Sunday, January 22, 2017

Bach: The Cello Suites

I know of no music that is more musically and spiritually rewarding than the cello suites of J. S. Bach. Ever since the Vancouver Recital Society announced a performance of all six suites by the young cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, this had been the concert I had most anticipated all year long. I certainly did not come away disappointed.

Queyras announced at the beginning of the concert that, contrary to what was said on the programme, he was going to play the suites sequentially, so that we could hear the progression, or evolution, of Bach’s compositional thoughts. Other than the Préludes to each suite (which has no repeats), Queyras played the repeat of the A sections of each of the dances, presumably to balance the length of the (usually) longer B sections.

In the Prélude of the Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, Queyras established a, for lack of a better word, natural tempo that allows for the ebb and flow of the music. The bass notes that begin many of the phrases serve as sort of an anchor for that particular phrase.

For the Prélude to the Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008, the artist created a sense of the space, or spaciousness, of the music. His performance of the energetic Courante was exhilarating. In the Sarabande, he conveyed the sense of emptiness, of bleakness, so inherent in the music.

Queyras conjured up a veritable storm in the series of broken chords beginning at m. 40 of the Prélude of the Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009. I also appreciated his light-footed playing of the Bourrée I.

The violinist Nathan Milstein was once asked to name the most modern composer he had ever played, and he responded, “Bach.” Indeed in the Prélude to the Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010, the composer, with the help of the artist, led us into some very strange territories harmonically. Queyras successfully highlighted the “weirdness” of this incredible music. As in the Suite No. 3, the cellist played the Bourrée I of this suite with a beguiling lightness, especially in the many 16th-note runs throughout the music.

With the last two suites, the music becomes distinctly denser, and I really sense that Bach was painted on a much larger canvas. The young artist conveyed the gravity and somber mood of the Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011, with the first notes of the Prélude. This was especially apparent in the many dotted note figures in the opening section. I thought his transition from 4/4 to 3/8 time was very logically and naturally done. Queyras conveyed the massiveness of this Prélude, probably the longest piece in the set of six.

For me, Queyras’ performance of this fifth suite was the emotional high point of the entire performance, which is saying a great deal. His performance of the Sarabande was truly stunning, and time stood still in that duration. The opening falling figures were so beautifully played that the audience, I sense, scarcely breathed.

I really appreciated the energy Queyras conveyed with the first repeated D’s of the Prélude to the Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012, an energy that he sustained throughout the entire suite. The Courante was played with a breathtaking lightness. Glenn Gould was once asked what it was that attracted him to the music of Bach, and he answered with one word, “Compassion.” Hearing his performance of the cello suites, we certainly sense this quality in Bach’s music that Gould alluded to.

Before the afternoon, I had been a little concerned about the acoustics of the Orpheum Annex but, as it turned out, the intimate space suited the sound of a single cello just perfectly. It was neither too resonant, nor too dry, and allowed the intimate sounds of Bach to drift through the space.

The foregoing were just some thoughts that came to me during the concert. It takes courage for any artist to play all six of cello suites in a single afternoon, and Queyras’ performance yesterday afternoon was an astonishing display of musicianship. Let’s hope that the VRS would have him back in the nearest possible future.

I am grateful to the VRS for giving us this incredible musical experience; grateful to Queyras for his astounding performance, and grateful most of all for the creative genius of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Patrick May
January 22, 2017

Friday, January 20, 2017

Macbeth from Congo

The late great Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan once said that even in a small theatre with a small orchestra, Verdi’s music “works”, which presumably means that the power of the music comes across.

I attended last night’s Vancouver Opera presentation of Macbeth with a great deal of trepidation, mainly because I had read that the score had been “reworked” for a mere 12 musicians by Fabrizio Cassol. I came away from the performance convinced that this production of Macbeth absolutely “works” as a theatre piece, if not exactly as “grand” opera.

I was thankful that the performance was held at the acoustically acceptable Vancouver Playhouse, and not in that travesty of a hall called the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. All of the voices were clearly heard, and the power of the music came through much more effectively in the smaller venue.

The set was incredibly simple. The chorus was seated (mostly) on stage left, and acts as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the unfolding drama. The instrumentalists and the conductor were seated on stage right, and not in an orchestra pit, which also contributed to the immediacy of the sound. All of the action took place in an elevated area center stage, the size of a boxing ring, with black and white painted squares on the floor like a chessboard. Changing scenery was very effectively and evocatively achieved by back projections.

Rather than Scotland, the opera had been relocated to the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, with Macbeth being an ambitious Congolese warlord. Against this backdrop the director was able to address the many atrocities committed today on the African continent, exploitation of the land as well as the people, intimidation and raping of women, ethnic conflicts, and child soldiers. The performance, which lasted only one hour and forty minutes, necessitated streamlining of the story, which made the dramatic impact of the story much more powerful.

None of these things would matter if the music making were not up to standards, which it was. This reworking of Verdi’s score did not destroy the music, and the singing of the chorus as well as all the principals were Italianate, strong and beautiful. Nobulumko Mngxekeza, as Lady Macbeth, possesses a voice that soars over the most dramatic musical outbursts. And Owen Metsileng strikes a perfect balance between Macbeth's cowardice and ambition. Performing this work with such minimal forces did not diminish the power of the music or the message of the drama.

At a time when so many iconoclasts seek to, in their works, insert their dose of political correctness or political agenda, it is refreshing to see a production such as this, which gives us a new and different glimpse of this all too familiar tale, and yet retaining all the essence of Verdi’s masterpiece. In the end, it is not about whether the opera is set in Scotland or Africa, but how the artists were able to use this timeless tale to highlight Shakespeare’s insight into the human heart.

Patrick May
January 20, 2017