Monday, November 22, 2021

Performer as Re-creator

 Federico Colli made his rescheduled Vancouver recital debut under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society yesterday. It was an astounding musical experience, a stunning display of much more than pianism and virtuosity – although they were there, in spades - but musical sensitivity, original thinking, and an acute awareness of the infinite palate of colours afforded by the piano.


Colli began his recital with a group of seven Scarlatti sonatas, playing them as a group without interruption. The young artist has been much praised for his interpretations of Scarlatti, and reason was immediately apparent. Right from the first note, he sets an almost religious atmosphere with his unbelievably beautiful sound and his wonderfully leggieroplaying. I do not think I remember hearing such pianissimos – it was otherworldly – he drew the enthralled audience into his magical sound world. 


For the next work on the programme – Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333 – I found myself almost more fascinated by Colli’s ideas than the composer’s design.  Although the composer is very sparing in dynamic and articulation markings throughout the score (the composer was a little bit more specific with dynamics in the third movement), Colli’s interpretation nevertheless gave us some very new and fresh insights different from what we often hear. From first note to last, it was not a performance of great drama and contrast, but rather like a meditation on the score. Like a master curator, Colli illuminated this great work with new insights and invited us to behold this masterpiece in an entirely new light.


After intermission, the pianist gave us the Canadian premiere of Maria Gringber’s arrangement of Schubert’s chamber music masterwork, the Fantasy in F minor, originally written for piano, four hands, written in the incredible fertile annus mirabilis of the composer’s last year. What is remarkable about this arrangement is that none of the details in the original musical texture is lost in the transcription, which means that the arrangement requires a performer of transcendental pianism, of which Colli is one. Under his hands, it really did at times sound like there were not one but two artists playing this work. 


The final work of the afternoon’s concert, Busoni’s reworking of Bach’s monumental Chaconne in D minor, from the second partita for solo violin. In our age of obsessiveness with performance practice, this work could seem like something from a different age, which I suppose it is. That said, Colli’s playing of it compelled us to listen to it as a great piano work from the romantic age of pianism, not as a mere transcription. In this performance, he once again demonstrated his superhuman command of every facet of piano playing, as well as an uncanny awareness of and sensitivity to the infinite dynamics and colours he commanded from the Steinway.


As an encore, the mood lightened considerably as Colli took a delightful romp through Turkish pianist Fazil Say’s arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, bringing the audience to its feet one final time before the young artist had to rush to the airport to continue on the next leg of his musical journey.


Bravo Federico, and kudos to The Vancouver Chopin Society for arranging this major debut, I think we can safely say, one of today’s outstanding musical “stars”. Come back soon!





Saturday, November 20, 2021

Adieu, Mr. Bond

Be warned of spoiler alert here. Read no further if you have not seen the latest James Bond film…

I was seven years old when my mother took me to my first James Bond film. It was You Only Live Twice, and it was terrific. Of course, as a boy, you only notice the cars, the guns (many of them), and the high adventure. I of course missed all of the double entendre, and I don’t think I even noticed that there were beautiful women in the film. 

That was the start of a once every two-year ritual, which has been about the frequency that a new Bond film would appear. Naturally, even with the formulaic plot, some Bond films are better than others. There are a few of the movies from the franchise I can no longer watch without cringing. But by-and-large, watching a Bond film has always been something of a mindless entertainment, escapism at its best.

Ever since Daniel Craig took over the role of Bond, there has been a new depth to the storybook character, a new angst. Casino Royale, the first of Craig’s Bond films, which happens to also be Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, deals with his first outing as a “double-O”, and his betrayal by a woman he loved. Quantum of Solace, probably one of Fleming’s most heartfelt and interesting short stories, was a dud. Skyfall was brilliant and touching – for more than one reason one of the most Catholic of all the Bond films - and Spectre was not bad. Unlike the older films, there had been, through the five films with Craig in the title role, a thread in the development of the character. 

With No Time to Die, Craig’s last outing as the debonair British spy, we come not only to the end of the current story line, but the end of an era. Don’t worry, there is still plenty of spectacular locations, action, fast cars (not one but two Aston Martins), guns, and beautiful women. But there is more to this particular Bond film that any of the others.

In this film, Bond is reunited with Madeleine Swann, his love interest from Spectre. As it turned out, he fathered a child with her, as we find out at the end of the film (“She has your eyes,” Swann says.) Faced with an impossible, no-win scenario after the final battle, Bond sacrifices himself for his family, and saves the world one last time. Cliché, you say? Perhaps, but Craig’s masterful performance this time around makes this powerful ending a moving cinematic experience.

Even without knowing this ending of the story, I did feel that there is an elegiac quality to the film throughout. This is also conveyed in Craig’s brilliant acting in the role. He has really brought a depth to this formerly rather two-dimensional character. There is, in his acting, a sadness to the character, something like Lohengrin or The Flying Dutchman, doomed to be forever denied happiness, especially when it is just within reach. There is also something very Judeo-Christian about Bond’s final sacrifice. We mustn’t forget that Ian Fleming was acquainted with the work and the philosophy of British Catholic mystic, philosopher and writer, Caryll Houselander, whose one-time fiancé Sidney Reilly (“Ace of Spies”) was the inspiration for Fleming’s Bond character. 

There are many references to former Bond films, probably only noticeable to long-time fans. The obvious ones are of course the character Blofeld and the criminal organization Spectre. More oblique references include quotes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – “We have all the time in the world” – Bond’s exit line in the film immediately after his just-married wife was assassinated, was referenced in the opening and at the end of the current film. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the only other Bond film where the hardened spy actually falls in love with a woman. At the end of the film, when Madeleine says to him that they need more time, Bond responds, “You have all the time in the world,” foreshadowing his own demise. The title song from the older Bond film, “We have all the time in the world”, sung by Louis Armstrong in his unique and inimitable style, is used as the music for the final credits. A nice touch, I thought.

With the current political climate, it is difficult to tell whether there will be another reboot of the Bond story. For me, I wouldn’t watch another Bond film unless the character remains British, and male. Surely, it would be difficult for anyone to top this performance by Craig. With Bond’s death in No Time to Die, I realized with great sadness that a part of my childhood is gone forever, when one could count on one’s hero to be invincible, always returning to slay the powerful dragon, or the evil communists.

And so, Bond is dead. Long live James Bond.






Thursday, November 18, 2021

Resumption of Concert Life

It was with a tremendous feeling of excitement as I attended the first concerts in Vancouver since the pandemic. Even the smaller audiences and socially distanced seating could not detract from the experience of feeling the music as it was being made, without the aid of audio-visual equipment or computer screens.


I headed to Christ Church Cathedral to attend the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ concert entitled Silence and Music: Moving Stories and Remembrance, their post-COVID version of their annual Remembrance Day concert. Music Director Paula Kremer returned to lead this outstanding choir in a programme highlighting the emotions of loss and remembrance. 


From the opening In Memoriam by Ruth Watson Henderson, the singing of this choir never fails to move one’s senses. Anton Bruckner’s Ave Maria was equally affecting, as was Vaughan Williams’ Silence and Music, with the composer’s unique blend of dissonance. Observing this season of remembrance, the choir performed two perennial favourites – Dave Rosborough’s arrangement of In Flander’s Fields and William Henry Monk’s Abide with Me, as arranged by Leighton, Worthington, Kremer and Rosborough. Soloists Emily Cheung and Sarah McGrath shone in Eriks Esenvalds’ O Salutaris hostia. As always, the acoustics of Christ Church Cathedral lends itself well to the sound of this choir.


Certainly, an auspicious beginning to the year’s concert season.


Then it was off to the Orpheum Theatre for a piano recital by Behzod Abduraimov, under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. Things got off to a very promising start with two contrasting Scarlatti sonatas, B minor (K. 27) and D major (K. 96), highlighting Abduraimov’s beautiful sound and touch. The D major sonata was particularly effectively realized, evoking almost the sights and sounds of the changing of the guards at the royal palace in Madrid. I wasn’t sure if the repeats for each section was really needed, as the repetition did not really bring new ideas to what had already been so wonderfully played the first time around. 


Abduraimov launched into Schumann’s Kreisleriana (Op. 16) with a whirlwind of a tempo, but I was uncertain if that really added to the tension called for with composer’s instruction of Äuberst bewegt. Moreover, the opening tempo made it almost impossible to really observe Schumann’s Etwas bewegter in the Intermezzo II. For me, it was in the more intimate sections of the work, for instance, movement 2, 4, and 6. Paradoxically, the pianist’s facility at the piano took away some of the contrast and tension of the stormier sections of the work. It was a reading of Schumann’s luminous score that underscores the artist’s pianism and beauty of sound rather than the kaleidoscopic colours as well as the shifting between light and shadow that make this music so moving, or taking us into the composer’s inner world.


Abduraimov’s rendition of Mussorgski’s Bilder einer Ausstellung (Pictures at an Exhibition) was spectacular, stunning and superhuman, harking back to the interpretations of Horowitz and Richter. This young man is born to play this work. Although it is now difficult to erase from one’s mind the sounds of Ravel’s masterful orchestration, but the young artist somehow made the score almost more colourful than it would have been possible with an entire orchestra. Even with the number of outstanding pianists today, Abduraimov’s virtuosity is nothing less than astounding. In Bydlo, he achieved an incredible buildup and excitement, that the climax was simply overwhelming. But it was more than virtuoso playing, but his ability to bring out the unique character of each “picture” that made his performance so memorable. I would, however, have loved to ask the artist why he skipped the Promenade immediately before Limoges. His playing of Catabombae and Con mortuis in lingua mortua was positively spooky. The sound he got out of the beautiful Steinway (courtesy of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) toward the end of Das Bogatyr-Tor filled the cavernous space of the Orpheum, no small achievement indeed. This was certainly a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition that would be difficult to top. 


The afternoon of Sunday, November 14th brought us a very different kind of recital – guitarist Milos and mandolinist Avi Avital gave a joint recital on the stage of the Vancouver Playhouse. The unlikely combination of the two instruments made for a very effective and sometimes moving performance. I found that Avital’s mandolin playing had greater projection and musicality than Milos’. The pieces by Bach and Philip Glass worked particularly well for the two instruments. Giovanni Sollima’s rhapsodic Prelude for Mandolin Solo sounded soulful and moving under Avital’s hands. Indeed, it was a masterful performance of this relatively new work. I did, however, find Milos’ playing of Albeniz’s justly famous Asturiassomewhat dry and lacking in passion and projection. The real highlight of the afternoon was the premiere of Mathias Duplessy’s three-movement Sonata for Guitar and Mandolin, giving equal prominence to both instruments. The slow middle movement was particularly engaging. A very enjoyable reprieve from the rainy Vancouver afternoon.


Although I did have my share of concert at the just-concluded Chopin Competition in Warsaw, it is certainly a good feeling to be able to attend live musical performances in one’s hometown. This weekend’s (sold out) Vancouver debut recital by pianist Federico Colli, presented by The Vancouver Chopin Society, promises to be equally memorable. Looks like the concert season is off to a very healthy start in Vancouver.