Monday, January 27, 2020

A Welcome Return

Maestro Jun Märkl’s now annual concert with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has become the highlight of my concert season in the city. On Saturday, the charming and energetic Märkl once again worked his magic and gave us a not-to-be-forgotten performance of works from the French orchestral repertoire.

Members of the orchestra, reduced to chamber music proportions, gave a sensitive reading of Pierre Boulez’s Memoriale…(…explosante-fixe…originel), with acting principal flute Chris James setting the tone with his evocative playing. The version played at the concert was part of a much larger work by the composer. Märkl and the musicians gave a performance that not so much exploited the resources of each instrument, but formed a collage of sound colours. Such a performance of a piece such as Boulez’s confirmed in my mind that dissonances – itself a relative term – can indeed be beautiful, albeit it perhaps a different kind of beauty.

The orchestra returned and Märkl led them through a beautifully balanced, impeccably paced performance of Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant defunte. Märkl brought out the beauty of Ravel’s orchestral colours in the strings, the French horn and the woodwinds. There was a souplesse, a subtlety in the sound of the orchestra, as well as a depth, or a sense of layers, in the sound of the strings. The performance of this intimate masterpiece had a glow in the sound, from first note to last. 

Cellist István Várdai joined Märkl and the orchestra in a dashing performance of Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33. From his first entrance, Várdai captured my ears with his arresting sound and depth of tone. His playing of the lyrical transition to the second movement was not only beautiful, but also charged with meaning. In the second movement, Várdai played with an intimate, confiding tone that left the audience breathless, and in the third movement, soloist, conductor and orchestra squeezed out every ounce of this music’s Gallic charm. In his recording with pianist Ingrid Fliter (Chopin concerti) as well as last year’s performance with Yefim Bronfman (Brahms’ second piano concerto), Märkl proved himself not only a sensitive accompanist but also a gallant collaborator in concerti performances. He managed to direct our attention to the soloist, but he also lavished great attention to every detail in the score, and brought out every detail of Saint-Säens brilliant orchestration.

I was of course eagerly anticipating Märkl and the orchestra’s reading of Hector Berlioz’s revolutionary masterwork, Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 – and Saturday’s performance confirmed in my mind that, indeed, after almost two hundred years, this music still sounds revolutionary on so many different levels.

The beauty of the playing conjured by Märkl captured my attention right from the opening triplets in the woodwinds. At measure 6, there was a stunningly beautifully-shaped two-note slur by the strings before the fermata – a small detail perhaps, but the devil, as they say, is in the detail. At measure 13, Märkl already made me aware of the many layers of sound colours in the score. At rehearsal 2, the strings played with a radiant beauty of tone. Obviously the conductor had thought carefully about voicing, and this showed even in the brief two measures before rehearsal 4. The first brief climax at rehearsal was paced such that this arrival had a real sense of occasion, of arrival, and of a sense of inevitability in the music. Roger Cole shone with his gorgeous playing of the brief oboe solo at rehearsal 16. In the movement’s coda, the delicate line for first violins was filled with an ardent feeling, and give feeling that the music was hanging by a thread. There was a true feeling of reverence (Berlioz’s marking at measure 513 was “Religiosamente”) in the beautifully voiced ending to the movement. In short, I have rarely heard this first movement played with such a sense of indescribable, hopeless yearning. 

Märkl evoked a magical atmosphere in the beginning of Un bal. The conductor really captured the feel of the waltz rhythms in this movement, and the orchestra’s playing here can be described, in every sense of the word, as suave. The appearance of the Idée fixe at measure 120 gave the feeling of an apparition, and the build-up to the ending of the movement literally took my breath away.

Again, the conductor immediately set the mood of the Scène aux champs, with the oboe and English horn echoing each other. There was such a hushed quality in the music, such a mood of emptiness, stillness, and perhaps desolation (I’m not sure if Märkl intended this) that reminded me of the opening of the third act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. At measure 46, the orchestra played with an incredible elasticity in sound as well as with a velvety, rich tone. And at rehearsal 41, the celli and basses played with an indelible power and depth of sound. The violins played with a true pianississimo at rehearsal 43, providing a fabric of sound for the clarinet solo above the texture. The distant thunder at the end of the movement was truly vivid, and had almost a cinematic quality to it. 

In the dramatic opening to the fourth movement (Marche au supplice) the sound evoked by conductor and orchestra had a palpable eeriness and a feeling of malevolence. In this as well as the fifth movement, members of the orchestra played with inspiration and with a rousing virtuosity that wanted to make one stand up and cheer.  I would like to especially highlight the breathtaking and breath-stopping playing of the bassoonist Julia Lockhart in her extended solo at measure 50. The playing of this march had a real sense of direction, of forward motion, and the musicians gave us the feeling of witnessing an awesome spectacle. I loved Märkl’s dramatic pacing of the lead up to the great climax at measure 123. 

Märkl brought out the feeling of evil and decay in the opening of the Songe d’une nuit du sabbat. Even with this familiar music, Saturday’s performance conveyed an element of surprise in the many orchestral effects, as well as the inherent weirdness of the music, especially in the “corrupted” version of the Idée fixe at measure 46. As in the fourth movement, there was a palpable sense of inevitability in the forward motion of the music until the bright sound of the final chord.

There was a story about conductor Arthur Nikish arriving for a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony to a group of tired, sullen musicians. Within a few minutes, Nikish whipped the musicians into such a frenzy of excitement that they were playing like fiends! Indeed, a major aspect of the art of conducting is psychological. On Saturday, it was obvious that every member of the ensemble wanted to be there, and wanted to play well. On top of his obviously impeccable musicianship, I believe Märkl has this great indescribable gift of inspiring his fellow musicians to give their utmost. The smiles on the musicians’ faces were a welcomed sight. Once again, the concert confirmed my impression, formed after his first appearance in Vancouver, that this is a great conductor and musician.

So, once again, welcome back to Vancouver, Maestro Jun Märkl. We hope to have you back every season, and more!

Patrick May

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