Monday, May 6, 2013

Symphonic Masterpieces

With the ready availability of music today, it is easy to forget what a joy and privilege it is to attend a live musical performance, with great musicians playing great music, when all the elements came together for an exhilarating and uplifting artistic experience.

It was indeed such an evening in Vancouver this past Saturday, with the return of conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama and pianist Ingrid Fliter, in a rich and varied programme of Berlioz’s Le corsaire overture, Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings, and Richard Strauss’ great tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.

Le corsaire was one of Berlioz’s many “concert overtures”, in reality a precursor to the tone poems that Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss were to compose later. Less popular than the composer’s Le carnival romain and Béatrice et Bénédict (this one a “real” overture to an opera), but no less brilliant, the work amply demonstrates Berlioz’s mastery as an orchestrator. Akiyama handled the tricky opening with great aplomb, from the rapid exchange between the very exposed runs in the strings and rhythmically intricate woodwind figures, to the beautiful slow middle section, and to the energetic finale. As if to welcome back this beloved former music director, the orchestra responded with a performance filled with nuance and musicality.

Of Felix Mendelssohn’s two piano concerti, the first one is probably the more extroverted one. Of the last generation of pianists, it was probably most famously and often played by Rudolf Serkin, although many of the current generation of pianists have taken its youthful exuberance to heart. Ingrid Fliter is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, having appeared many times as a recitalist and once before (I think) with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. In the outer movements, Ms. Fliter once again demonstrated her considerable ability at the keyboard, and played the solo part with all the brilliance and glitter, but also lightness, that it demands. She played the slow movement, the emotional core of the work, with a kind of hushed eloquence as well as an incredible musicality. Once again, I am reminded of why she remains, for me, one of the most interesting of the very crowded field of young artists playing today.

Without the efforts of conductor Paul Sacher, who originally commissioned Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings, the musical world would have been deprived of some of the greatest orchestral works written by 20th century composers. Unlike Bartok’s seminal work, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (also a Sacher commission), his Divertimento for Strings, which opens the second half of the concert, sounds almost light-hearted and uplifting. The strings of the Vancouver Symphony did themselves proud in this very difficult work, from the constantly shifting rhythms in the first and third movement, to the dark colours and restless mood of the middle movement. There was some wonderful solo playing by the section leaders of the string section.

When Akiyama was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel was a work that he conducted often. Like Berlioz, Strauss’ evocation of the misadventures and eventual demise of this legendary figure, really shows his understanding and mastery of the art of orchestration. Like a master storyteller, Akiyama expertly guided the orchestra through Strauss’ thematic transformation of both the introductory theme and Till’s leitmotif, represented by the French horn – the technical difficulty of this French horn motif reminds us that Strauss’s father was one of the premier orchestral horn players in Europe. Unlike some conductors, Akiyama does not “milk” the music for all its worth, exaggerating the wittiness or the elements of gemülichkeit in the score, but letting the music breathe and unfold naturally. The message obviously got through, since I could hear members of the audience chuckling at Till’s many antics during the performance. At the end of the performance, the smiles on the faces of the orchestral players almost matched the evident delight of the audience.

Among the many congratulatory telegrams and messages read at the end of Maestro Akiyama’s farewell concert as music director of the Vancouver Symphony, the one I remember was written by pianist Claudio Arrau, who called Akiyama “one of the elect”, no small compliment coming from an artist who had played with some of the great conductors of the 20th century.

Throughout the evening, I found myself being mesmerized by Mr. Akiyama’s expressive hands, with his every gesture guiding the musicians along, and shaping the musical phrases with great subtlety and souplesse. I imagine that no orchestral musician will have trouble understanding the intention and message of his baton.

I agree with Nietzsche’s dictum that “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Indeed, we must always be reminded that great music is a privilege, especially in our age when music can be had with the push of a button. I am grateful that Mr. Akiyama has maintained his association with Vancouver, and I hope that both he and Ms. Fliter will continue to grace our stages with their presence and talents. With musicians like them, we can be sure that the art of music will always be in good hands.

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