On Saturday evening, conductor Lahav Shani conducted the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in, for me, one of the most satisfying concerts to come from this ensemble this season.
The concert opened with Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 with pianist Kirill Gerstein. Right from the outset, Shani weaved an incredibly rich as well as beautiful orchestral tapestry in this highly symphonic work. Throughout this complex concerto, collaboration between soloist and conductor was impeccable. I especially appreciated how Shani handled the many tricky tempo transitions, most notably the one leading to the F major second theme (“Poco piu moderato”). Under the very expressive hands of this hugely talented conductor, the strings exuded a palpable warmth as well as richness in their sound. Throughout the performance of this large work, there was a sense of totality, an organic wholeness, especially remarkable in such a young conductor.
I had a little bit of trouble with the sound of the piano under Gerstein’s hands. In the opening chords, there was a lack of a sense of weight – it is not a matter of loudness, but the sense of richness - so evident in the orchestra - was found wanting in the piano part. In the famous octave trills, there was a lack of a sense of desperation. One remembers the words of Arthur Rubinstein: that these are not just trills, but a cry for help. Even in the tranquil F major second theme, Gerstein’s sound did not match the warmth of the sound of the orchestra.
Things improved markedly in subsequent movements. In the opening of the second movement, Shani evoked an incredible sense of repose, of tranquility, from the orchestra. Throughout the movement, Gerstein played with all the gravity as well as sensitivity that the music calls for. The pianist also played with a kind of chamber music like integration with the sound of the orchestra. At the end of the final extended solo for the piano, there was a beautifully seamless dovetailing with the entrance of the orchestra (m. 96). In the more unbuttoned third movement, the artists once again matched each other in sound as well as affect. The overall performance of this movement was as exciting as it could be, as well as highly satisfying.
Before the intermission, the two musicians presented the audience with a surprising encore. In preparation for the second half of the concert, the two artists collaborated in a performance, on the piano, of Rossini’s famous overture to The Barber of Seville, a work that Arnold Schoenberg arranged at the time that he was composing Pelléas und Melisande, Op. 5. Shani showed himself to be an absolutely natural pianist, matching Gerstein in sound as well as virtuosity in this delightful surprise – a perfect sorbet between two musical courses.
It takes a brave conductor, especially a guest conductor, to present Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelléas und Melisande. It it a complex work for conductor, orchestra as well as audience – hardly a crowd-pleaser on first hearing. Shani’s conducting of this 40-plus minute work was mesmerizing, inspiring every member of the orchestra to rise to the technical as well as musical demands of the score.
The beginning of this tone poem is one of great harmonic uncertainty, extreme chromaticism, and one where the composer exploits the middle to lower registers of the orchestra. The English horn is figured prominently here, as it is throughout the score – bravo to Beth Orson for beautifully sensitive, assured playing throughout. It is almost as if the music is rising from the depths until the appearance of the oboe solo at m.8. Shani skillfully handled the tricky transition (“Heftig”) to the F major theme at rehearsal number 5, played by the English horn, the first violins and part of the cello section.
At rehearsal number 16 (“Sehr rasch”), the orchestra played this brief but incredibly difficult section with a virtuosity and assurance that is astounding. I thought that Shani achieved a truly magical pianissimo at rehearsal number 25 (“Sehr langsam”), and evoked beautiful playing by the flutes, oboes and clarinets. As well, the difficult trombone glissandi – heard for the first time in musical literature – were extremely well played.
Those were only some of the highlights I remember from last evening’s performance. Throughout the performance this neglected early Schoenberg masterpiece, the young conductor was in complete control of every element of this dense, complex work, and served as a guide to lead us through the orchestral maze. As in the Brahms, there was an absolute sense of totality, of wholeness, in Shani’s reading. During the performance, it was as if the conductor was lost in the music, but yet clearly seeing the way before him. As well, he conducted with an interpretative maturity that belied his young age.
I can recall that the last time I was so bowed over by a young conductor was when a very young Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted Gounod’s Faust for Vancouver Opera. And so, remember the name Lahav Shani, because we would be hearing much more of him in the future.
This was a performance I would remember for a long time to come.