Monday, March 17, 2014

An Afternoon with Yo-Yo Ma

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma reminds me of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Other than an absolute command of their respective instruments, both artists have such charisma that they only have to walk into a room before an audience would burst into exuberant cheers and applause. However, whereas Rubinstein walks into a stage with the demeanor of a benevolent king before his subject (this is NOT a criticism of Mr. Rubinstein), Ma is much more self-effacing, greeting and smiling at the audience as if he is running into them at the corner store. One never gets the sense that he takes for granted that a sell-out audience is waiting to hear him, The-Greatest-Cellist-In-The World, play the cello. The audience never feels the attitude that, “I’m Yo-Yo Ma, and you’re not.” I almost get the feeling that he is pleasantly surprised to see so many people turning out for his performance.

The distinguished cellist played a recital in Vancouver yesterday afternoon with English pianist Kathryn Stott, and the lovely sounds of the performance is still reverberating in my mind and ears a day later. Such is Ma’s popularity everywhere that stage seats had to be added to accommodate the capacity crowds.

Ma and Stott began their recital with Igor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, music adapted from the composer’s ballet Pulcinella. The word “charming” is not usually associated with the music of the Russian composer, but the Suite Italienne is extremely charming, full of beauty, wit, and exuberance. From the first notes, the rapport between the two artists was apparent, as well as the joy they convey in playing together. Mr. Ma’s cello sound continues to be a wonder to the ear. In the intimate ending of the third movement (“Air”), he drew such a sustained beauty in the sound that it almost seemed that his bow is ten-foot long. Throughout the afternoon, I felt that Ma and the cello ceased to be separate entities, that they had become one.

The programme continued with a set of three pieces by Brazilian and Argentinian composers – Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Alma Brasileira, Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, and Camargo Guarnieri’s Dansa Negra. For me, the highlight of the set was Piazzolla’s Oblivion, where Ma’s cello sound entered so softly, as if from nothing, by magic.

Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas, transcribed from a set of the composer’s popular vocal works. Once again, collaboration between cellist and pianist was flawless, with Stott being in every sense an equal to Ma’s artistry.

As with so many of his other works, Olivier Messiaen’s Louange à Éternité de Jésus, part of the composer’s wartime masterpiece - Quartet for the End of Time, reveals his deep Catholic faith. This (deliberately) static music truly gives the sense of time standing still, with repeated chords on the piano, and a powerful melody of great beauty and dignity played by the cello. The majestic phrases represent the eternity of Jesus as “The Word”. Ma and Stott gave a stunning, magisterial, mesmerizing reading of this work, and set a record for perhaps the longest silence afforded by the Vancouver audience before applause commenced.

The recital ended on a high note, with César Franck’s Sonata in A Major for violin and piano. Again, from the introspective opening movement to the stormy second movement, from the recitative-like third movement to the joyous canon in the fourth movement, Ma and Stott truly collaborated to give an unusually satisfying reading of this perennially popular work. Perhaps part of the success of the performance was that it was so much more than a cello recital with piano accompaniment, but a collaborative effort between two artists who obviously enjoy playing together and appreciating each other’s gifts. Two artists as equal partners working to bring the music alive. And did they ever bring the music alive yesterday afternoon!

Once again, we must thank Leila Getz and the Vancouver Recital Society for bringing artists such as Ma and Stott to Vancouver. I believe one of the reasons artists such as Murray Perahia, Yefim Bronfman, Andras Shiff, and Yo-Yo Ma keep returning to Vancouver is that they started performing on our stages before they became household names. It is thanks to the vision of Mrs. Getz that we now hear the same artists as audiences in New York and London. Let us hope that VRS will always be in a position to bring to our stages great artists of today as well as tomorrow.

The Substitute

In the musical world, there have been so many stories of artists gaining sudden fame when they step in to substitute for an ailing colleague. One thinks of the careers of Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Andre Watts, among others, who became instantly known when they step into the spotlight in the last minute. Such an event took place in Vancouver on Saturday night, when conductor Perry So substituted for the originally scheduled John Storgårds. This past weekend, our city could claim to have discovered a major conducting talent.

The programme for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra consisted of Dorothy Chang’s Strange Air, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, and Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor.

I do not know how much time Perry So had to learn Dorothy Chang’s score, one that is considerable in length as well as complexity. Suffice it to say that it was evident from the first note that he had assimilated the score, and was in full command of the orchestra.

Is there anything more difficult to conduct than Fryderyk Chopin’s two piano concerti? With a highly complex piano part, with runs and flourishes in the right hand, and considerable rubato by the soloist, a conductor must really listen in order to give a good performance of these works. Mr. So obviously listened well last night, and was in every sense an equal partner to Louis Lortie, the piano soloist. The orchestra, under So’s direction, gave a reading of great beauty and detail. Unlike some conductor, Mr. So obviously gives Chopin a lot of credit as an orchestrator, and brought out a lot of details often hidden in the score.

Louis Lortie is one of those musicians that, even if you disagree with everything he does, you’d have to acknowledge the fact that he is a major artist. Lortie rose far above Chopin’s technical and musical challenges and gave a magnificent performance of the score. I feel that he was trying to emphasize the heroic as well as the declamatory aspects of the first movement, but without sacrificing the poetry that is also called for. I was completely captivated by his playing of the Larghetto movement, which he played with a limpid and absolutely beautiful sound throughout. I had slight reservations about his interpretation of the third movement. I felt that his playing sounded quite heavy, and there were some harsh sound in the piano playing. I feel that the soloist missed the feel of a dance, and the Polish “feel” so inherent in this movement.

It was interesting that Lortie played on an Italian made piano that has been garnering a lot of attention around the musical world. I believe that the piano he played had, surprising, limited tonal range as well as a limited palette of sound colours. I think the soloist would have done much better had he chosen to play the Steinway, New York or Hamburg.

I have often felt that the music of Jean Sibelius, with its short, rugged, often heroic motifs, is also uniquely suited to our beautiful Canadian landscapes. Even in this first symphony, with its slight influence of Tchaikovsky, all the hallmarks of the composer’s later works are already there.

Perry So and the orchestra gave a stunning reading of this music, filled with gorgeous details in orchestral nuances, but at the same time with a clear sight of its goal. From the beautifully played clarinet solo that begins the work, to its intentionally, I’m sure, anti-climatic and enigmatic pizzicato ending, the musicians carried us through a magical ride through Sibelius’s incredible soundscape.

Mr. So, only 32 years old, has the ability, very rare among conductors, of inviting the musicians to participate in the process of music making, rather than imposing his will on them. His beat is quite interesting, for he does not merely subdivide his beat, but carries with it a lot of rhythmic nuances. Unlike some conductor who beats with both hands, Mr. So uses his left hand to cue, but also to convey a great deal of nuances about musical expressions.

At the end of the performance, during the well-deserved ovation, Mr. So, went around the orchestra directing the audience’s applause towards its various sections and soloists.

It was an auspicious debut by a hugely talented young conductor. The Vancouver Symphony is now searching for a new music director after Bramwell Tovey’s departure. They could do worse than to include Mr. So in their short list of candidates.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Great Romantics

In programming for orchestral concerts, there are composers whose works go especially well together. I feel that the combination of Mozart and Richard Strauss always has the making of a fine programme.

The young musicians of the University of British Columbia’s Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Girard played just such a programme last night, with Strauss’s youthful Don Juan, Op. 20 and Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K. 425, “Linz”, coupled with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, with faculty member David Gillham. The concert was given the title "The Great Romantics".

In August of 1887, young Richard Strauss visited his Uncle George Pschorr, where he met Pauline, the daughter of a certain General de Ahna. According to Norman del Mar in his biography of Strauss, the young composer was completely captivated by the young woman. The effect of this love affair, according to del Mar, “was electrifying, for he quickly translated the experience into musical terms, composing his first love music. “ And what beautiful love music he wrote in Don Juan!

Norman del Mar went on to comment that Strauss had chosen, “as a vehicle for the expression of his sexual desire,” the greatest lover and erotic subject of all time, the Don Juan legend. This music, for me, is as much a portrait of young Strauss as it is for the legendary lover – from the swagger of the opening theme, to the ardent, even erotic, love music, and to the grand and heroic theme for the horns, every measure of this music is a reflection of a young man in love for the first time.

For me, there is nothing more scary for violinists than the opening measures of Don Juan, with its upward sweeping theme. The violinists acquit themselves extremely well in this extremely exposed passage. The principal subject, itself a composite theme to be isolated and extensively developed throughout the work, presents the figure of Don Juan, with all his passionate glory and lust for life. I felt that perhaps the players leaned into the strings a little too much in this passage, and that they could have played this incredible theme with a little more lightness. The beautiful love music was played by the entire orchestra with great warmth and beauty, and the horn players of this young ensemble played the heroic theme with great confidence, even panache. In the great climax of the piece, I feel that the brasses could have been toned down a shade, so that the colours of the string writing could have been better heard. The musicians certainly responded to the youthful ardor of Strauss’s score, and gave a performance that excites as well as moves.

It is so wonderful and daring for Jonathan Girard to give his young players the opportunity to play a Mozart symphony. Again, the talented players of this orchestra rose to the challenge and played this, one of Mozart’s greatest symphonies, with the grandeur and majesty that the music calls for. Girard used a large body of strings for the performance, but kudos to the players for not falling into the trap of making the music ponderous, so easy to do with a “big band” performance of Mozart.

When listening to any performance of a performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, I always try to erase from my mind the sounds of past performances of this work and listen to it with open ears and mind. David Gillham certainly rose and surpassed the very considerable technical challenges laid down by the composer. For me, what was missing in last night’s performance was richness in the sound of the solo instrument, especially when the music was written in the lower register of the violin. I also miss a sense of daring that the music calls for. This is as much a piece for the conductor as it is for the violinist. Jonathan Girard was an impeccable accompanist. If he had “pushed” the soloist a little more, perhaps the performance would have really sizzled.

The orchestra played this piece extremely well, and Girard’s timing was perfect. I very much enjoyed how Jonathan Girard brought out the beauty of the colours of the writing for woodwinds in the Canzonetta movement.

So, bravo to the UBC Symphony Orchestra! And bravo to great music, and to youth. What a great gift and privilege it is for young musicians to play these great scores, and for us to be recipients of their love and effort.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Behzod Abduraimov

When pianist Behzod Abduraimov first appeared in Vancouver, he was apparently so well received by the audience that he was immediately re-engaged. And so Abduraimov, only 24 years old (and looked younger), appeared on the stage of Vancouver’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts yesterday afternoon.

Abduraimov opened his recital with Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 26. Well played as it was, I could not help wondering if this was a new work in the pianist’s repertoire. The sound was, from where I sat, unfocused, and there could have been a far greater range in dynamic as well as tonal palette. To my ears, it sounded like the young pianist is still in the process of assimilating the work – by assimilating I do not mean learning the notes, but really getting into the core of the musical and emotional essence of the work. Of course, with any great work of art, interpretation is always a work in progress. I would love to hear him play the same work again in a few years.

I enjoyed very much his playing of Chopin’s Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49. Abduraimov has a natural feeling for this music, and he beautifully conveyed the somber as well as the impetuous qualities in this great work. With Chopin’s large-scale works, there is always the danger of the music becoming an unrelated series of beautiful episodes. I therefore really appreciated the sense of unity, of an organic whole, that Abduraimov brought to the work.

The first half of the recital ended with a stunning performance of Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, as arranged by Liszt and Horowitz. According to David Dubal, author of Evenings With Horowitz, Mr. Horowitz never wrote down any of his arrangements and transcriptions, so Abduraimov must have learned the work by ear. As much as I never really enjoy such pianistic acrobatics, it was a stunning and sensational performance. Abduraimov tossed off the work, with its super-human technical demands, as if it was child’s play, and gave it a truly glittering, spectacular performance. In return, he received a well-deserved ovation from the near capacity audience.

After intermission, the young artist shared with us his interpretation of two Schubert Impromptus, Op. 90, No. 3, followed by No. 2 from the same set. In the Impromptu in G-flat Major, Op. 90, No. 3, Abduraimov played the melodic line beautifully, giving us the sense that the music is floating. I do, however, feel that the inner accompaniment figures in the right hand, which provide the harmony for the work, was far too unclear. For me, part of the incredible beauty of this work lies in the clarity of the middle voice. As it was, the music became only two-dimensional. The E-flat Major Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 2 was given an exciting, forward-moving performance, but I again feel that the opening section was a little over-pedaled, robbing it a bit of its clarity, and perhaps lightness.

Abduraimov ended his recital with a stunning performance of Ravel’s tone poem for piano, Gaspard de la nuit, with ravishing sounds and incredible pianism. I did feel that he could have made more of the dramatic possibilities of the Scarbo movement. Pianistically, the playing was perfect, and I appreciated the fervor he brought to this justly popular work.

Even with a justly deserved ovation from the enthusiastic audience, Abduraimov declined to play any encores. Perhaps he wanted to leave us to savor the frightening tonal visions that Ravel had given us. Behzod Abduraimov is a very gifted pianist with great potential, perhaps still, like many young artists, still in the process of “finding his way”. I hope that he will be able to set aside time to work, to think, to search, and to continue to find his way.

Rather to be still finding his way than to take the easy way out.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev

In Lina & Serge - The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, Simon Morrison, a music historian at Princeton, tells the sad, strange, but compelling tale of Lina Codina, known to us as the wife of Serge Prokofiev, one of the 20th century’s most original and brilliant composers.

At risk of sounding like an advertisement, I can truly say that I could not put this book down once I began reading it. Morrison succeeds in making this book both scholarly and readable, a difficult balance. Through Serge Prokofiev Jr., the composer’s grandson, the writer had access to letters, documents and photographs from Prokofiev’s estate as well as memories of several acquaintances of Lina Prokofiev. I am certain such a book would not have been possible during the days of the Soviet Union, when access to information about the Stalinist purges would not have been possible. Holding this book and reading it is to relive a dark and terrible period in our recent history.

Lina was born on October 21, 1897 in Madrid. Her parents, Juan Codina and Olga Nemïsskaya, were both professional singers with modest careers. Because of various circumstances, Lina grew up living in Spain, Switzerland, Cuba and the United States at different times in her young life, and Lina often thought of her “peripatetic upbringing as one big adventure. Because of her mother Olga, who came originally from Odessa, Ukraine, Lina could speak, read and write Russian, a skill that stood her in good stead in the Russian émigré circles in New York. Lina met Serge Prokofiev on February 17, 1919, after a solo piano recital by the composer at Aeolian Hall. According to Morrison, Lina was “mesmerized by Serge’s phlegmatic demeanor and blistering technique at the keyboard. Throughout their stormy and oft-interrupted courtship, Lina had always been the one to push for commitment from Serge who, though attracted to Lina, did not want to commit himself. It was not until Lina became pregnant with Serge’s child that they married on October 8, 1923.

In 1925, when Lina was 28, Anatoliy Lunacharsky, the head of cultural affairs, under orders from The Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party and, I’m sure, with Stalin’s tacit approval, began an intense campaign to reestablish cultural relationship with the West as well as to lure émigré Russian artists to return to the Soviet Union and add luster to its odious regime. The Soviets pulled out all the stops to attract Prokofiev, with attractive commissions for new works, as well as high profile performances of existing compositions with generous royalties. The target of their campaign included Lina, a trained singer struggling to carve out a musical career, and playing upon her desperate need to be accepted as a musician. They appealed to her vanity as the wife of the “great composer and offered her performing opportunities as well.

After a few highly successful visits, including a stunning performance in Leningrad of Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges, a performance reportedly far superior to the one given by the Chicago Lyric Opera (who commissioned the work), Prokofiev decided to make the permanent move back to the Soviet Union, one that would turn out to be the biggest mistake of his life. It was then that the doors of the Iron Curtain began to be (slowly) closed. At first, the couple was still able to travel outside the Soviet Union their sons had to be left behind as “hostages”. Eventually, travel beyond the Soviet bloc was not permitted. At the end, Prokofiev was a broken man, in health as well as in spirit, and one of the 20th century’s most original geniuses was reduced to churning out hackwork for the Party. Ironically, Prokofiev died of a massive stroke on exactly the same day as Stalin, in 1953.

As for Lina, her life began to become a living hell when the harsh realities of Stalinist Russia sank in, when the Party began to tighten the screws on both her and Serge. Things became even worse when Prokofiev fell for a much younger woman, Mira Mendelson. Mendelson, according to Morrison, “wrote talentless poems, as she herself realized, and imagined that she might become a librettist. When they met, she was a member of the Komsomol (Communist Youth League), and was on her way to joining a Communist Party, a real mark of distinction in that society. Like her parents, she was a true believer of Communism and its dogma, and “she had imagined nothing more for herself than a dull-grey existence in the service of the state before the colorful Serge entered her life. Eventually, Prokofiev left Lina and their two children, while Moscow was under siege from Hitler, and later divorced her and married Mira. 

Then, on February 20, 1948, Lina heard the knock on her door, a knock dreaded by so many Soviets at the time. She was first detained at the Lubyanka, then at Lefortovo prison, for a total of nine and a half months, before being sent to the Gulag on trumped-up charges, the most serious of which included “her persistent efforts to leave the Soviet Union with the aid of foreign embassy workers. This did happen, but there is a big difference between wanting to visit her mother in Paris to defection. During her initial detention, her tormentors would beat her, deprive her of sleep and warmth, her limbs were bound “in excruciating positions. Once she thrown into a cell filled with ice. She was held in captivity at various prison camps for eight years until being released after Stalin’s death.

After being released, she was somewhat rehabilitated by the regime to the extent of being invited to the world premiere of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto shortly after her release, and was even assigned a modest apartment. The life she lived within the Soviet Union was certainly a far cry from the life she first envisioned when the Prokofievs made the fateful decision to return to the country.

Lina Prokofiev did eventually receive permission to leave the Soviet Union, and she ironically became the guardian of the Prokofiev legacy. She attended fashionable performances of his works, and even narrated a performance of Peter and the Wolf in New York. For the rest of her life, however, she would live in the shadows of her days in the Gulag: She had a fear of being picked up on the street, she jumped whenever a car passed close to her, and she would relive the nightmarish days of prison camp in her sleep.

In 1988, Lina visited Bonn, then the capital of West Germany, but fell seriously ill there. Her younger son Oleg arranged for her to be transferred to the Churchill Clinic in London where she died on January 3, 1989, aged ninety-one.

To borrow from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there “never was a story of more woe than the life of Lina Prokofiev (née Cordina), one of many victims who fell prey to the Soviet regime. Author Simon Morrison, in a masterful way, weaves this sad but fascinating tale of Lina Prokofiev.  Those who would like further information, or further reading into the subject, could do worse than referring to the detailed notes at the end of the book. Morrison is also the author of The People’s Artist, a book about Serge Prokofiev’s career after his return to the Soviet Union. If this current book is any indication, I am sure The People’s Artist would be a very interesting (I am not sure if “enjoyable” would be the appropriate word) read as well.

I am grateful to Simon Morrison for telling this compelling human drama, one that should be told, and leaving us shocked and saddened by the very long and very dramatic life of this colourful (albeit minor) figure in the annals of 20th century music.