Thursday, May 12, 2011

Evening at Symphony

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.

Young Artist with a Voice

It is sometimes wonderful to attend a musical event with no knowledge or expectation of the artist performing. Such was the case for me on Thursday, April 28th, 2011, when pianist Yevgeny Sudbin played a solo recital in Vancouver. One can then respond to the music making without any prior exposure to, or bias towards, the artist.

Mr. Sudbin opened his recital with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Hob XVI: 32. His playing of the opening movement, as well as the subsequent Menuet, is beautiful and spacious, with impeccable timing of Haydn’s many pregnant pauses. The final presto movement was obsessive and relentless, with just the right degree of pathos. The young pianist drew a gorgeous tone from the instrument, which blended in perfectly with the beautiful acoustics of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

The recital continued with four of Dimitri Shostakovich’s from the composer’s Op. 34 Preludes. In composing this set of preludes, Shostakovich followed the same key sequence as Chopin in his Op. 28 Preludes. Sudbin realized these four miniature masterpieces to perfection, highlighting for us the beauty, the black humour as well as the irony in this music.

Mr. Sudbin’s playing of Chopin’s Ballades Nos. 3 and 4 reminded me that even among some of the greatest pianists of any time, there are only a handful who can really play Chopin convincingly. To be sure, the young artist’s playing was extremely polished and musical, but he seemed to me to be wandering from one very beautiful episode to another very beautiful episode. Chopin, especially in the larger scale works, requires an artist who could give the music a structural integrity, where one musical idea serves as the seed for the next.

After the intermission, the pianist continued with Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 11 in D-flat Major, the “Harmonies du Soir”, followed without interruption by Maurice Ravel’s equally transcendental Gaspard de la nuit. Perhaps Mr. Sudbin wanted to show the evolution, or relationship, of the harmonic language from Liszt to Ravel. The pianist’s incredibly beautiful tone certainly served him well in the Harmonies du Soir.

Sudbin gave a simply ravishing account of Ondine, the first movement of Gaspard de la nuit. He played Ondine with a very French sound, with the largest imaginable palette of sound colour. The second movement, Le gibet, is probably the trickiest movement to interpret. I believe that this movement should be played with an absolutely strict tempo, and I felt that Mr. Sudbin perhaps tried to make the music move along just a touch too much. The pianist has an incredible facility, and this is apparent in Scarbo, the final movement. But this incredible facility at the instrument seemed to have taken something away from the frightening, hallucinatory aspects of this music. To my ears, his playing of Scarbo sounded too much like his playing in Ondine. I believe that his quest for a beautiful sound took something away from the edge, the frightening intensity that this music calls for.

After an enthusiastic ovation from the capacity audience, Mr. Sudbin gave us two encores, an ardent reading of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Major, and a stormy, exciting account of the same composer’s G Minor Prelude.

This is obviously a very talented young pianist, an artist who has something to say. Mr. Sudbin is booked to play with the Vancouver Symphony next season, in Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto. If this performance is any indication of what this young man has to offer, Vancouver audience should have a treat in store for them next year.