The first time I heard the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, they played Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with Claudio Arrau, as well as the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. The conductor that evening was Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama, then Music Director of the orchestra. The music, as well as the conducting that evening, made an indelible impression on me. Since then, the orchestra has been conducted by several different Music Directors, but I always recall the dozen or so years with Mr. Akiyama with particular fondness.
So it was with eager anticipation that I attended the Saturday May 2nd concert of the orchestra, when Mr. Akiyama returned to conduct Brahms’ First Symphony once more. During his tenure as Music Director in this city, the conductor has repeatedly shown his affinity for the central European symphonic repertoire, the “bread and butter” repertoire for any orchestra, in particular, the works of Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak, Strauss, Mahler and Wagner. This concert was yet another reminder of what a great (and somewhat underappreciated) conductor and musician we had in our midst all those years ago.
The other two pieces the orchestra played in that wonderful concert were Alexina Louie’s The Eternal Earth, a colourful three-movement that fully exploited the resources of a very large orchestra, and Jean Sibelius’ dark and brooding Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47, with the young violinist Augustin Hadelich.
Originally written for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, The Eternal Earth is, in spite of its relative brevity, a rich, large-scale work, with two brilliant outer movements, and a more lyrical central movement that serves as the emotional core of the music. Mr. Akiyama brought out the brilliance of the orchestration, and tied the three movements into one organic, cohesive whole.
Mr. Hadelich appeared to be a gentle and unassuming young man, in possession of an awesome violin technique, with musicality to match. Conductor and soloist were of one mind in exploiting the dark, swirling colours of Sibelius’ only major work for the instrument, and the solo violin blended into the rich orchestral fabric perfectly. Like many of the great 19th century instrumental concerti, the Sibelius is as much a symphonic work as it is a solo concerto. Mr. Akiyama is an ideal collaborator for any soloist, and the result was a deeply satisfying and moving account of this popular late romantic masterpiece.
For me, the highlight of the concert was Akiyama and the orchestra’s account of Brahms’ First Symphony, Op. 68. This particular symphony figures prominently in Mr. Akiyama’s repertoire, and as I sat and listened to it again that night, it seems to me that his understanding of this music has deepened over the years. This was muscular Brahms, but without sacrificing the many lyrical moments throughout the piece.
There are two kinds of conductors in the world, ones who conduct the beat and others who conduct the phrase. Mr. Akiyama belongs solidly to the latter camp. Throughout the performance, he was not so much conducting the musicians, but prompting and guiding the musicians through the incredible four-movement journey of the symphony. I felt, from the ponderous opening of the first movement to the last triumphal notes of the finale, that Mr. Akiyama has taken the music through one single, long musical line. Perhaps because of his inspired direction, the musicians played with openness in sound, and with a fervour that we do not always find with other conductors.
How fortunate we are to have Mr. Akiyama as Conductor Laureate with our orchestra. I only hope for many more years of his continued presence in our musical scene.