Monday, December 19, 2022

Vancouver Cantata Singers - Christmas Reprise 2022

The Vancouver Cantata Singers’ Christmas Reprise is always the highlight of the Season of Advent. This year, the choir’s 19th offering of this wonderful tradition, was for me, a real highpoint in the years I have been attending these concerts.


The concert opens with, appropriately, In the Dark Night, a Ukrainian Lullaby, featuring the men of the choir. Naturally, to hear this Ukrainian work evoking the beauty of the Christ child hits an emotional chord, considering the trauma and destruction that the country had been faced with this past year. Both in this work and the next, Judith Weir’s My Guardian Angel, featuring the women of the choir, remind us of the vocal excellence of this choral ensemble.


As ever, the VCS’s Christmas Reprise offers traditional Christmas works, albeit in new arrangements, as well as pieces that are heard less often. Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten, Orlando di Lasso’s difficult Bone Jesu, verbum Patris, and Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est, were particularly euphonious, and truly demonstrates the choir’s sensitivity to text, and the ensemble’s absolutely uniformity in diction and enunciation. The fast-moving Ding Dong! Merrily on High and the Carol of the Bells show off the group’s virtuosity. In Carol of the Bells, the women of the choir especially sang with an exhilarating lightness, and uncannily evokes the timbre of the bells. 


There were of course timeless works that we know and love, like See Amid the Winter’s SnowO Tannenbaum, and Silent Night, all in beautiful arrangements, in performances that truly remind us that “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” All these, and the two different arrangements of Ave Maria – one by Nathaniel Dett and the other by Franz Biebl (a favourite of the choir’s, I think), transport us away from the hustle and bustle that come with December. 


Saturday’s concert once again establishes the Vancouver Cantata Singers, under Artistic Director Paula Kremer, as the Vancouver’s premiere choral ensemble. What a treasure we have in our very own city!


The full house at Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral reminds me that, in spite of all we hear about living in a post-Christian world, in spite of the world’s every effort to push Christmas to the margins of our society and our consciousness, that people still want to be reminded of the love of God made manifest in Christ, the Trinitarian love of God, and the mystical body of Christ.


And that there has to be more to Christmas than finishing our shopping in time.



Monday, December 5, 2022

Artist at Work

The 2022 concert season, at least pianistically, ended on a very high note with Sergei Babayan’s concerto debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.


Mr. Babayan had of course made his debut in Vancouver already, in a highly distinguished recital for The Vancouver Chopin Society, in the pre-pandemic days of 2017. Since then, his schedule has been very full indeed, with appearances with artists like Daniil Trifonov and Martha Argerich, recording dates, his very busy teaching studio, and appearances with orchestras. Perhaps this is why it has taken our orchestra so long to obtain a date with him. But better late than never, because Friday night’s concert was probably one of the Vancouver Symphony’s most memorable concerts since live performances began. For this concert, Babayan chose to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503.


With the piano’s first entry, I immediately knew that we were in for a very special performance. I had heard this very instrument played by many outstanding artists that played with the orchestra, and in recitals, but I had not heard a musician produced such a luminous, iridescent sound from these keys. There was a sense of lightness and buoyancy with each note, and each run. And with what profound emotion he played the gorgeous G major piano theme!


In the second movement, the four simple descending notes, C, A, F and E, was played with such simplicity but transcendent beauty, that illuminated the entire movement. At times, the sounds emanating from the instrument were no longer piano sounds, but just sounds of pure beauty and joy. In the third movement, Babayan played the music with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, in the very best sense of the word, with a palpable exuberance that makes one want to stand up and cheer. It was truly a breathtaking, and breathtakingly luminous, performance of one of Mozart’s most majestic concerti.


As with any great Mozart performance, one is reminded of the operatic nature of much of the composer’s works. Last Friday evening’s performance so reminded me of Le Nozze di Figaro, with the soloist taking all the parts, and the orchestra commenting on the action!


Inspired by Babayan’s artistry, the orchestra and Otto Tausk were sympathetic partners in this memorable performance. The orchestra’s woodwinds, especially, contributed much to the tapestry of sound colours. 


With the uncertainties and vicissitudes of traveling today, the orchestra was plagued with a couple of high-profile cancellations this season. I am glad that Vancouver audiences had this opportunity to witness the artistry of this great artist and musician, and I hope that Mr. Babayan will be a frequent visitor to our city.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A Most Welcomed Return

When an artist made a staggering first impression, as Zlata Chochieva did when she first played in Vancouver, expectations are high when she or he makes a return appearance. I am happy to report that Chochieva’s recital last Sunday confirmed that her artistry is still as wondrous as ever. Indeed, she has, if anything, matured as an artist and as a musician.


Her recital programme is a re-creation of the works she recorded on her most recent CD of works by Mozart and Scriabin – two very different and contrasting sound worlds. None of the works played were pieces that appear time and again in piano recitals, which makes for a very refreshing change from the sameness that we sometimes see in programming. 


In the two sets of variations by Mozart – Nine Variations on a Minuet by Duport (K. 573) and Ten Variations on “Unser dummer Pobel meint” (C. W. Cluck) (K. 455) – she played Mozart with a firm grasp of the operatic nature of the composer’s music. Figaro, Susanna, Leporello, Despina, and a host of other characters came alive in front of our mind’s eyes. There was nothing “pretty” or precious about her approach to this music, as every phrase was filled with energy and colour. Every phrase, every musical gesture, was delivered with the grace and panache of a prima ballerina. Moreover, she has an uncanny sense of timing both within each variation, in the evolution from one variation to the next, as well as each variation within the context of the entire structure.


Stylistically, the two sets of Preludes by Scriabin, Op. 15 and Op. 16, were still composed with a firm nod to the past, most notably to the music of Chopin, whom Scriabin adored. Chochieva approached these miniatures like a visual artist, painting before us the infinite variety of sound colours that the composer must have had in mind when putting notes to paper. One is reminded that Scriabin had a great interest, indeed obsession with, colour and sound. This wonderful artist was able to coax a gorgeous range of sounds from the piano, very much highlighting the sensual beauty of Scriabin’s music.


It is truly astounding to hear Scriabin’s evolution as a composer when a work such as the Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor (Op. 23) was juxtaposed against the truly forward-looking Sonata No. 10 (Op. 70). While the large-scale, highly dramatic third sonata is still firmly rooted in the 19th century, the chromaticism and tonal ambiguity of the tenth sonata truly looks far beyond the 20thcentury. Pianistically and musically, Chochieva delivered both works with great panache. She infused the third sonata with a sense of unity in the four disparate and contrasting movements, and highlighted the concentration of expression of the tenth sonata. In both works, she gave us all the sound colours the composer must have had in mind when composing these works. 


As if trying to dispel the ambiguous atmosphere of Scriabin’s tenth sonata, Chochieva brought her recital to a far more lighthearted conclusion with Mozart’s Gigue in G major (K. 574) which, along with the K. 522 A Musical Joke, are probably two of the composer’s most hilarious works. It is often easier to convey sadness than joy in music, but Chochieva succeeded in communicating to the audience all the humour inherent in this brief work.


This mood of charm and joy continued in the encore she played, the Toccata by French pianist, teacher and composer Pierre Sancan. The young artist delivered with stunning pianism – and at the most daring tempo – as well as with the Gallic charm and flavour called for by this music.


All in all, a truly spectacular showcase of pianism and musicianship. Along with Vadym Kholodenko’s stunning debut, we had truly been fortunate to have experienced two of today’s most interesting young artists within a fortnight. I am of course mindful of Sir Andras Schiff’s recent pair of masterful recitals, but with performances such as we had from Kholodenko and Chochieva’s, we are reminded that the future of great music is indeed in very good hands.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

An Astounding Debut

In his Vancouver debut, Vadym Kholodenko played a magical performance for an enthralled audience last night.


The concert began with Prokofievs rarely played Four Pieces, Op. 32, the composers whimsical look at baroque and classical dance forms. Right from the first notes, I realized that we were in for something special. Kholodenko highlighted the composers gentle, sardonic humour in the four miniatures, but also drew from the Steinway colours, timbre and sounds rarely heard. Throughout the evening, there was a sense of fantasy, of incredible imagination, in his playing.


In SchubertSonata in E-flat major, D. 568, Kholodenko brought out all the songfulness called for by the music with an overflowing and palpable musicality. In this work, and in all the pieces he played last evening, there was a glow and a luminosity in his sound that I do not often hear. In the Andante molto movement, the sadness and heartbreak of the music was very much evident. 


More Schubert followed after the intermission, with the composers beautiful Drei Klavierstucke, D. 946. While bringing out the unique character of each of the three works, the artist also managed to convey a sense of unity, as if the three pieces constituted part of a larger construction. I have to say once again that Kholodenko drew truly wonderous sounds from the piano. To my mind, I have not ever heard such pianissimos as we did last evening  no matter how softly he was playing, every note was projected to the very last row of the hall. Moreover, it was a sound that drew the listener in, drawing him or her into a very private sound world. In the second work in E-flat major, the artist played it almost like a lullaby, with a gently rocking quality and, toward the end, allowing the music to drift away almost to nothingness. It was truly imaginative, courageous, daring playing, but it was, again, sheer magic.


Kholodenko saved the fireworks for the last work of the evening, Prokofievs 1942 Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83, one of the composers so-called war sonatas. It was a performance that brought out the kaleidoscopic colours of the piano, and more. From the scintillating opening of the 1st movement, to the bleak and desolate soundscape of the middle movement, to the almost delirious joy of the third, the artist took us on a thrilling and breathtaking ride through an incredible soundscape. In some of the massive chords of the 1st movement, his voicing of these chords gave them a sense of massiveness. The element of fantasy I mentioned earlier was again palpable here. In the third movement, Kholodenkos sense of the pulse of the music was uncanny. When pianist Vladimir Howowitz sent the composer of his recording of the 7th Sonata, Prokofiev sent in return a copy of the score, inscribed, To the miraculous pianist, from the composer. It would no exaggeration to say, after last evenings performance, that we were in the presence of a miraculous pianist.


The pianist graciously spoke to the audience after the performance and announced his one encore, a bagatelle by Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov, and proceeded to give a moving performance of this gentle work, perhaps a very personal response to the great tragedy that had befallen his home country.


Vadym Kholodenkos performance last night was a truly auspicious debut by any artist in a long time. The sounds he drew from the piano will haunt me for a long time to come.

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told

It has been a few years now since Seattle Opera presented a Wagner opera. The company’s current production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde firmly re-establishes it as one of North America’s premiere Wagner capitals. For me, the performance was an overwhelmingly moving theatrical, musical and emotional experience. 


Heidi Melton (Isolde) and Amber Wagner (Bragane) were well-matched in dramatic qualities and beauty of their voices. Melton had, in recent years, sang and recorded Sieglinde in the composer’s Die Walkure and Brunnhilde in Siegfried, with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic as part of their outstanding of Ring Cycle recording. Vocally theirs were the highlights of yesterday’s performance. Amber Wagner’s voice is truly something to behold. She has the power to sail through the orchestral texture, but at the same time never losing the velvety beauty of the quality of her voice. Melton’s voice also possesses great beauty, but also a dramatic quality that matches the text and context.


Stefan Vinke’s Tristan does not quite possess the beauty of Ben Hepner (Seattle’s last Tristan) or the dramatic declamatory qualities of Jon Vickers. Nevertheless, his voice much improved in the second and third acts, and in the end successfully conveyed the tortured passions of the tragic character. 


Morris Robinson had a commanding dramatic as well as vocal presence, and portrayed a most dignified, human and sympathetic King Marke. 


The supporting roles in the opera also had uniformly strong voices. Ryan McKinny was convincing as Kurwenal, in his youthful passion and complete devotion to his master. Andrew Stenson (Sailor/Shepherd), Viktor Antipenko (Melot) and Joshua Jeremiah (Steersman) all contributed to make this a truly uniformly strong cast. 


As with any Wagner, the orchestra plays a vital role in any presentation of this Gesamtkunstwerk. Members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra shone with their magnificent playing yesterday. Principal oboe Mary Lynch Vanderkolk, bass clarinetist Eric Jacobs and of course Stefan Farkas playing the English horn, were outstanding in the beauty of their individual sounds as well as how they blended with the orchestral fabric.


I was bowled over by Canadian conductor Jordan De Souza’s control of the orchestra and singers, as well as his passionate conductor of the complex score, while maintaining the flow of the music and imparting great tension into the orchestral sound. According to his biography, he has already conducted in Bayreuth, the Wagner capital of the world. Certainly, a young conductor to watch. If yesterday’s performance was any indication, I am certain that we will be seeing great things from this hugely talented young man. 


The remarkable stage design truly deserves special mention. Using digital projection onto a scrim in front of the singers as well as on the backdrop, set and video designer Diego Siliano and video animator Luciana Gutman created real stage magic in all three acts – from the bowels of the ship in Act One, to the love scene in Act Two, where Isolde’s bedchamber surrounded by the forest transformed into a full backdrop of the constellation in the climax, to the black and white, bleak and desolate landscape of Act Three – I would boldly say that this current set design is as ground-breaking as Wieland Wagner’s “painting with light” productions were in post-war Bayreuth. In yesterday’s production, the transformations of the backdrops created a synergistic effect with the music, which I found to be emotionally overwhelming. 


I am gratified and thankful that in this current production, the director and set designers did not use Wagner to further their own political ideologies, as we so often see in European productions. I am so glad to see Wagner back in Seattle Opera’s repertory again. Buy a ticket and run to see this production. I can safely say that it will be nothing like you have seen or heard before.



Light of Humanity

In spite of the horrors of finding parking in downtown Vancouver – an Iranian protest, Elton John’s concert and a hockey game were going on at the same time – the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ opening concert of their season reminded us that this group is truly one of the jewels in our city vibrant choral scene.


The programme is “ecumenical”, with music that drew inspiration from Aboriginal sources (The Gift by Russell Wallace), the great Catholic choral tradition (Versa est in luctum by Alonso Lobo and a Kyrie setting by Larry Nickel), and the Ismali heritage (Nur: Reflections on Light, by Hussein Janmohamed). In addition, there were music by Tracy Wong – Antara - drawing from the words of Malaysian writer Hohd Tauid, Benjamin Britten’s anti-war Advance Democracy, Craig Galbraith’s Lux humanitas, which draws from a variety of text sources, and the work that served as the centerpiece of the entire concert, as well as giving the concert its title. 


The final work, This is My Song, with lyrics set to Sibelius’ Finlandia, became for me especially meaningful and poignant, with so many displaced people everywhere in the world – Iran, Ukraine, China, and Hong Kong, to name just a few - persecuted because of their political or religious beliefs. 


Artistic Director Paula Kremer returned to conduct the choir, and brought to the music a depth, subtlety and flexibility of sound. The voices of the choir, as well as the solo singers featured, remain strong and blended beautifully from first note to last. 


We welcome back Ms. Kremer and wish her continuing good health, and many more years of music-making with this outstanding group of singers.


Friday, October 21, 2022

The Goldberg Variations

At the end of Sir Andras Schiff’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations Thursday evening, I felt that applause would almost have been an intrusion, a rude awakening from the magical reverie of the past hour, almost like King Marke bursting in upon the dazed lovers at the end of Act II of Tristan und Isolde.


What an incredible evening of Bach, brought to us by one of today’s great artists and musicians. As with Schiff’s recital on Tuesday, it was a generous evening of music – the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, and then the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. Before each piece, Schiff would enlighten us with brief works about the piece in question, in the process also revealing a little of his thoughts of our present human and societal condition.


As a prelude to the evening, Schiff played a beautifully shaded performance of Bach’s Sinfonia in F minor, BWV 795, probably one of his most profound keyboard works – certainly one of his most difficult and complex - saying so much, as Schiff said, in so little time. 


In the 1st movement of the Italian Concerto, Schiff brought about the contrast between the ripieno and concertino not so much with different volume, but with different qualities of sound. In the Andante, the right-hand passage of the “solo” was beautifully shaped by the artist, making it truly sounding like a solo instrument in a concerto, like an oboe, for which Bach wrote such incredible music, and the left hand provided a subtle but beautifully shaped accompaniment by the “strings”. Schiff’s tempo choice for the Presto was a shade slower than some other pianists who literally takes on a breathless quality with this music, but the absolute steadiness at which he played made the experience just as stunning. As in the first movement, he effectively brought out the contrast between the ripieno and concertino, in this case almost like a shift between light and darkness.


I would have to say that Schiff’s performance of the Overture in the French Style was the epitome of elegance and style. He did not fall prey to ponderousness in the French overture, by giving the music a palpable forward motion. The B section of the overture betrayed a deftness and lightness of fingerwork, and again an almost concerto grosso-like contrast between piano and forte. The artist observed all of Bach’s repeats, allowing him to explore and highlight the well-thought out and beautifully executed ornaments in the repeats. The rhythmically tricky Gigue was, I thought, particularly brilliantly handled, and his playing of the Echo was truly humourous.


I had heard Sir Andras Schiff play the miraculous Goldberg Variations many years ago, in Seattle. After a lifetime of performing and thinking about the piece, I think it has now really become a part of him. Last night’s performance was so focused and so intimate, that I had the impression that we were eavesdropping upon him playing for himself. The hour went by very quickly indeed.


Schiff managed to bring out the unique character of each variation. Tempi were judiciously chosen. I think he now takes time to let the music breathe, even some of the variations that are usually played in a much quicker tempo. Variation 7 (al tempo di Giga), for instance, has a very nice “swing” to it – as did Variation 24. Variation 13 was played with absolute grace and beautiful shaping of the long phrases. I liked the sense of motion he imparted on Variation 15, a good reminder that Andante is really only a walking tempo. Likewise, in the French Overture of Variation 16, he played the music with a palpable sense of forward motion, as well as an appropriate lightness. In Variation 25 (adagio), the emotional centerpiece of the entire work, he did not “milk” the tragedy of the music, but kept the pace of the movement of the music. In the B section of the variation, he truly highlighted the absolute “weirdness” of the melodic contour, giving the music a sense of utter bleakness and desolation. In Variation 29, from mm. 10 – 14, and again in mm. 27 to 30, he created a kind of “clattering” sound that one usually finds in the harpsichord, a most intriguing sound effect on the Steinway. The Quodlibet(Variation 30) was played with high good humour, Schiff himself obviously relishing every moment of it, a very appropriate interlude before the return of the Aria


When Schiff reached the return of the Aria, I truly felt that he had taken us on an incredible sonic, musical, emotional and spiritual journey, and that there was a sense of returning home, of resolution, or of a closing benediction.


How fortunate it is for Vancouver audience to have experienced this otherworldly musical experience. As Schiff said at the beginning, we do have Leila Getz to thank for bringing a young Andras Schiff to our city some forty years ago. I feel truly thankful to have been a part of this shared musical communion.