David Zinman's birthday party

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The conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle, David Zinman, celebrated his 75th birthday in style last Friday. Oliver Condy was there to raise a glass to the American maestro.

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When Radu Lupu, Julia Fischer and Christian Zacharias turn up to perform at your birthday party, you know your career hasn’t played out too badly. David Zinman, the conductor of Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, celebrated his 75th birthday among his illustrious friends on Friday night - even Alfred Brendel gave ‘one last performance’ (cue a single G - I think he’s cracked that one before) and read his poetry at various points in the evening. I don’t speak German. Apparently it was great.

This was a gala concert and a half. Great musician after great musician came up on stage to perform movements from famous concertos and piano duets while the orchestra itself, conducted by Zinman, had its moments in the spotlight with a variety of lollipops including the overtures to Bernstein’s Candide and Dvořák's Carnival Overture. Lupu gave the most magical performance of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. I’ve never before heard such unity of sound between soloist and orchestra: Lupu’s eye was constantly fixed on members of the orchestra, watching for gestures and body language, and the piano floated delicately over the orchestral accompaniment like dawn mist. Julia Fischer gave a nigh-on note-perfect rendition of the final movement of Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto. With rapid scales, spiccato bowing and left-hand pizzicato (all at the same time), it was no mean feat.

But it wasn’t all serious music-making. This was a party, after all. A brilliantly made spoof documentary of Zinman auditioning for a cow bell player (and ending up with a cow) was projected onto a huge screen, while a twist on Ives’s The Unanswered Question was a wicked way to tease the audience. Ives’s miniature masterpiece features beautiful hymn-like ppp passages played by the strings (so quiet in this case that, ten seconds in, one man behind me asked his wife whether they’d started playing) punctuated by the ‘question’ - a brief, angular melody on solo trumpet. The question remains unanswered, the strings blithely ignoring it and returning to their meditations.

Except during those hushed bars, a mobile phone rang out. I gasped, the whole of the Tonhalle gasped, and no one knew quite where to look. The performance carried on, with another mobile phone during the third hushed passage. And so on, with a succession of interruptions that included a coughing fit from the entire horn section. The ‘unanswered question’ had, suggested Zinman, been answered…

With a party like that thrown for him, Zinman is very lucky (even Zurich’s mayor turned out to add his congratulations and thanks). But so is Zurich. During his 16-year tenure as music director and principal conductor of the Tonhalle (his contract has just been extended to 2014), the orchestra’s international reputation has grown exponentially. Their recordings of the complete Beethoven and Mahler symphonies, as well as the orchestral works of Richard Strauss have been widely praised. And with Zinman at the helm, the Tonhalle received their very first Proms invitation in 2003, and are set to make their third appearance there on 27 August playing, among other works, Beethoven’s Third Symphony. It’ll be a unique chance to hear a great European orchestra and conductor at the height of their powers.

Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine