Monday, November 5, 2012

New and Old Friends

It’s always exciting to witness the debut of a young conductor. This past Saturday, conductor Alondra de la Parra, who is making quite a name these last couple of years, made her debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

On top of the familiar repertoire that made up the bulk of her programme, she was given the task of the Canadian premiere of composer Edward Top’s Symphony Golden Dragon. It is difficult to judge a work based on a single hearing, but Saturday’s performance of the work reinforced for me the question of the role of the composer in today’s society. Mr. Top’s work seems to be made up of a series of climaxes, where the composer, in his own words, “pulled out all the stops”, and challenged the skills of especially the percussion section of the orchestra. I could not help but wonder whether a piece like this would be played after the premiere, or would it be filed along with many pieces like it in the shelves of the Canadian Music Centre. That said, I can say that Ms. De la Parra did her best to bring out the strengths of the rather colourful, if soulless music.

It is always a treat to hear pianist Angela Cheng perform. For me, there is a refreshing lack of ego in her playing. For this visit, she essayed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466. Ms. Cheng has always been a wonderful Mozart player, and her performance on Saturday was no exception. She brought out the dark undercurrents of the music to perfection, but contrasted them with the sunnier aspects of the music. She was not afraid of injecting boldness and colours to the music, while balancing it within the realm of classical constraint.

The Romanze, with a stormy middle section bookended by a simple but sublimely beautiful opening and closing, was magnificently realized. In the third movement, there seemed to have been a bit of tempo discrepancy between soloist and conductor. Ms. Cheng set quite a lively tempo in her opening, but Ms. de la Parra clearly conducted the orchestral response more slowly. Soloist and orchestra eventually came to some agreement in terms of tempo, but I could not help but sense a slight stylistic tug-of-war between conductor and soloist. Sometimes this kind of tension makes for an exciting performance, as was the case on Saturday.

There was much to admire in the conductor’s reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98. I especially enjoyed the passion that she brought to the third and fourth movements of the work. In measure 88 of the second movement, there was a palpable warmth and beautiful glow in the strings that one does not always hear from this orchestra except under the best guest conductors.

I must confess a disagreement with the conductor’s choice of tempi for the first two movements, which she took rather slowly. It was not the slowness of the tempi that I quibble, but the fact that her choice of tempi for the first two movements disturbs, or disrupts, the tempo relationship with the final two movements of the symphony. She conducted the symphony beautifully, even brilliantly, but I feel that when viewed as a whole, there was a feeling of lopsidedness to the structure of the symphony in her reading.

Ms. de la Parra is clearly a musician with a voice, and a conductor with strong convictions. She is, I feel, a young artist who is still finding her way, but better this than taking the easy way out. It would be very interesting to witness her development in the next decade. I very much look forward to future visits by these two outstanding artists.

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