I had been so looking forward to last weekend’s
Vancouver Symphony Concert, since it featured two of my favourite orchestral
works: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30 and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5
in E-flat major, Op. 82.
Yet I came away after the concert strangely
The concert opened with Mexican-Canadian composer
Alfredo Santa Ana’s Ocaso, a Spanish word for “dusk”. The work is well written
and orchestrated, with a quietly energetic opening and closing, and a more
lyrical middle section.Yet, conductor
Anu Tali failed to bring out fully the orchestral colours inherent in the
score. This was to be a major complaint for the music making for the entire
An interesting sight in music schools is piano
student walking around with the score of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3,
and its title prominently displayed. But even with today’s high standards of
piano playing, there are still relatively few pianists who can truly bring off
all the elements of this rich and dense score. For me, the orchestral writing
for this concerto is no less amazing than its very demanding piano part.
Let me first say that pianist Alexey Yemtsov gave
a note perfect and technically impregnable performance last Saturday evening.
However, it was a performance that was devoid of tonal beauty, grandeur and
poetry. We recently witnessed the Vancouver recital debut of Charles Richard
Hamelin. Mr. Yemtsov’s approach to music making seemed to be the antithesis to
that of Hamelin. Things were not helped by probably the dullest piano I had
heard for a long time. While the haunting melody in the opening bars should be
played simply, there was no shaping of the melodic lines under Yemtsov’s hands,
and the result sounded angular. Even the buildup (piu vivo) to the incredible
climax at 7 measures after rehearsal number 14 failed to elicit any real
excitement. Conductor Tali conducted the score competently, and maintained a
good sense of ensemble throughout the performance, but she was merely
“accompanying” the concerto, and the orchestra definitely played a secondary
role last Saturday. She completely failed to bring out the lushness and
richness of the orchestral writing. Emotionally, the two artists may as well
have been playing different pieces.
Close to the end of the third movement, at
rehearsal number 74 (Vivacissimo), Tali did something quite inexplicable to my
ears. At the third of the orchestral fanfares echoing the piano chords, she
slowed down the tempo slightly, thereby slackening the tension in the music,
and she did the same thing when the fanfares return at 13 measures after 74.
Throughout the performance, there was a lot of banging on the keyboard,
emphasizing the vertical rather than the horizontal elements of the music.
There was no sense of phrasing in the many beautiful melodies throughout the
work. This was the kind of “efficient” music making that seems to be so
prevalent with today’s young pianists. It was digitally precise, but where was
Ever since Glenn Gould used Sibelius’ Symphony No.
5 in E-flat major as the soundtrack for his radio documentary The Idea of
North, I have, every time I hear this music, conjured in my mind this imaginary
Nordic but so very Canadian landscape. Tali’s reading of this score was
musical, but she failed to bring out the epic quality that is (to me) inherent
in the music. The wind players of the Vancouver Symphony played the opening of
the first movement beautifully, as they always do. But the music does not
build, and there was a serious lack of tension in the music making. The second
movement was charming and beautiful, but it was again more of the image created
by an ordinary photographer, rather than an Ansel Adams.
In the third movement, the rapid string
figurations in the opening measures do not lead up to that incredible and
inevitable arrival of the big theme by the French horns at letter D. Overall,
the young conductor’s reading of the score missed the epic grandeur, the
“bigness” (not loudness) of the music. Which was really unfortunate. Towards the
end of the movement, when the same melody by the horns is played, the “answers”
by the violins and violas (6 before letter P) should, I think, have a
weightier, more substantial sound.
So, last Saturday’s performance was an evening of
“might have been”. The performances were technically more than adequate, but
somehow the artists missed the emotional impact these great works could have