Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Yefim Bronfman Returns to Vancouver

There is a well-known YouTube video of a very young Yefim Bronfman playing in a masterclass for pianist Gina Bachauer. At the end of Bronfman’s performance, Bachauer was ask what she wanted to say to the young performer, upon which she replied, “I have nothing to say. God Bless you.” This brief video probably shows both what kind of a person Bachauer was, as well as the enormity of Bronfman’s talents. 


I first heard Bronfman many years ago when he substituted for an indisposed Gary Graffman. Bronfman came on stage and simply stunned the audience with his performance of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. I immediately bought a ticket for the subsequent performance, and I have never yet missed any performance every time Bronfman visits Vancouver.


It has been many years since Bronfman had given a solo recital in Vancouver, and last night, he once again reminds us why he is one of today’s most outstanding musicians and artists. Bronfman has an absolute command of every facet of playing the piano, and there is nothing technically that is beyond him. At the same time, even in the relatively large space of Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre, he was able to draw the audience in with the intimacy of his playing. Hearing him last night, I was reminded of Arthur Rubinstein, in the absolutely natural way he presents the music, without histrionics, and with simplicity and sincerity.


The opening work, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 784, was a case in point. Bronfman presented the beauty and emotional core of the work, simply and without affectation but with great beauty and depth of feeling. The Andante sang out in the most songful manner, and the Allegro vivace suitably ferocious. 


In Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26, Bronfman brought out the absolute exuberance of the music, as well as its kaleidoscopic gamut of emotions, and carried us along in his very personal journey through the five movements of the work. 


Conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote Sisar for Mr. Bronfman, and the pianist gave a performance of absolute conviction, from the capricious, dream-like opening to the more energetic and playful later sections. 


Bronfman’s performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, again reminded me of Mr. Rubinstein, playing of great beauty, with sentiment and yet not sentimental, and projecting the bel canto melody right to the last row of the auditorium.


I had heard Bronfman perform Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, years ago in one of his previous visits to Vancouver, and I knew we would be in for a treat. It was much more than Bronfman’s absolute command and technical control of this complex, transcendentally-difficult  score, but it is the way he drew this infinite variety of sound colours from the beautiful Steinway piano. In the second movement, Bronfman’s playing seemed to exude a kind of hypnotic effect with the music. And he really threw caution to the wind with the frenzy of the 3rd movement, thrilling us with his truly stunning playing of the toccata-like movement. The sound, or rather the pulse of this music, lingered in my mind long after the evening was over.


After such a performance, of course there were cheers and bravos from the audience, who were impressively attentive during the course of the evening. Bronfman graciously granted two encores – a rippling and songful performance of Schumann’s deceptively simple Arabeske, Op. 18, and a rip-roaring romp through Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, bringing out the power and sweep of the opening and closing sections, without taking away the melancholy of the middle section. I was completely swept away by the tremendous power and energy he put into and drew from the music.


Bronfman’s last appearance in Vancouver was with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in a towering performance of Brahms’ towering Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major. It was a privilege to have heard this towering artist again, and I, for one, am already looking forward to his next visit. 

A Stirring Mahler 3rd in Seattle

It has indeed been a treat this season, to be able to hear performances of not one but two Mahler symphonies – the 5thearlier this season, and now the monumental 3rd. No stranger to Seattle audiences, conductor Kahchun Wong came with an impressive list of accomplishments, and indeed proved to be an extremely talented young conductor. And joining the Seattle orchestra in this memorable performance were mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale, and the Northwest Boychoir. 


Right from the outset, Wong brought out truly outstanding playing from every section of the orchestra, with the horn solo at the outset establishing the mood of grandeur and a real sense of urgency. Wong maintained the forward impetus throughout the gigantic first movement, with the oft-recurring trumpet calls with its almost primeval sound. There was also a palpable sense of weight in the string playing, especially in the prominent bass parts. 


Wong shaped the opening Tempo de Menuetto movement with the requisite Viennese lilt, preparing the listener for that beautiful chord played by the violins and harps at measure 28. The L’istesso tempo section was played with that typically Mahlerian combination of humour and pathos. This tone of irony continued on in the third movement, with outstanding playing especially by the wind section. 


Julie Boulianne has a beautifully dark quality in her voice so appropriate for the fourth movement. I did, however, feel that there was an emotional detachment and a want of depth of feeling in her singing that evening. I could not help but miss the emotional depth with which Maureen Forrester sang this movement. Wong and the orchestra supported Boulianne’s vocal lines with great sensitivity, and again, I loved the weight and tone, the sense of “substance” in the string playing. 


The fifth movement was just wonderfully done all around, with members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Northwest Boychoir aptly capturing Mahler child-like vision of heavenly bliss, a theme he explores to even greater effect in the Fourth Symphony. For me, Boulianne’s singing captured the mood of this movement to much greater effect than she did in the fourth movement. 


The crowning glory of the entire symphony, indeed, one of the greatest symphonic endings in Mahler (except for the final movement of the Ninth Symphony), has to be the Langsam movement. I have to again comment on the beautiful string tone of the orchestra as well as Wong’s incredible sense of timing and pacing – what a great feat for such a young conductor. There was a feeling of organic unity in the music, and not merely a series of beautiful episodes. At the end of the performance, there was an almost audible sigh from the entire audience, almost as if all of us were holding our breath throughout the past half hour. 


This performance is an amazing accomplishment for such a young conductor, not just in terms of holding the orchestra together, but in having an organic view of the entire work, from beginning to end, and of pacing the performance the way he did. I believe, with a piece like Mahler’s 3rd, a conductor must be able to see the way clearly before him, but at the same time lose himself within the music, to lose and find himself at the same time. With time, as he is able to lose himself more into, and surrender himself more to the emotional core of the music, I believe the results might just be transcendental. 



Monday, April 8, 2024

A Wonderful Afternoon of Opus One's

There has been a great deal of press covering Yuchan Lim, gold medalist of the 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and Mr. Lim had done so much performing since his win that he recently suffered a hand injury and was forced to cancel some performances. Such is the price to pay for today’s successful musicians, when air travel allows one to be in three or four different cities within the same week. The silver medalist of that same competition, Anna Geniushene has, perhaps as a result of the reality of the proliferation of piano competitions today, received far less notice in the music world. And so, it was a less-than-capacity audience that greeted Ms. Geniushene as she walked onto the stage of the Vancouver Playhouse for her debut in the city, which did not stop her for giving a scintillating performance of a generous and varied programme.


The young pianist began her recital with Muzio Clementi’s two-movement Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 1. Ever since Horowitz brought the world’s attention to Clementi, this composer, normally known to piano students as the creator of some charming sonatinas, can now occasionally be heard in piano recitals. Geniushene gave a spacious and rhythmically flexible reading of the first movement, giving much room for the music to breathe, and highlighting the humour within the music. She played the charming second movement with disarming simplicity, giving the feeling of a child romping through a field.


Geniushene gave Chopin’s Rondo, Op. 1 all the charm and vitality the music calls for, bringing alive the dance rhythm in the score, and highlighting the gamut of emotions contained in this short work. Her fantastic pianistic abilities seemingly allowed her to take no heed to the work’s incredible technical demands.


In Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Wiegenlied, Op. 1, Geniushene gave the work an incredible delicacy called for in the music, giving us an infinite palette of colours even within a relatively narrow dynamic range. She also brought out the fantasy-like character found in much of the music, and used her magical pedalling to create a mixture of colours. 


This element of fantasy carried over to her passionate performance of Schumann’s “Abegg” Variations, Op. 1, from the ardour she brought to the opening notes, to the brilliance and panache she played in some of the variations, she successfully wove together the disparate variations to create a beautiful whole. 


The first half of the recital ended with a real rarity, Tchaikovsky’s Two Pieces, Op. 1. From the tumultuous beginning of the first piece, with a lyrical middle section, to the boisterous scherzando-like second piece, she identified completely with this music, giving it a committed and utterly convincing performance.


The recital’s second half began with Alban Berg’s lyrical masterpiece, his Sonata, Op. 1. Again, Geniushene believed in the greatness of this work, giving it an idiomatic and impassioned reading, but without sacrificing the clarity in voice leading within the densely woven texture of the work, and infusing the music with the twilight-tinged colours inherent in the score.


She ended her concert with a truly magisterial performance of Brahms’ youthful Sonata in C Major, Op. 1. In her brief introduction before her performance, Geniushene spoke about how Brahms was very much thinking about Beethoven gigantic Hammerklavier (Op. 106) sonata. And indeed, the opening chords of the 1st movement do remind one of the opening of Beethoven’s magnum opus for the piano. Geniushene has a thorough grasp of the Brahmsian idiom, capturing the composer’s youthful ardour, as well as the depth and “bigness” of the sound called for by the music. Her performance of this work reminds me of Robert Schumann’s description of Brahms as a “young eagle”. In the sonata’s second movement, she played the opening with depth of feeling, beautiful voicing of the chords, as well as a real sense of sombreness and solemnity that almost foreshadow the composer’s late piano pieces. The young artist played the 3rd and 4th movements with great ardour, a huge range of emotions and colours, and a technical command and assurance on the level of a Michelangelo. In the 3rd movement, she really brought out the symphonic scope of the music, so akin to the gigantic orchestral scherzi in his symphonies. There was never a sagging in the music tension, and there was an incredible sense of forward motion, all the way to a triumphal ending that left the Steinway limp and the audience exhilarated. 


After a justly deserved ovation, Geniushene played Beethoven’s Bagatelle in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 1, giving the music all the charm and humour it calls for. 


In a recent conversation with a musician friend who enjoys an active concert career, he commented on how differently careers often turn out between the gold medalist of a major competition and the runner up’s. In today’s competitive music world, with competition winners emerging year after year, the lustre of winning even a major prize no longer has the same impact as it once did. It is too soon to tell if Mrs. Geniushene will enjoy a major career - she certainly has the requisite talent and pianism that a career demands. But in today’s highly commercialized music “business” (oh, what a terrible word to be associated with music!), talent rarely equates success. I do wish Mrs. Geniushene well in her musical journey, and hope that she would be appreciated by many in the music world, an appreciation that, judging from yesterday’s performance, she more than deserves. 


Saturday, March 23, 2024

Postcards from New York - The Metropolitan Opera

Is there a more difficult job than running a major opera house? Minutes before the curtain was supposed to rise for the Metropolitan Operas production of Turandot, General Director Peter Gelb walked on stage and informed the audience that the stage machinery for the operas complex set had jammed, and that the performance would be semi-staged, which meant only a single set would be used throughout the evening. Refunds would be offered to anyone who wanted it. Quite a few in the audience did rise and walked out. My wife and I decided to stay, and were treated to a truly great performance of Puccinis final masterpiece, musically as well as dramatically.


Turandot is an opera of extremes  from music of the utmost brutality that foreshadows Bartok and Stravinsky, to arias and ensembles so beautiful that makes our goosebumps stand erect. It does take an exceptional conductor to hold together all these elements and make the performance convincing. Conductor Oksana Lyniv conducted a fluid performance of the opera, holding together all the disparate elements in the score. I did find that she was more convincing in the more lyrical parts of the score, with the more dramatic, even brutal, elements of the music somewhat underplayed. Nevertheless, the final result was a performance that moved, even without Franco Zeffirellis famously over-the-top sets. The great MET orchestra was in fine shape indeed, with great playing in every department of the composers complex score, and the chorus was truly a glory of this great house.


I am happy to report that great singing is alive and well at the MET. SeoJong Backs Calaf was dramatically convincing as well as musically vibrant. Amazing, Mr. Back began his musical journey as a baritone and becamea tenor only later on! He has an ease in tone production that was beautiful as well as unforced  and the famous Nessun Dorma was indeed convincingly delivered, well-paced and with an effortless high B. After the well-deserved bravos, the conductor called for the aria to be encored. I did find his second delivery a little less convincing, because I had the feeling that he was trying a little too hard to top that first performance. Encores in opera, in spite of its long tradition, is something I never understood - one would never imagine, or expect, a repeat of the To be or not to be soliloquy in Hamlet.


Elena Pankratovas Turandot was equally impressive, and she indeed rose to Puccinis incredible vocal demands and sailed above the orchestral textures. Dramatically, she was convincing in her transformation toward the end of the drama. Aleksandra Kurzak nearly stole the show in her portrayal of Liu, with this characters palpable sense of innocence and vulnerability. The trio of Ping, Pong, Pang  Joo Won Kang, Tony Stevenson and Andrew Stenson was well-matched as well as well-blended as an ensemble. What was incredible  and I suppose one only hears this in major opera houses  was that the minor roles were equally well sung, including a musically and dramatically commanding performance as Timur by Vitalij Kowaljow, as well as Carlo Bosi as a convincing Emperor Altoum. 


In the end, this semi-staged presentation of Turandot indeed overcame the limitations of the lack of lavish sets, turning out to be a moving musical as well as theatrical experience. 


The next evening, we returned for the houses new production of VerdiLa Forza del Destino, an opera that is always difficult to stage because of the many and improbabilities and coincidences in the story. I was greatly anticipating the performance, as it was conducted by music director and star conductor, Canadas own Yannick Nezet-Seguin.


Musically, the performance was of an impressively high level  the orchestra rose to Verdis demands under Nezet-Seguin, and the singers all delivered unimpeachable performances. 


Brian Jagde was vocally spectacular as Don Alvaro, with a beautiful, emotive voice as clear as a clarion call. He was well-matched, vocally and dramatically, by Igor Golovatenkos Don Carlo di Vargas, both individually as well as in their many ensemble moments. 


I always find it incredible that as an agnostic, Verdi was able to write the most beautiful and reverential religious music, such as Donna Leonoras prayer for guidance in Act One, her plea to enter religious life and the subsequent apparition of the Virgin Mary in Act Two, the music of the pilgrims in the same act, as well as her forgiveness in Act Four. I was convinced and greatly moved by Elena Stikhinas performance and reverence with which she delivered these crucial moments in the drama. As in Turandot, the smaller roles were vocally and dramatically equally magnificent. The fortune teller Preziosilla was one of the evenings highlights, wonderfully acted and sung by Maria Barakova that was truly show-stopping. 


Director Mariusz Trelinski updated the opera to a contemporary setting, with the story being set in an unnamed city and country. After the accidental death of the general, we were told, the country was plunged into a devastating war. Here is where the set was transformed into a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape.


I think in updating any opera, one has to ask the question of whether such a change would serve the score, enhance the drama, or make it more logical. In this case, I would say that it does not. Although the emotions on display are indeed universal  love, hate, jealousy, etcetera  the code of behaviour is very much of an earlier time. To have the drama set in a modern setting would make this code of behaviour illogical. 


I am quite aware that we live in a post-Christian, or even anti-Christian age, but whatever the personal belief of the director, art should not be used to reflect his or her personal bias for or against anything. In Act II, when Leonora was imploring the Father Superior to allow her to enter religious life, the two characters displayed a physical closeness that is out of order and illogical between penitent and religious. Later on, before Guardiano allowed her to remain in the monasterys hermitage, Guardiano inexplicably slapped her in the face. During Leonoras initiation rite, when she was passing among the friars to the hermitage, she was surrounded by this group of friars, and the friars were flogging her using some form of a whip. The entire image, the message, of this image, suggests something abnormal, even sinister. No Catholic religious order ever had such an initiation rite.


The production made very effective use of both foreground and back projections, and the apparition of the Virgin Mary could have been done very effectively. However, the image of the Virgin Mary projected looks more like some sort of new age deity  with red lipsticks  nothing like any image of the Virgin Mary I had ever seen. Were these the directors deliberate efforts to disparage the Church? Whatever his motives were, it was downright inappropriate, if not deliberately insulting to the Catholic Church. If Verdi, as an agnostic, could write convincing, even reverential, religious music, could the director not at least show respect to the creator of the work? More importantly, such personal interpretation of the drama does nothing to highlight the genius of the opera, but rather took away the even greater power it could have conveyed. In the case of this production, I think the directors concept took away the central message of the drama, which in Verdis final concept of the opera, is not even how ones life is bound by the forces of destiny, but the power of forgiveness and redemption, even in the midst of great tragedy. One could argue for a certain concept in the name of artistic licence, but no degree of artistic licence should distort the original intent of the creator.


Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted with great passion, commitment to the score, and a total identification to the Verdis idiom. The famous overture was performed with great drama and passion, with great attention to the layering of the instruments, always beautiful brass playing, and gorgeous woodwind playing in the Andantino section, and especially felicitous playing of the clarinet solo in the Allegro brillante section. He is indeed a worthy successor to James Levine, who had done so much to elevate the level of the music-making at the MET. 


In spite of my reservation about the staging of the opera, the performance remained one that was impregnable. It was indeed a treat to have the privilege to hear such great singing and playing, including again the great MET chorus, all under the direction of one of todays major conductors.


I am already starting to save for our next outing to the Big Apple.




Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Postcards from New York - New York Philharmonic

 What a joy it is to hear the New York Philharmonic in the new Wu Tsai Theatre in the David Geffen Hall! I remember hearing the orchestra in the 1980’s, and how dead the acoustics used to be. Now the sound is so much warmer, allowing one to hear the details in the orchestral colours. I am happy that the latest renovations of this problematic hall finally yielded good results.


Last night, music director Jaap van Zweden conducted a performance of extremely well-known works, which posed for both conductor and musicians the challenge of bringing new ideas and excitement to these very familiar pieces of music.


The concert began with a splendid reading of Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26. This poetic tone painting received an evocative, colourful performance, with truly outstanding playing from all the players of the Philharmonic. The many subtle shifts in colours and harmonies were beautifully handled by van Zweden and the orchestra. 


Conrad Tao joined the musicians of the orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453. Tao, a much extroverted player, gave us big-boned Mozart, drawing a bright, brilliant sound from the piano. Tao may be pianistically impeccable, but he was a little too aggressive in how he approached the concerto. Perhaps this is his 21st century view of Mozart, but I must admit that while I can appreciate his pianism, his playing more egoistic. I also listened in vain for a more spiritual dimension in his music-making.


Conductor and orchestra were sympathetic partners for Tao. The conductor served as a more classical foil to the soloist’s more aggressive interpretation of the concerto. Van Zweden blended the wind colours of the opening of the second movement truly beautifully, and the orchestra played the jaunty third movement with lovely attention to details, especially in phrasing. I was more impressed with Tao in his playing of his first encore, the pianist’s own transcription of Art Tatum’s “take” on Over the Rainbow. This performance showcased the young artist’s considerable pianistic chops. His playing of The Fairy Garden from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, his second encore, was very well played indeed, although I did find pianist Charles Richard Hamelin more idiomatic in his interpretation of the same work in a recital he gave in Vancouver. Again, I found Tao’s playing of the Ravel much too aggressive for the delicate colours of this work. 


Is there any piece of music that is part of our collective consciousness than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67? Its all-too-familiar opening motif has been heard in anything from commercial jingles to cell phone ringtones. That said, when the work is performed with commitment by a great orchestra, the power and startling originality of the work can still come through, as they did last evening. 


Jaap van Zweden led the orchestra in a reading of the Beethoven that was taut, forward-moving, and architecturally tight. It was such a pleasure to hear the weight and the full tone of the string sounds. I appreciated van Zweden tempo choices for each movement - with emphasis on the con brio of the 1stmovement, and the con moto of the second – as well as the very logical tempo relationship between movements. In the second movement, the conductor paid great attention to details of the phrasing, especially in the phrase ending of the main theme. The transition of the 3rd movement to the glorious C Major arrival of the 4thmovement was beautifully paced and tension-filled.


Yes, Beethoven’s 5th symphony can still “work” when it is a truly a great and committed performance. When one thinks that there is always someone in the audience who might be hearing the performance for the first time, we must appreciate the dedication and commitment of the musicians of the New York Philharmonic for making this iconic piece of music come alive once again. 


Last evening’s concert marked the beginning of a series of concerts in the next few months that would conclude van Zweden’s relatively brief tenure with the orchestra. Star conductor Gustavo Dudamel will then take over the music directorship of the orchestra, ending his association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So far, Dudamel seems to be able to do no wrong, at least in the eyes of the critics. I could not help but notice that Dudamel will be following the same path as former music director Zubin Mehta. Will the New York critics be just as cruel to Dudamel, as they certainly were to Mehta? I guess time will tell. For now, I would say that the orchestra has been in good hands under van Zweden, and the audience’s cheers and bravos were certainly a tribute to the memorable performance he and the orchestra gave yesterday.



Thursday, March 14, 2024

Artist at Work

What a joy it is to hear the piano being played so lovingly, and so achingly beautifully, as it was last evening with Rafal Blechacz, his fourth recital appearance in Vancouver under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society.


I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Blechacz on various occasions, and had always enjoyed his performances. This time, I was utterly and completely moved, indeed overwhelmed, by his artistry and musicality, as well as the palpable spirituality of his interpretations. 


The way he played the piano transcended the instrument, and what one hears are sounds of music, heavenly music.


With the first simple notes of the Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1, the audience was drawn into his very intimate and personal sound world. Indeed, throughout the evening, I felt that we were invited by the artistry to share in the communion of music-making, and that is a great gift indeed. Blechacz had an acute sense of balancing the horizontal and vertical aspects of the music; the music was never driven, but rather floated forward.


Chopin’s early Mazurkas, Op. 6, presents some daunting technical and musical challenges for any pianists; needless to say, Blechacz towered above any technical difficulties inherent in the score. In these works, Blechacz conveyed and celebrated the joy of the young composer, almost reveling in the fecundity of his creative genius. 


The first half of the recital ended with four large works. In the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, he so skillfully delineated the complex contrapuntal web so inherent in the composer’s late works, resulting in a truly masterful interpretation of this, arguably Chopin’s greatest work, a work that, because of its seemingly fragmentary nature, can sometimes come out sounding disjointed and meaningless. Not so with Blechacz’s performance, where every note, every chord, every inflection, every pregnant pause (and there were many of them), and every phrase were charged with emotion and meaning. More importantly, he conveyed, more than many pianists I have heard in a long time, the utter tragedy and heartbreak, combined with a feeling of a final defiance, of the drama unfolding.


He continued with a spirited but incredibly musical reading of the famous Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1, and a suitably dark and brooding performance of the lesser-known Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2. The first half ended with a performance of the Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, that made one wanted to shout, “Viva Poland!” That said, these performances of Chopin’s rousing polonaises were not merely exciting, but tremendously moving and hauntingly beautiful. 


The second half of the recital began with a performance of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque that made me think of the composer’s statement that he wished for a piano without hammers. Blechacz’s playing of these four pieces were simply magical. His timing in the Prelude gave it an almost improvisatory quality, and in the Menuet and Passepied, there was a quickness, delicacy and lightness that simply took my breath away. The justly famous Clair de Lune was played with infinite shades of pianissimos. Words cannot describe the truly mesmerizing beauty of the performance was.


In Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 331, Blechacz presented the work with highly expressive playing and, while always maintaining the structural integrity of the work, he was not afraid to take time with certain phrases, or inject slight pauses to emphasize a point. Perhaps some might find his interpretation too “romantic”, but I found it completely valid and convincing. It was also the most “bubbly”, and infectiously joyful, playing of the Rondo all Turca I have heard in a long time.


It is difficult to pinpoint the style of Karol Szymanowski’s music. While there is an indebtedness to Chopin, he has very much his own unique voice in his creations. Blachacz gave a truly splendid and totally committed reading of the composer’s Variations in B-flat minor, Op. 3, bringing out both the lyrical aspects of the composer’s writing, but also the late-romantic harmonic colours of the early 20th century. Blechacz highlighted the characteristic of each variation, but also managed to inject a real sense of cohesion and logic throughout the entire opus.


After a well-deserved ovation from the nearly sold-out house, Blechacz graciously granted two encores – Chopin’s pensive Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4, and his charming miniature masterpiece, the Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7, confirming my belief that while there are many great pianists today, there are really far fewer who can really capture the spirit of Chopin. Blechacz is of course one of today’s great pianists, but he is, without a doubt, a musician that gets into the heart and soul of the composer, and we were witnesses to a performance that was truly a testament to his commitment to conveying the absolutely unique genius of Chopin.


How privileged we were last evening, to be given a glimpse into the continuing artistic evolution of this most gifted young artist. I certainly look forward to his next visit to Vancouver, where he would no doubt move us once more with his musicality and unique insights into whatever he chooses to play.








Monday, February 26, 2024

Symphony at the Chan

Pianist Eric Lu made his concerto debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and conductor Earl Lee this past Saturday. Lu, a laureate of the 2015 International Chopin Competition (at age18) and gold medalist of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition (at age 20), had already made a highly successful recital debut in Vancouver under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society. So it was with eager anticipation that I attended the weekend’s concerto featuring Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. The venue was not the orchestra’s home in the Orpheum Theatre, but (thankfully) the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.


From the pensive opening chords of the 1st movement, and throughout the performance, I constantly thought how Lu’s playing harkens us back to pianists of the past – figures like Lipatti, Cortot, and Edwin Fischer – not that his playing resembles any of them stylistically, but in the individuality of his style and musicality of his playing as well as the sense that he was putting musical concerns far above the work’s formidable technical challenges. 


In the same aforementioned opening chords, he struck a perfect balance between the vertical and the horizontal, making each chord floats, but at the same time propelling the music forward. In the orchestral exposition, he managed to subsume the piano figuration within the orchestral texture. His tone was always beautiful, never forced, even in the more bravura passages. In the A-flat Major Andante espressivo section, when the piano plays with as well as “accompanies” the clarinet, Lu played this theme with melting tenderness that was palpably moving. In Schumann’s written-out cadenza, Lu played with a combination of musicality and bravura. 


The gracefully and intimately played Intermezzo served as the perfect bridge between the 1st and 3rd movements. In final movement, Lu really threw caution to the wind, and the result was a performance that was overwhelmingly joyful, even exultant. For such a young man to play with such depth of feeling as well as maturity that is far beyond his years, is truly a remarkable feat. 


Under Earl Lee, the orchestra sounded fabulous, with a warmth of sound that one does not always hear in the Orpheum. This is a notoriously difficult concerto to conduct, and the young conductor was at one with Lu from beginning to end.


After intermission, Earl Lee led the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the composer’s paean to the glories of nature. It was a performance that was impeccably paced and played, with a cohesiveness and a uniformity in structure rather than a series of charming episodes.


I appreciated how Lee brought out the colours of the woodwinds throughout the work, not only in the solos but within the orchestral texture, somewhat like a meticulously tinged watercolour. I thought that Julia Lockhart’s bassoon playing was especially outstanding on Saturday evening. In the second movement, Lee managed to maintain the flow (pun intended) of the Szene am Bach, without getting bogged down by every detail of the melody; the oft-repeated main theme was also given an infinite variety of colours, and a feeling of renewal every time it returns. 


Lee took the Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute at a perfectly energetic pace, and the liveliness of this country dance – with the horn player who kept coming in at the “wrong” place – was very much kept alive from start to finish. The transition from the third movement to the fourth and then the final movement was expertly handled indeed. 


In the Hirtengesang, there was a palpable sense of thanksgiving, of wonder, as well as a feeling of benediction. After the performance, Lee was all-too-ready to acknowledge the members of the orchestra for their outstanding contribution in the performance.


We have Earl Lee and Eric Lu to thank for this evening of beauty. 


Let’s hope these wonderful artists return to Vancouver soon and share their artistry with our audience.