Monday, May 28, 2012

Anniversary Celebrations

Last Saturday

I had the privilege to attend the concert marking the 40th anniversary of Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama’s association with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I was very happy that the orchestra decided to mark the occasion with a presentation to the maestro, because Akiyama’s twelve year tenure with the orchestra was instrumental (no pun intended) in making the orchestra what it is today. Anniversaries are important, only in that they remind us of occasions and people that are precious to us.

Pianist Claudio Arrau, who had played with some of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, once called Mr. Akiyama “one of the elect.” I was reminded of this statement again when this wonderful conductor gave the downbeat to Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute. He drew a beautiful string tone in the slow introduction to the overture, and the ensemble as well as the pacing of the body of the overture was as impeccable as it could be. Mr. Akiyama chose to use a fairly large orchestra for the overture, but the result was as light and buoyant as can be.

The soloist of the evening, pianist Yevgeny Subdin, was lucky to have had Maestro Akiyama as a collaborator in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491. When I attended Mr. Sudbin’s solo recital in Vancouver last year, I had found much to admire in his playing and musicianship. The young pianist did not disappoint in Mozart, his passagework in the concerto was beautifully executed, reminding us of Mozart’s dictum that playing the piano should be “like oil.” His Mozart playing is big, bold, and dramatic, and he brought out all the dark colours this particular concerto calls for. I would have personally preferred a more (for lack of a better word) “classical” approach to the piece, but Mr. Sudbin’s interpretation is an entirely valid and deeply satisfying one.

I was surprised to see on the second half of the programme Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse as well as La Mer. La Mer is of course one of the touchstones of the orchestral repertoire, but I was ignorant of an orchestral version of L’isle joyeuse, one of the composer’s major (and perhaps most difficult) piano works. In both works, Maestro Akiyama drew ravishing playing from all the entire orchestra. From the rapturous joy of L’isle joyeuse to the dark and brooding opening to La Mer, the orchestra was in top form.

Mr. Akiyama’s left hand is a thing to behold. There are conductors who beat time with both hands, but Mr. Akiyama uses his left hand to subtly cue the various instrumentalists, but also to shape, sculpt, and colour the music like a master painter. Debussy’s masterful evocation of the sea was never more powerful and beautiful as it was on Saturday evening.

Dimitri Shostakovich used to say that in music, there are no generals, because we are all soldiers of music. Maestro Akiyama has been a perfect soldier of music, one who uses his talents in service to music and to the composer. I am grateful to his four decades in Vancouver, and I very much look forward to the next forty years.

Maestro Akiyama, I hope that Vancouver will always have a place in your heart, and in your musical life.

Sunday Afternoon

What a wonderful way to spend Sunday afternoon, listening to violin sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. Violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov performed the complete sonatas for piano and violin of Beethoven over the course of a weekend, and I was fortunate to have caught the last concert of the cycle. Three sonatas were featured in this concert – the Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23, the ever-popular Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 (“Spring”), and the masterful Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96. The collaboration between Faust and Melnikov, solo players as well as chamber musicians, was flawless. The two young artists, equal in technique and musicality, listened and responded wonderfully to each other, and the result was some felicitous music-making.

I was especially taken with how the two players essayed the A Minor Sonata, realizing to perfection the Haydnesque pathos that is so characteristic of early Beethoven. Although only one opus number apart, the Spring sonata brings out the more congenial side of the composer. From the gentle beauty of the opening movement to the joyous finale, Faust and Melnikov gave us a very satisfying realization of this early Beethoven masterpiece.

My personal favourite of all the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas is the last one, the Op. 96 sonata. The reason this work belongs in the top of my personal hit parade is the incredible, other-worldly beauty of the Adagio espressivo movement. The opening bars of the movement represent, for me, the most heavenly music the composer had written. Mr. Melnikov played these opening measures beautifully indeed, and Ms. Faust responded in kind. I did feel that the tempo of the final movement was just a shade careful, thus slightly robbing the music of a kind of spontaneous joy the music calls for. It was, on the whole, a very wonderful realization of this last sonata of Beethoven.

Listening to young artists like Mr. Sudbin, Ms. Faust and Mr. Melnikov, I was reminded again that in our very materialistic world, there are still young people who would respond to this very rewarding, but very difficult calling of becoming musicians. Their talent and their dedication to their art helps us, even if for a short while, forget about the cruelties and iniquities of the “real world” and, in the words of Schober in Schuber’s An die Musik, “Carried me away into a better world.”

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