Sunday, May 3, 2015

Return Visit by a Master Musician

There is, to me, something pleasurable about an orchestra tuning before a concert - it is a signal that great music is to be played. When one knows that the person leading the concert is a consummate musician and a master conductor, that pleasure is doubled.

Conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama made one of his annual returns to Vancouver last night in a programme of Sibelius and Beethoven, plus a world premiere of a work by composer Marcus Goddard.

Taaliniq, the new work by Goddard was, according to the composer’s own programme notes, inspired by Inuit throat singing and folk melodies. Not being an aficionado of Inuit throat singing, I would grant the composer the benefit of the doubt. On first hearing, the work shows Goddard to be a composer of not just great skill, but imagination as well. The work is pretty much a miniature concerto for orchestra, exploiting fully the colours and texture of a full symphony orchestra. Particularly memorable was a pensive and beautiful middle section for strings. The composer could not have found a more ideal champion than Akiyama, who brought out all the kaleidoscopic colours of the opening and closing sections, and the beauty of the string writing in the center of this brief work.

I have always thought that Sibelius’ Nordic soundscape is very suited to our Canadian imagination. In the composer’s Violin Concerto, Ray Chen had chosen a difficult work to make his debut with. On top of its monumental technical difficulties, the violin part is so interwoven into the orchestral texture, that it is hard for a soloist to impress, in the traditional sense of the word, an unfamiliar audience. Yes, the violin writing is brilliant, but it is subsumed within the sounds of the orchestra. I have heard it said that it takes a virtuoso to be more than a virtuoso. A virtuoso Ray Chen certainly is, with his beautiful, sweet tone in the high register of the instrument, and a luscious sound in the lower register that particularly suited the Sibelius. Chen and Akiyama succeeded in evoking the bleak, grey colours of the music, especially in the slow movement. Akiyama is one of the few conductors I know that makes me so aware of the pulse, and not just the beat, of the music, so crucial in this Sibelius work.

In one of Leonard Bernstein’s groundbreaking television programmes, the conductor began an episode addressing rhythm in music with the image of a human heart beating on the screen. Gradually the image dissolves into the orchestra playing from the opening of the vivace section in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Indeed, rhythm plays such an important role throughout this familiar work by the master symphonist from Bonn. From the masterful transition from the poco sostenuto to the vivace in the first movement, to the beautiful string tone Akiyama drew in the second movement, to the incredible lightness of the third movement, and to the incredible energy the conductor summoned in the breathless fourth movement, there was nothing to suggest that it was anything less than a great performance.

To watch Kazuyoshi Akiyama conduct is to witness poetry in motion.

The conductor’s baton technique, especially his incredibly expressive left hand, is such that no orchestra, I wager, could mistake his intentions. He is not a rigid tempo man, but allows the music to breath, and always finds the pulse of the music behind the notes. Although he does not look it, Mr. Akiyama is now a man in his seventies. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra should try and continue to claim his time and talent, and that he would always retain his affection for the city and the orchestra to return regularly.

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