Berlin’s North American tour was scheduled to be led by Daniel Barenboim, but his cancellation due to ill health made it necessary for three conductors to replace him.

On this tour, Staatskapelle Berlin is playing only the music of Brahms: the four symphonies. Yoronto had the Second and First symphonies on Nov. 25 and the Third and Fourth symphonies the following afternoon. Koerner Hall is located inside the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. It is one of the newest concert venues in the city, dating from 2009. It seats about 1,100 and has exceptionally good acoustics. It is at its best for solo recitals and chamber music, but it handled the Chicago Symphony very well in February2023 and seemed to fit Staatskapelle Berlin like a glove.

Under Šlekytė, there was a vast dynamic range, from an almost inaudible pianissimo to a hair-raising fortissimo. The string sound was rich and full, each of the woodwinds projected an individual timbre, and the horns blended well but came to the fore with ease when appropriate. The trombone section offered perfect intonation and balance on its first entry in the Second Symphony and powerful blazing chords at the end.

The cello section deserves special mention. It is not just that it is distinguished by playing of great beauty; more than that, it has a unique sound. To hear all those cello tunes in the Second and Third symphonies is to hear them as never before. Perhaps this is the way Brahms heard them, too. How to describe it? Somewhat nasal, somewhat folkloric, but altogether unforgettable.

Staatskapelle Berlin begins all its concerts as many European orchestras do, and I wish this protocol could also be adopted here. The concert begins with an empty stage, and then the orchestra members come on together. There is a complete absence of the interminable racket that precedes so many concerts by North American orchestras, with tuba players practicing fortissimo and violinists vying with each other to practice furiously what they should have prepared at home. All of that is unworthy of a first-class orchestra and annoying to audiences. Staatskapelle Berlin reminded us how it should be done. And when all the players are seated, the concertmaster rises and very discreet tuning begins. It ends with absolute silence while the double bass players adjust their tuning.

Giedre Šlekytė led Staatskapelle Berlin performing in Toronto

An audience member nearby was heard to say that “this orchestra could play the Brahms symphonies without a conductor.” Yes, that is perfectly true and could be said about many orchestras. But what a good conductor does is get the best out of an orchestra and the best out of the music. A great conductor makes you feel that the orchestra has never sounded better and that you are hearing and understanding the music as if for the first time. And that is what Šlekytė accomplished in Toronto.

Think of it. Here was an orchestra built by a great conductor over a period of more than 30 years. Together, Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin worked on and refined performances of the German Romantic repertoire from Beethoven to Mahler. Their recordings of the Brahms symphonies are classics. How daunting it must have been for a young conductor like Šlekytė to step in just days before the concerts and conduct this orchestra in this music. She could have let the orchestra lead and just followed the outlines of the performances Barenboim and the orchestra had been giving for years. It would have sounded pretty good. But that is not what she did. Of course, she built on the performances Barenboim and the orchestra had nurtured together. But through talent and study and force of personality, she made these performances her own.

Let’s begin with conducting technique. There are all sorts of gestures one can use to lead an orchestra. Some are better than others. Šlekytė has a natural gift for communicating through gesture. As NBC Symphony musicians often said about Toscanini: “When he moved his hand or his baton you couldn’t help but play, and to play exactly the way he wanted. It was almost magical.” I had the impression Šlekytė’s hands and baton had the same effect on the musicians of Staatskapelle Berlin. She moved with such conviction and intensity that they had to respond, and probably enjoyed doing so. And her movements were all connected in a continuous flow. It was practically hypnotic. Often there was little or no movement at all, and that was just as powerful, too. It induced the most amazing dynamic gradations and turns of phrase. She never tired the players out with continuous gyrations. When big climaxes were coming, there was never any doubt what was needed. I suspect she had worked hard and very effectively in rehearsal to prepare these performances. There were too many details that would have required mutual understanding ahead of time to be fully realized in performance.

Šlekytė clearly knows how to rehearse an orchestra and how to control it in performance. But more than that, she knows how to make the music come alive both in quiet sections and in the noisier passages. She also knows how to bring it home — that is, how to get maximum excitement out of the big finishes, as in the final pages of the First and Second symphonies.

Some of my favorite passages: Šlekytė took a very slow tempo for the beloved C-major tune in the finale of the First Symphony. It is scored for strings and horns the first time it is heard, and in her hands it had a melancholy tone one does not often feel. When it returns, Brahms marks it largamente, which means that it must be played slower this time. But he also adds cellos to the melody. With the unique timbre of the Staatskapelle Berlin cellos, this rendering was absolutely heartbreaking. The two inner movements in the Third symphony were played almost sotto voce for the most part and achieved an ethereal beauty that was deeply moving.

Giedre Šlekytė led Staatskapelle Berlin in the four Brahms symphonies in two concerts.

In the last movement of the Fourth symphony, Šlekytė took care to restrain the brass in the opening bars. It is only marked forte, and it is meant to state simply the chord pattern that is the basis of the entire movement. It is not a place for the trombones to let it rip. That comes later. Like many listeners, I have known and loved the Brahms symphonies for many years. And when I go to a concert featuring a Brahms symphony, it is hard for me not to compare what I am hearing with what I remember about a Furtwängler, Szell, or Karajan performance. I can’t give Šlekytė higher praise than to say that as she conducted these great pieces, all I could think about was what she was doing with the music; her conducting was that compelling.

At this late date, no one needs to be reminded that the Brahms symphonies are masterpieces. But I think we don’t often appreciate what a superb orchestrator Brahms was. Time and again in these performances, I marveled at the myriad colors he achieved with solo instruments in a particular register or a blend of instruments. And the horn writing is almost beyond words. Everyone is familiar with the big horn solos, especially in the first three symphonies, but what they add to the texture time and again is the work of genius. And the horn section of Staatskapelle Berlin is second to none. Every section in this orchestra has at least two principals, and in these concerts they took turns. But I must single out one particular horn player, Yun Zeng, a phenomenal 24-year-old Chinese musician who won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019. He joined Staatskapelle Berlin as principal horn in November 2022 and recently won the audition to become principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic. It was our good fortune that he was still in Staatskapelle Berlin in its current North American tour to offer splendid playing in the Second and Fourth symphonies in Toronto.

Clearly, there was much to enjoy in these all-Brahms concerts. Let’s hope the orchestra returns again soon. The future of Staatskapelle Berlin looks pretty interesting with Christian Thielemann scheduled to take over as general music director with the 2024-25 season.

As for Šlekytė, I look forward to hearing her again soon. I would hope that the Toronto Symphony has engaged her for next season or whenever their schedules can be coordinated. But she is already extremely busy, as you can see for yourself by visiting her website. She has four operas to conduct later this season, as well as a couple of Mahler symphonies.