Sunday, March 26, 2017

VSO at the Chan Centre

I am always happy to hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. The sound of the orchestra is so much more alive and vibrant in that wonderful space. And so it was last evening when the orchestra played under the talented young conductor Joshua Weilerstein.

The programme began with a rarity, Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Pan og Syrinx. Weilerstein directed a lively reading of the score, bringing out the earthy sound of Nielsen’s orchestration. There was outstanding playing by the many solo players of the orchestra, including Associate Principal cellist Janet Steinberg as well as oboist Roger Cole. Perhaps Weilerstein. The conductor gave space to the many solo passages to emerge. Perhaps the climax arrived a little too soon for such a brief work, but overall it was a coherent and convincing reading of Nielsen’s score.

Vancouver native Jon Kimura Parker joined the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15.  Beethoven’s two early piano concerti are performed far too rarely, because they are incredibly inventive and ingenious works in their own right. I disagree with the choice of tempo for the first movement. Weilerstein beat the first movement in two’s rather than a fast four, which took away much of the drive and urgency in this movement, as well as the brio in Beethoven’s indication of Allegro con brio. Perhaps the musicians were striving for greater elegance in this music, but to me it did not suit the character of this movement.

From a pianistic standpoint, the performance was impeccable. Mr. Parker is an immensely well-endowed pianist who can handle anything. I had a little trouble with how his playing suited the character of early Beethoven. In the cadenza of the first movement, Parker’s playing was more suited to Rachmaninoff than to early Beethoven. The cadenza (no. 3) that Parker chose is the one most favoured by pianists, but it is, in my opinion, least appropriate for the music, since it is out of proportion with the rest of the movement. Emil Gilels, in his recording with George Szell, played the smaller and much more stylistically appropriate cadenza no. 2.

My view of the second movement has also changed over the years, and I now feel that it needs to move at a slightly more animated tempo. Parker’s choice of tempo, to me, does not move the music forward sufficiently. Of course, the slower tempo allowed the soloist greater opportunity to demonstrate his beautiful tone, but the direction of the music suffered.

On the programme, it was noted that the third movement of the concerto is marked Allegro scherzando, but scholars had questioned whether the scherzando marking was in the autograph. To me, the choice of tempo was most successful in this movement, since it brought out the very lively character of this movement. The musicians missed a wonderful exchange between the flute and the piano in the “Hungarian” section of the movement, since the flute was not nearly prominent enough. In the outer movements, Weilerstein tried a little too hard to bring out the accents with every return of the tutti. After a while, it got a little tiring. I did like very much the exchange between the scale passages in the piano and the woodwinds before the brief cadenza.

It was a real treat for me to have heard two different Schumann symphonies by two different orchestras within the same week. The concert last evening concluded with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97 (Rhenish). Overall, Weilerstein directed a very successful reading of this glorious and uplifting work. I liked very much the energy he evoked right at the opening of the first movement. There was a little problem with balance when the brasses were playing full out and the strings play their very fast tremolos. One sees the string player playing, but the brasses were simply too loud.

I appreciated Weilerstein’s choice of tempo in the second movement, since it gave the music a very nice rocking motion, a natural sway. There was some lovely horn playing in the movement. I really enjoyed the lightness of the strings in the third movement, giving the music good vertical direction, while moving the music along horizontally. Likewise, there was beautiful playing by the orchestra’s horns in the beginning of the fourth movement. Weilerstein evoked a sense of weight from orchestra in the opening measures. It seems to me that in the two slow movements, the conductor allowed the music to move more naturally than in the faster movements. In the third and fourth movements, the music, to me, moved and breathed more naturally. In the fifth and last movement, the energy in the orchestra was wonderful. I found that the sounds of the horns do not always match. Perhaps in this case the conductor could invite the musicians to listen to each other more intently, rather than relying on direction from the podium.

Conductor Sir André Previn was relating a piece of advice he received from his teacher Pierre Monteux – before you knock out the ladies in the balcony, make sure the horns come in first (I am paraphrasing a bit here). It seems to me that this obviously very talented young conductor was trying a little too hard to impress, or perhaps to impart his views on the orchestra. In time, he will, I hope, learn to conduct less, and let the music “happen”. When that day comes, I believe that his music making will indeed be outstanding. Obviously this is a young man to watch and hear more often.

Patrick May
March 26, 2017

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