Monday, March 17, 2014

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.

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