Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Merry Widow - Brief Impressions

Vancouver Opera began its season last evening with a production of Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe(The Merry Widow) as joyous and bubbly as anything they have done in a long time.

The sets for all three acts were beautifully and tastefully done. The third act, set in Hanna’s recreation of Maxim’s, looked especially sumptuous. All the singers acted well and looked their parts. I thought that the lighting by Gerald King – giving the sets a magical glow - was particularly effective. I was grateful that director Kelly Robinson stayed true to the composer’s intent, and did not cheapen the work of falling into the trap of using art to further any political or social causes – something that seems to be the norm in opera and theatre today.

Legendary record producer Walter Legge, responsible for the casting of some of the 20thcentury’s greatest opera recordings, was reportedly extremely picky about casting singers for operettas. I do think that in operetta, the singers have to be well casted to bring the music and drama across. Lucia Cesaroni was a wonderfully vivacious Hanna Glawari, with a voice that meets Lehár’s musical and dramatic demands. John Tessier’s portrayal of Camille de Rosillon (the tenor who didn't get the girl, or did he?) was for me another high point in last night’s performance. In fact, I thought that vocally, Tessier’s voice was most suited to his role in this production. In Act Two, the Marsch-Septett“Wie die Weiber…man behandelt?” was sung with a sort of controlled abandon and genuine humour, and deservedly brought down the house. I am convinced that this ensemble is the inspiration for “This is It”, the final chorus of the Looney Tunes cartoon.

John Cudia looks the part of Danilo Danilovitch, and his acting was effective and truly comical. However, his voice just did not project in the cavernous space of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. This was unfortunate, because it was obvious that his singing was musical and tasteful. This imbalance was especially apparent when he and Cesaroni sang together. Once again, last night’s performance was yet another reminder of how desperatelyVancouver needs a real opera house.

I liked conductor Ward Stare’s pacing of the work. His timing in the music was very good; he conducted sensitively, and he brought out wonderful playing from the Vancouver Opera orchestra (again, within the confines of the hall’s very dry and imperfect acoustics). It was only in the famous waltzes that the playing betrayed its lack of “Viennese-ness”.

All in all, it was a very good beginning of the opera season. Operettas are notoriously difficult to bring across in a convincing manner. Kudos to Vancouver Opera for giving us this tasteful, musical, humourous, and tasteful production of a classic work.

Now, coming back to that opera house for Vancouver…

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tony Yike Yang - Brief Encounter

Pianist Tony (Yike) Yang played a short recital in Vancouver last evening, part of the University of British Columbia’s President’s Concert Series. In spite of the very imperfect acoustics of the school’s (notorious) Old Auditorium, I felt that we were in the presence of a young artist with great musicality and maturity - Yang is 19. 

The pianist’s reputation certainly preceded him. Winner of many prestigious awards, including, at age 16, 5thprize at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and the Jury Discretionary Award at the 15thVan Cliburn Competition. That said, we all know that there have been many impressive prizewinners with glowing resumes whose playing leave us cold. 

Not Tony Yang. 

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101, is one of the composer’s most innovative and challenging works. Throughout Yang’s performance, I heard playing of great confidence and, even more importantly, naturalness. It had been said that today’s pianists sound either faceless or idiosyncratic. Yang’s playing does not fall within either of these descriptions. In the lyrical first movement, there was a beautiful feeling of flow, and of organic unity. In the difficult second movement (Vivace alla Marcia), Yang’s playing was utterly compelling, and rhythmically acute. I was particularly taken with how beautifully he handled the brief recall of the first movement opening immediately before the prestomovement. The brief fugal passages were played with great clarity and forward motion, and never sounded ponderous. In time, of course, his interpretation would mature and deepen. But this was remarkably mature and assured playing for so young an age. 

Yang’s playing of Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60 revealed the reason for his success in Warsaw in 2015. It was truly beautiful and idiomatic Chopin playing, where one phrase flows naturally into another, and one idea into the next. He really felt the gently rocking motion of the rowing song, as well as underlying eroticism within the music. In the cathartic climax at m. 93, Yang’s playing sounded positively exultant. As in the Beethoven, I sensed an organic unity in his handling of this large work. What is more, it is Chopin playing that, without a trace of histrionics, moves us. 

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuitis the “test piece” for any young pianist, and Yang rose to the challenge and came off the winner. From the shimmering opening of Ondine, with an incredibly even right hand, Yang was in complete command of the work’s considerable technical and musical challenges. His playing of this first movement was ravishing. In Le Gibet, his tempo was rock solid, and he conveyed a feeling of utter stillness, andthe feeling of dread, in the music. Yang’s playing of Scarbowas truly frightening, and he brought out more colours in this movement than I have heard in a long time. 

As an encore, Yang played Debussy’s limpid Clair de lune. Seong Jin Cho gave us the same encore last season. Yang’s Debussy has brighter colours, and clearer edges. Both were beautiful in their own individual ways.

A New York critic once wrote about a 29-year-old conductor named Zubin Mehta, “enormously gifted, but still in the process of trying things out. Better this, however, than the easier way out.” I believe the foregoing statement can easily be applied to Tony Yang. As a musician, he is still at the outset of his artistic journey. If he continues to study and deepen as a musician, I think we will be hearing much more about and from Tony Yang.

Patrick May