Thursday, May 28, 2015

Symphonic Debut

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is in search of a new music director, which probably explains why we have been having more than our usual share of guest conductors. Last Saturday, conductor Alexander Shelley (son of the pianist Howard Shelley) made his debut with the orchestra. Shelley had been appointed Music Director-designate of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, succeeding Pinchas Zukerman.

The concert opened with Alexina Louie’s Infinite Sky with Birds. Ms. Louie was on hand to speak about the inspiration behind her work: “The idea of the sights of hundreds of birds taking flight and the kind of exhilaration that I feel when I see that.” I once heard it said that great music should evoke and not describe. Ms. Louie, one of Canada’s most original and innovative composers, certainly evoked the sight of birds in flight. The music is very colourful, and exploitative (in the best sense of the word) the resources of the orchestra. Shelley conducted with authority and led the musicians with clarity through the dense and complex score. Towards the end of the music, there was a moment, with rushing strings, evoking the sight of the flock of birds taking flight, which was especially memorable, and gripping. Ms. Louie’s score is one that elicits an emotional response and involvement from the audience.

It is a wonderful coincidence that both of Ravel’s piano concerti should be presented within the space of a few weeks. In this concert, Canada’s Janina Fialkowska performed the composer’s Jazz-tinged, Gershwin-influenced Piano Concerto in G Major. Whenever I hear Fialkowska, I often think of Arthur Rubinstein, her mentor. Like Rubinstein, Fialkowska plays this quintessentially French score with greater clarity than a lot of other pianists. Like Rubinstein, who also plays French music with much clarity and more “meat” than many French pianists, this makes for a very refreshing way to hear this familiar music.

The jewel in the crown is, of course, the slow movement, Adagio assai. Fialkowska played the opening of this movement, with its unusually long solo for the instrument, with great feeling. This opening gives one the feeling (as in the slow movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto) of time standing still, but Fialkowska managed to maintain the impetus of the music so that the musical line does not come to a stand still. The third movement was done with as much flair and panache that the music calls for. Shelley proved an able and sympathetic partner to Fialkowska, and the orchestra, with all the beautiful woodwind solos, sounded sensational. I could not help thinking how much Mr. Rubinstein would have enjoyed Ms. Fialkowska’s performance.

I appreciated the fact that Shelley chose a programme with a low “wow” factor for his debut. The second half of the concert consisted of Franz Schubert’s charming Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485. Throughout the evening, but especially in this symphony, I appreciated Shelley’s sense of direction in the music, both horizontally and vertically, his sense of the musical line, and the beautiful phrasing he received from the orchestra.

Mr. Shelley is not an acrobatic conductor, but guided the musicians through the music with clear gestures, and with an invitation to listen to each other.

It was certainly a most satisfying evening, a beautiful evening of great music being played beautifully, and with joy.

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