Monday, December 19, 2022

Vancouver Cantata Singers - Christmas Reprise 2022

The Vancouver Cantata Singers’ Christmas Reprise is always the highlight of the Season of Advent. This year, the choir’s 19th offering of this wonderful tradition, was for me, a real highpoint in the years I have been attending these concerts.


The concert opens with, appropriately, In the Dark Night, a Ukrainian Lullaby, featuring the men of the choir. Naturally, to hear this Ukrainian work evoking the beauty of the Christ child hits an emotional chord, considering the trauma and destruction that the country had been faced with this past year. Both in this work and the next, Judith Weir’s My Guardian Angel, featuring the women of the choir, remind us of the vocal excellence of this choral ensemble.


As ever, the VCS’s Christmas Reprise offers traditional Christmas works, albeit in new arrangements, as well as pieces that are heard less often. Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten, Orlando di Lasso’s difficult Bone Jesu, verbum Patris, and Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est, were particularly euphonious, and truly demonstrates the choir’s sensitivity to text, and the ensemble’s absolutely uniformity in diction and enunciation. The fast-moving Ding Dong! Merrily on High and the Carol of the Bells show off the group’s virtuosity. In Carol of the Bells, the women of the choir especially sang with an exhilarating lightness, and uncannily evokes the timbre of the bells. 


There were of course timeless works that we know and love, like See Amid the Winter’s SnowO Tannenbaum, and Silent Night, all in beautiful arrangements, in performances that truly remind us that “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” All these, and the two different arrangements of Ave Maria – one by Nathaniel Dett and the other by Franz Biebl (a favourite of the choir’s, I think), transport us away from the hustle and bustle that come with December. 


Saturday’s concert once again establishes the Vancouver Cantata Singers, under Artistic Director Paula Kremer, as the Vancouver’s premiere choral ensemble. What a treasure we have in our very own city!


The full house at Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral reminds me that, in spite of all we hear about living in a post-Christian world, in spite of the world’s every effort to push Christmas to the margins of our society and our consciousness, that people still want to be reminded of the love of God made manifest in Christ, the Trinitarian love of God, and the mystical body of Christ.


And that there has to be more to Christmas than finishing our shopping in time.



Monday, December 5, 2022

Artist at Work

The 2022 concert season, at least pianistically, ended on a very high note with Sergei Babayan’s concerto debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.


Mr. Babayan had of course made his debut in Vancouver already, in a highly distinguished recital for The Vancouver Chopin Society, in the pre-pandemic days of 2017. Since then, his schedule has been very full indeed, with appearances with artists like Daniil Trifonov and Martha Argerich, recording dates, his very busy teaching studio, and appearances with orchestras. Perhaps this is why it has taken our orchestra so long to obtain a date with him. But better late than never, because Friday night’s concert was probably one of the Vancouver Symphony’s most memorable concerts since live performances began. For this concert, Babayan chose to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503.


With the piano’s first entry, I immediately knew that we were in for a very special performance. I had heard this very instrument played by many outstanding artists that played with the orchestra, and in recitals, but I had not heard a musician produced such a luminous, iridescent sound from these keys. There was a sense of lightness and buoyancy with each note, and each run. And with what profound emotion he played the gorgeous G major piano theme!


In the second movement, the four simple descending notes, C, A, F and E, was played with such simplicity but transcendent beauty, that illuminated the entire movement. At times, the sounds emanating from the instrument were no longer piano sounds, but just sounds of pure beauty and joy. In the third movement, Babayan played the music with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, in the very best sense of the word, with a palpable exuberance that makes one want to stand up and cheer. It was truly a breathtaking, and breathtakingly luminous, performance of one of Mozart’s most majestic concerti.


As with any great Mozart performance, one is reminded of the operatic nature of much of the composer’s works. Last Friday evening’s performance so reminded me of Le Nozze di Figaro, with the soloist taking all the parts, and the orchestra commenting on the action!


Inspired by Babayan’s artistry, the orchestra and Otto Tausk were sympathetic partners in this memorable performance. The orchestra’s woodwinds, especially, contributed much to the tapestry of sound colours. 


With the uncertainties and vicissitudes of traveling today, the orchestra was plagued with a couple of high-profile cancellations this season. I am glad that Vancouver audiences had this opportunity to witness the artistry of this great artist and musician, and I hope that Mr. Babayan will be a frequent visitor to our city.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A Most Welcomed Return

When an artist made a staggering first impression, as Zlata Chochieva did when she first played in Vancouver, expectations are high when she or he makes a return appearance. I am happy to report that Chochieva’s recital last Sunday confirmed that her artistry is still as wondrous as ever. Indeed, she has, if anything, matured as an artist and as a musician.


Her recital programme is a re-creation of the works she recorded on her most recent CD of works by Mozart and Scriabin – two very different and contrasting sound worlds. None of the works played were pieces that appear time and again in piano recitals, which makes for a very refreshing change from the sameness that we sometimes see in programming. 


In the two sets of variations by Mozart – Nine Variations on a Minuet by Duport (K. 573) and Ten Variations on “Unser dummer Pobel meint” (C. W. Cluck) (K. 455) – she played Mozart with a firm grasp of the operatic nature of the composer’s music. Figaro, Susanna, Leporello, Despina, and a host of other characters came alive in front of our mind’s eyes. There was nothing “pretty” or precious about her approach to this music, as every phrase was filled with energy and colour. Every phrase, every musical gesture, was delivered with the grace and panache of a prima ballerina. Moreover, she has an uncanny sense of timing both within each variation, in the evolution from one variation to the next, as well as each variation within the context of the entire structure.


Stylistically, the two sets of Preludes by Scriabin, Op. 15 and Op. 16, were still composed with a firm nod to the past, most notably to the music of Chopin, whom Scriabin adored. Chochieva approached these miniatures like a visual artist, painting before us the infinite variety of sound colours that the composer must have had in mind when putting notes to paper. One is reminded that Scriabin had a great interest, indeed obsession with, colour and sound. This wonderful artist was able to coax a gorgeous range of sounds from the piano, very much highlighting the sensual beauty of Scriabin’s music.


It is truly astounding to hear Scriabin’s evolution as a composer when a work such as the Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor (Op. 23) was juxtaposed against the truly forward-looking Sonata No. 10 (Op. 70). While the large-scale, highly dramatic third sonata is still firmly rooted in the 19th century, the chromaticism and tonal ambiguity of the tenth sonata truly looks far beyond the 20thcentury. Pianistically and musically, Chochieva delivered both works with great panache. She infused the third sonata with a sense of unity in the four disparate and contrasting movements, and highlighted the concentration of expression of the tenth sonata. In both works, she gave us all the sound colours the composer must have had in mind when composing these works. 


As if trying to dispel the ambiguous atmosphere of Scriabin’s tenth sonata, Chochieva brought her recital to a far more lighthearted conclusion with Mozart’s Gigue in G major (K. 574) which, along with the K. 522 A Musical Joke, are probably two of the composer’s most hilarious works. It is often easier to convey sadness than joy in music, but Chochieva succeeded in communicating to the audience all the humour inherent in this brief work.


This mood of charm and joy continued in the encore she played, the Toccata by French pianist, teacher and composer Pierre Sancan. The young artist delivered with stunning pianism – and at the most daring tempo – as well as with the Gallic charm and flavour called for by this music.


All in all, a truly spectacular showcase of pianism and musicianship. Along with Vadym Kholodenko’s stunning debut, we had truly been fortunate to have experienced two of today’s most interesting young artists within a fortnight. I am of course mindful of Sir Andras Schiff’s recent pair of masterful recitals, but with performances such as we had from Kholodenko and Chochieva’s, we are reminded that the future of great music is indeed in very good hands.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

An Astounding Debut

In his Vancouver debut, Vadym Kholodenko played a magical performance for an enthralled audience last night.


The concert began with Prokofievs rarely played Four Pieces, Op. 32, the composers whimsical look at baroque and classical dance forms. Right from the first notes, I realized that we were in for something special. Kholodenko highlighted the composers gentle, sardonic humour in the four miniatures, but also drew from the Steinway colours, timbre and sounds rarely heard. Throughout the evening, there was a sense of fantasy, of incredible imagination, in his playing.


In SchubertSonata in E-flat major, D. 568, Kholodenko brought out all the songfulness called for by the music with an overflowing and palpable musicality. In this work, and in all the pieces he played last evening, there was a glow and a luminosity in his sound that I do not often hear. In the Andante molto movement, the sadness and heartbreak of the music was very much evident. 


More Schubert followed after the intermission, with the composers beautiful Drei Klavierstucke, D. 946. While bringing out the unique character of each of the three works, the artist also managed to convey a sense of unity, as if the three pieces constituted part of a larger construction. I have to say once again that Kholodenko drew truly wonderous sounds from the piano. To my mind, I have not ever heard such pianissimos as we did last evening  no matter how softly he was playing, every note was projected to the very last row of the hall. Moreover, it was a sound that drew the listener in, drawing him or her into a very private sound world. In the second work in E-flat major, the artist played it almost like a lullaby, with a gently rocking quality and, toward the end, allowing the music to drift away almost to nothingness. It was truly imaginative, courageous, daring playing, but it was, again, sheer magic.


Kholodenko saved the fireworks for the last work of the evening, Prokofievs 1942 Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83, one of the composers so-called war sonatas. It was a performance that brought out the kaleidoscopic colours of the piano, and more. From the scintillating opening of the 1st movement, to the bleak and desolate soundscape of the middle movement, to the almost delirious joy of the third, the artist took us on a thrilling and breathtaking ride through an incredible soundscape. In some of the massive chords of the 1st movement, his voicing of these chords gave them a sense of massiveness. The element of fantasy I mentioned earlier was again palpable here. In the third movement, Kholodenkos sense of the pulse of the music was uncanny. When pianist Vladimir Howowitz sent the composer of his recording of the 7th Sonata, Prokofiev sent in return a copy of the score, inscribed, To the miraculous pianist, from the composer. It would no exaggeration to say, after last evenings performance, that we were in the presence of a miraculous pianist.


The pianist graciously spoke to the audience after the performance and announced his one encore, a bagatelle by Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov, and proceeded to give a moving performance of this gentle work, perhaps a very personal response to the great tragedy that had befallen his home country.


Vadym Kholodenkos performance last night was a truly auspicious debut by any artist in a long time. The sounds he drew from the piano will haunt me for a long time to come.

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told

It has been a few years now since Seattle Opera presented a Wagner opera. The company’s current production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde firmly re-establishes it as one of North America’s premiere Wagner capitals. For me, the performance was an overwhelmingly moving theatrical, musical and emotional experience. 


Heidi Melton (Isolde) and Amber Wagner (Bragane) were well-matched in dramatic qualities and beauty of their voices. Melton had, in recent years, sang and recorded Sieglinde in the composer’s Die Walkure and Brunnhilde in Siegfried, with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic as part of their outstanding of Ring Cycle recording. Vocally theirs were the highlights of yesterday’s performance. Amber Wagner’s voice is truly something to behold. She has the power to sail through the orchestral texture, but at the same time never losing the velvety beauty of the quality of her voice. Melton’s voice also possesses great beauty, but also a dramatic quality that matches the text and context.


Stefan Vinke’s Tristan does not quite possess the beauty of Ben Hepner (Seattle’s last Tristan) or the dramatic declamatory qualities of Jon Vickers. Nevertheless, his voice much improved in the second and third acts, and in the end successfully conveyed the tortured passions of the tragic character. 


Morris Robinson had a commanding dramatic as well as vocal presence, and portrayed a most dignified, human and sympathetic King Marke. 


The supporting roles in the opera also had uniformly strong voices. Ryan McKinny was convincing as Kurwenal, in his youthful passion and complete devotion to his master. Andrew Stenson (Sailor/Shepherd), Viktor Antipenko (Melot) and Joshua Jeremiah (Steersman) all contributed to make this a truly uniformly strong cast. 


As with any Wagner, the orchestra plays a vital role in any presentation of this Gesamtkunstwerk. Members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra shone with their magnificent playing yesterday. Principal oboe Mary Lynch Vanderkolk, bass clarinetist Eric Jacobs and of course Stefan Farkas playing the English horn, were outstanding in the beauty of their individual sounds as well as how they blended with the orchestral fabric.


I was bowled over by Canadian conductor Jordan De Souza’s control of the orchestra and singers, as well as his passionate conductor of the complex score, while maintaining the flow of the music and imparting great tension into the orchestral sound. According to his biography, he has already conducted in Bayreuth, the Wagner capital of the world. Certainly, a young conductor to watch. If yesterday’s performance was any indication, I am certain that we will be seeing great things from this hugely talented young man. 


The remarkable stage design truly deserves special mention. Using digital projection onto a scrim in front of the singers as well as on the backdrop, set and video designer Diego Siliano and video animator Luciana Gutman created real stage magic in all three acts – from the bowels of the ship in Act One, to the love scene in Act Two, where Isolde’s bedchamber surrounded by the forest transformed into a full backdrop of the constellation in the climax, to the black and white, bleak and desolate landscape of Act Three – I would boldly say that this current set design is as ground-breaking as Wieland Wagner’s “painting with light” productions were in post-war Bayreuth. In yesterday’s production, the transformations of the backdrops created a synergistic effect with the music, which I found to be emotionally overwhelming. 


I am gratified and thankful that in this current production, the director and set designers did not use Wagner to further their own political ideologies, as we so often see in European productions. I am so glad to see Wagner back in Seattle Opera’s repertory again. Buy a ticket and run to see this production. I can safely say that it will be nothing like you have seen or heard before.



Light of Humanity

In spite of the horrors of finding parking in downtown Vancouver – an Iranian protest, Elton John’s concert and a hockey game were going on at the same time – the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ opening concert of their season reminded us that this group is truly one of the jewels in our city vibrant choral scene.


The programme is “ecumenical”, with music that drew inspiration from Aboriginal sources (The Gift by Russell Wallace), the great Catholic choral tradition (Versa est in luctum by Alonso Lobo and a Kyrie setting by Larry Nickel), and the Ismali heritage (Nur: Reflections on Light, by Hussein Janmohamed). In addition, there were music by Tracy Wong – Antara - drawing from the words of Malaysian writer Hohd Tauid, Benjamin Britten’s anti-war Advance Democracy, Craig Galbraith’s Lux humanitas, which draws from a variety of text sources, and the work that served as the centerpiece of the entire concert, as well as giving the concert its title. 


The final work, This is My Song, with lyrics set to Sibelius’ Finlandia, became for me especially meaningful and poignant, with so many displaced people everywhere in the world – Iran, Ukraine, China, and Hong Kong, to name just a few - persecuted because of their political or religious beliefs. 


Artistic Director Paula Kremer returned to conduct the choir, and brought to the music a depth, subtlety and flexibility of sound. The voices of the choir, as well as the solo singers featured, remain strong and blended beautifully from first note to last. 


We welcome back Ms. Kremer and wish her continuing good health, and many more years of music-making with this outstanding group of singers.


Friday, October 21, 2022

The Goldberg Variations

At the end of Sir Andras Schiff’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations Thursday evening, I felt that applause would almost have been an intrusion, a rude awakening from the magical reverie of the past hour, almost like King Marke bursting in upon the dazed lovers at the end of Act II of Tristan und Isolde.


What an incredible evening of Bach, brought to us by one of today’s great artists and musicians. As with Schiff’s recital on Tuesday, it was a generous evening of music – the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, and then the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. Before each piece, Schiff would enlighten us with brief works about the piece in question, in the process also revealing a little of his thoughts of our present human and societal condition.


As a prelude to the evening, Schiff played a beautifully shaded performance of Bach’s Sinfonia in F minor, BWV 795, probably one of his most profound keyboard works – certainly one of his most difficult and complex - saying so much, as Schiff said, in so little time. 


In the 1st movement of the Italian Concerto, Schiff brought about the contrast between the ripieno and concertino not so much with different volume, but with different qualities of sound. In the Andante, the right-hand passage of the “solo” was beautifully shaped by the artist, making it truly sounding like a solo instrument in a concerto, like an oboe, for which Bach wrote such incredible music, and the left hand provided a subtle but beautifully shaped accompaniment by the “strings”. Schiff’s tempo choice for the Presto was a shade slower than some other pianists who literally takes on a breathless quality with this music, but the absolute steadiness at which he played made the experience just as stunning. As in the first movement, he effectively brought out the contrast between the ripieno and concertino, in this case almost like a shift between light and darkness.


I would have to say that Schiff’s performance of the Overture in the French Style was the epitome of elegance and style. He did not fall prey to ponderousness in the French overture, by giving the music a palpable forward motion. The B section of the overture betrayed a deftness and lightness of fingerwork, and again an almost concerto grosso-like contrast between piano and forte. The artist observed all of Bach’s repeats, allowing him to explore and highlight the well-thought out and beautifully executed ornaments in the repeats. The rhythmically tricky Gigue was, I thought, particularly brilliantly handled, and his playing of the Echo was truly humourous.


I had heard Sir Andras Schiff play the miraculous Goldberg Variations many years ago, in Seattle. After a lifetime of performing and thinking about the piece, I think it has now really become a part of him. Last night’s performance was so focused and so intimate, that I had the impression that we were eavesdropping upon him playing for himself. The hour went by very quickly indeed.


Schiff managed to bring out the unique character of each variation. Tempi were judiciously chosen. I think he now takes time to let the music breathe, even some of the variations that are usually played in a much quicker tempo. Variation 7 (al tempo di Giga), for instance, has a very nice “swing” to it – as did Variation 24. Variation 13 was played with absolute grace and beautiful shaping of the long phrases. I liked the sense of motion he imparted on Variation 15, a good reminder that Andante is really only a walking tempo. Likewise, in the French Overture of Variation 16, he played the music with a palpable sense of forward motion, as well as an appropriate lightness. In Variation 25 (adagio), the emotional centerpiece of the entire work, he did not “milk” the tragedy of the music, but kept the pace of the movement of the music. In the B section of the variation, he truly highlighted the absolute “weirdness” of the melodic contour, giving the music a sense of utter bleakness and desolation. In Variation 29, from mm. 10 – 14, and again in mm. 27 to 30, he created a kind of “clattering” sound that one usually finds in the harpsichord, a most intriguing sound effect on the Steinway. The Quodlibet(Variation 30) was played with high good humour, Schiff himself obviously relishing every moment of it, a very appropriate interlude before the return of the Aria


When Schiff reached the return of the Aria, I truly felt that he had taken us on an incredible sonic, musical, emotional and spiritual journey, and that there was a sense of returning home, of resolution, or of a closing benediction.


How fortunate it is for Vancouver audience to have experienced this otherworldly musical experience. As Schiff said at the beginning, we do have Leila Getz to thank for bringing a young Andras Schiff to our city some forty years ago. I feel truly thankful to have been a part of this shared musical communion.





Thursday, October 20, 2022

Sir Andras Schiff's Surprise Recital

Sir Andras Schiff made a welcomed return to Vancouver with two recitals this week, under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society.


Yesterday evening’s very generous recital at the Vancouver Playhouse was a surprise, of sorts, because the programme was not given in advance, but announced from the stage by the artist. While it wasn’t exactly a lecture-recital, Sir Andras did enlighten the works he performed with much information about the music, delivered with his inimitable wit and charm. 


The recital got off to a surprising start when Schiff sat down at the piano and played the Aria of the Goldberg Variations, a work that he is scheduled to play this coming Thursday. At the end of this brief performance, he jokingly said that he was merely using this brief piece “to practice for Thursday”, but also as a “test” piece, as he did not have an opportunity to hear the acoustics of the hall earlier in the day.


Schiff then proceeded with a pair of works – J. S. Bach’s Ricercare in 3 voices from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079, and Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor, K. 475 – pointing out the similarity between the “Royal theme” from The Musical Offering and the opening theme of Mozart’s work – indeed there was an uncanny similarity between the contour of the two themes. His playing of Bach is always convincing, highlighting the modernity and the chromaticism of the theme which recurred the work. With the Mozart, I have certainly heard more “romantic” interpretation of the Fantasy in C minor, ones that drew from a larger palette of colours and range of emotions, but Schiff, not surprisingly, kept his beautiful interpretation well within classical proportions, remaining firming in the 18th century rather than looking forward to the 19th century.


After the dark colours of these opening works – Schiff did point out his belief in associating different keys with different visual colours – he continued with two sunnier compositions. He proceeded to play Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 and Mozart’s Kleine Gigue in G major, K. 574, the latter composition’s tribute to the Baroque master. Schiff demonstrated the similarity between the opening motive of the B section of the Gigue and the subject of the Gigue. His performance of the French Suite was utterly charming, and was like a museum curator highlighting the beauty of a precious jewel. Highlights for me were his playing of the Courante, which was breathtaking and exhilarating, and the Gavotte and Gigue, which were filled with a ticklish humour. The same good humour carried over into his playing of the Kleine Gigue, which Schiff described as Mozart’s funniest composition. 


The colour of the recital turned sombre once again with the next two works – Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 869 and Mozart’s Adagio in B minor, K. 540, his only work in this “pitch black” key (Schiff’s words). From the floating and beautifully paced playing of the Prelude, to the anguish falling motives of the Fugue’s subject (Schiff compared it to the Kyrie of Bach’s Mass in B minor), to the even darker colour of his moving performance of Mozart’s great Adagio, with the concluding shift to the major key a blessed relief, the pianist once again made a convincing connection between the two composers.


The first half of the recital concluded with Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K. 576, with the artist pointing out how difficult to play this “simple” music, for “anyone between the ages of 8 and 95”. Schiff added that Mozart is only easy for children and very wise old men. While he obviously had not reached the biblical age of 95, Schiff’s beguiling performance of the sonata betrayed, with every note, not only his identification with Mozart, but a lifetime of dedication, thinking and experience. Everything was beautifully proportioned, shone with an inner glow with every note played, and the operatic qualities of the music were very much in evident. 


The second half of the recital began with Haydn’s two-movement Sonata in G minor, Hob XVI:44. His performance of this charming sonata highlighted the composer’s gentle and genteel humour (many of Haydn’s other works often have a more rough, unbuttoned humour, but this was not one of them), with the works many ornaments especially elegantly executed. 


Schiff moved on to the final two works of the recital, the first being Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126, his last composition. He pointed out the genius of these brief works, and how they foreshadow Schubert’s Impromptus and Mendelssohn’s Lieder onhe Worte – many of the works in the set did very much have the flavour of Mendelssohn. In his performance of the fourth Bagatelle in B minor – Beethoven’s only work in this key - he highlighted the “tempest in a teacup” quality and rollicking humour of the piece, and Beethoven’s almost deliberate use of this dark key and turned the tables on us with his unique brand of good humour.


The final work presented in last night’s recital was a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 109, the first of his last three sonatas. Schiff’s conception of the work has deepened since the last time I heard him play this, and the experience had the impression of a connection between the first note and the last. I loved the way he handled the tricky opening of the first movement, making it sound not like a “beginning”, but music that emerged from somewhere. His playing of the return of the aria in the last movement, where the music drifted into silence, had the quality of a benediction, a moving conclusion to an incredible evening of great music. 


Last night’s recital was utterly and overwhelmingly uplifting, both musically and spiritually. 


We can be thankful to Sir Andras Schiff for the generosity of his spirit, and I am grateful to the Leila Getz for making Vancouver a regular stop for his sojourns. I am looking forward to Thursday’s all-Bach recital, which would surely be another experience that elevate us and deliver us from the not-always-beautiful realities of today’s world.



Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Art of Fugue

In discussing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), one is tempted to use words usually associated with theology and philosophy rather than music. So complex is its design, so profound its meaning, and so challenging to the intellect - and concentration - of the musician who dares to scale its towering height, it is, not surprisingly, not a work often found in concert programmes. Even Glenn Gould would, in his concert-giving days, only programme a few fugues from the set in his recital programmes.


Pianist Filippo Gorini appears to be a pianist well suited to the task of performing these works, being, even in his relatively young age, already associated with works like Beethoven’s late sonatas and the Diabelli Variations. Indeed, he is proving himself to be an artist whose, in Artur Schnabel’s facetious words, second half of his recital being just as boring as the first.


Well, there was no second half to yesterday’s recital, when the Vancouver Recital Society launched its season with this bold presentation. After a brief talk about his journey of discovery into Bach’s monumental work, Gorini proceeded, over the next hour and a half, to play, from memory, the entire set from Contrapunctus 1 to the unfinished Contrapunctus 14.


In examining the score of this work, it seems like Bach did have the keyboard in mind when he composed the work. In the technically challenging Contrapunctus 7, 9 and 13, the music seems eminently pianistic, difficult as they may be. In my readings, Bach did have the harpsichord predominantly in his mind when composing these fugues -- What I wouldn’t give to hear Bach play them on the harpsichord!


Gorini was completely and utterly above the technical challenges of the piece, which allowed this listener to focus completely to his approach to the music. That said, I could not help but ponder upon the transcendental technique he must possess in order to present these works as convincingly as he did. I liked the searching manner in which he began many of the fugues, almost as if he is inviting us to embark upon this astounding musical journey. That said, he managed to infuse within each fugue a slightly different character. Throughout the performance, he was like a man who both lost and found himself, losing himself completely in the music, yet clearly seeing the way before him.


Can music like this be “enjoyable”, or moving? My answer from yesterday’s performance is a resounding “yes”. From the first notes of the subject in Contrapunctus 1 to the singular final note of Contrapunctus 14, it was, totally and utterly, an overwhelmingly emotional and moving experience. Throughout the afternoon, there was a feeling of spiritual exultation in Gorini’s music-making. The 90 minutes of the recital went by very quickly indeed.


I would be very keen to keep my eyes and ears open for this young artist’s development. 


I look forward to his next journey of musical discovery.



Monday, May 23, 2022

The Inner World of Eric Lu

 Eric Lu’s performance at the Vancouver Playhouse yesterday reminded me of what Leschetizky said to Artur Schnabel, “You will never be a pianist, you are a musician.” I would only amend that statement by saying that Lu is also an exceptional pianist, but an even finer musician.


The recital opened with Robert Schumann’s gem of a miniature, the Arabeske in C Major, Op. 18, a performance that betrayed the luminous sound Lu drew from the Steinway. The final section of the work, Zum Schluss (m. 209) was achingly beautiful.


I am grateful to Lu for playing, with great inspiration, Schumann’s relatively rarely performed Waldszenen, Op. 82. Once again, he drew us into the composer’s most intimate thoughts and emotions, at the same time highlighting the individual character of each piece. For me, the delicacy he brought to Einsame Blumen, as well as the almost psychedelic colours he painted in sound, the famous Vogel als Prophet, were particularly endearing. And how movingly he played the final Abschied, taking us through a wondrous sonic journey to the two soft final chords. 


The first half of the concert ended with a rousing but thoroughly musically satisfying reading of Brahms’s Theme und Variation, a transcription (written for Clara Schumann) of the movement from his String Sextet No. 1, Op. 18. Lu managed the no small feat of threading his way through Brahms’s texture with astounding clarity and beauty.


Lu began the second half of the concert with Schubert’s heavenly Impromptu in G-flat Major, Op. 90, No. 3, beguiling us again with the beauty of his sound, making the long melodic line float, and allowing us to hear the harmonic progression of the arpeggiated accompaniment. 


The young artist’s rendition of Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35 was truly overwhelming. He managed to highlight the absolute wildness of the opening theme, which makes the contrast with the lyrical second theme even more stark. Throughout the movement, Lu played the music in the manner of a titanic struggle. He played the opening repeated-note figure of the second with great weight, giving this opening a real sense of occasion and a feeling of substance. The waltz-like second subject once again reminded us of Lu’s gift for lyricism. In the funeral march, the gloom of the A section was, under Lu’s hands, not dispelled by even the incredible beauty of the D-flat Major section. Indeed, to my ears, he played this section not with a sense of consolation, but more with a feeling of shared grief. The petrifying final movement was indeed frightening. Two measures before the final outburst, Lu dramatically slowed the momentum of the music, giving it an almost unbearable tension, making the final B-flat minor chord all the more dramatic.


Lu’s single encore of Chopin’s Prelude in D-flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15, reminded me of pianist Byron Janis’ words about Chopin music, that it “pierces our ears and breaks our hearts.” From the lyrical opening, to the funereal middle section, and to the truncated return of the opening theme, Lu infused the music not only with beauty, but also with the logic of its arch-like structure. 


Hearing Lu’s playing yesterday, I had the feeling that he was allowing us into his very private world with his music making. I felt that I was eavesdropping on someone playing through an open window. Indeed, Lu’s music-making betrays a maturity and sensitivity well beyond his years. With his luminous playing at yesterday’s concert, I felt that we had in our midst, an old soul, one who illuminated the wonders and beauty of this timeless music that he shared with us. Eric Lu had indeed given us a precious gift with his playing – a window, a glimpse into his inner world. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Mozart's Divine Comedy

An emotional day yesterday as I attended my first opera since the pandemic – Seattle Opera’s production of Mozart’s timeless divine comedy, Le Nozze di Figaro. Indeed, there were times yesterday afternoon that I felt overwhelmed by the visceral effect of hearing this heavenly music.


Conductor Alevtina Ioffe led the cast of very well-balanced young voices in a performance that was beautifully sung and acted, (mostly) tastefully funny, and ultimately moving. Ioffe set a comfortably brisk reading of the overture, moulding the music into a cohesive whole but also propelling it forward, with well thought-out tempo choices throughout the performance, as well as logical tempo relationship between the different numbers within each act. It was only at the beginning of Act One’s Terzetto (“Cosa sento! Tosto andate”) that the tempo sagged slightly, somewhat hampering the tension and flow of the music. Kudos to the orchestra too, for their outstanding playing. The brief oboe line in the Countess’ Act Three aria (“Dove sono I bei momenti”) was lovingly played by oboist Ben Hausmann, although I feel that the line could have been shaped with even greater flexibility and space. Likewise, there was brilliant playing by Mark Robbins of the brief horn solo in Figaro’s Act Four aria (“Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”).


The voices were uniformly good. Other than outstanding performances of their own solo numbers, the cast really worked to blend their beautiful voices, making this genuinely an outstanding ensemble performance. Michael Samuel made for a convincing Figaro, demonstrating throughout the afternoon his uncanny comic timing – without sacrificing one iota the beauty of the music - conveying on the one hand the character’s street smart as well as being a bit of a “bonehead” at times. 


In the “trouser role” of Cherubino, Emily Fons gave truly stunning performances of the character’s two iconic arias. I felt that her overwhelmingly musical singing of the Act Two aria, “Voi che sapete”, really stopped the show. Her rendition of the notoriously difficult “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” highlighted the breathless quality of both the text and the aria.  Joshua Hopkin’s Count Almaviva had a physical presence that conveyed the sense of superiority of the character, as well as the almost self-destructive nature of his overactive libido. His “vengeance” aria in Act Three (“Vedro mentr’io sospiro”) conveyed the almost Handelian splendor of the vocal writing. 


Helen Dix conveys great dignity in her portrayal of Countess Almaviva, giving heartfelt and truly moving performances of both “Porgi, amor” in Act II and “Dove sono I bei momenti” in Act Three; her handling of the tempo and dramatic transitions in “Dove sono” was particularly deftly handled. Her voice blended magnificently with that of Anya Matanovic’s Susanna in the overwhelmingly beautiful Act Three duet (“Canzonetta sull’aria ‘Che soave zeffiretto”), a real highlight of the afternoon. Dix’s singing of the brief line in Act Four, expressing her pardoning of the Count’s dalliances, conveyed the almost Christ-like nature in her forgiveness. Those six or so measures of music, when all action is abruptly suspended, represents for me a highpoint in all of opera, perhaps even all of music. (The final trio from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier comes a close second.)


Matanovic was the perfect Susanna, conveying the perfect combination of the character’s innocence, sassiness and wit. Her Act Four “garden aria” (“Deh vieni, non tardar”) was another instance when one held one’s breath throughout the performance.


Even the “minor” roles were expertly casted and extremely well sung. The only slight disappointment for me was the exaggerated portrayal of Don Basilio, making him even more of a caricature than Mozart had originally intended. Margaret Gawrysiak’s Marcellina was convincing in her dramatic transition from the “older woman” to loving mother. I must say that the idea of the long-lost child with a distinctive birthmark is probably one of the oldest cliches in theatre, yet Mozart’s genius with the music elevated what would have been a silly interlude into one of the most moving scenes, for me, in the entire drama. I was sorry that her Act Four aria was cut from the production, depriving her of a brief moment in the spotlight; perhaps the director felt that it hampers the flow of the drama. 


Ashley Fabian sang Barbarina’s Act Four aria (“L’ho perduta…me meschina!”) beautifully, highlighting Mozart’s uncanny dramatic and comic instinct, giving her this music of mock seriousness, filled with genuine pathos, over something as innocuous as losing a pin. I could not help but noticed the similarity of this aria’s opening melodic contour with the themes of Haydn’s Andante with Variations for piano in f minor (Hob XVII:6) as well as the opening theme of Schubert’s Fantasie for piano, four hands, in f minor, D. 940. What is even more uncanny is that all three works are in the key of f minor, and all three themes convey the same sense of gentle pathos. I could not help but wonder if Mozart was familiar with this Haydn work, or which music came first.


Stage director Peter Kazaras moved the drama along effectively, adding some clever dramatic insights along the way. In Act One and Act Three, when the peasants were presented to the Count, Kazaras had different women interact with the Count in various ways, suggesting that the lusty Count had had his way with more than a few of them, including one who was obviously with child, and motioned for the Count to notice her growing belly – a not-so-subtle way of indicating the parentage of the child. Benoit Dugardyn’s simple but effective set design, with columns forming a semicircle that gave a sense of depth, provided an effective backdrop as well as setting itself against the vibrant colours of the costumes designed by Myung Hee Cho. The set was beautifully lit by Connie Yun, with shifting colours to indicate the passing of the day. The colour of the impending dusk in Act Three was particularly striking.


While every opera of Mozart highlights different aspects of his genius, I personally believe that in Le Nozze di Figaro, the composer achieved perfection. He not only transformed Beaumarchais’ inflammatory (for its time) play into a testament to love and the sanctity of marriage, in the process giving us many insights into our all-too-fallible human nature. On top of all this is music of transcendent beauty that pierces our ears and melts our hearts, truly elevating us far above our everyday existence.









Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Jakub Kuszlik - Canadian Debut

As the cliché goes, life is indeed full of wonderful surprises. I thought I knew the works performed at last night’s recital backwards and forward, and then someone comes along playing these same pieces, and sweeps you off your feet and captures your heart.


Which was how it was with the Vancouver recital debut of pianist Jakub Kuszlik, in an all-Chopin recital. He commenced his performance with the three waltzes, Op. 34, a spritely performance of the Waltz in A-flat (No. 1), a deeply felt reading of the Waltz in A minor (No. 2), and a performance of the Waltz in F major (No. 3) that highlighted the rhythmic quirkiness of this very original work.


Perhaps more than any of his other creations, the mazurkas of Chopin most embody the element of zal, that almost untranslatable Polish word that contains a whole host of meanings, but can be generally described as a bittersweet melancholy. Kuszlik’s performance of the Four Mazurkas, Op. 30, captured the essence of this elusive quality. I was especially touched by his performance of the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 4, with its combination of deep sadness, anguish, and defiance. 


Kuszlik’s beautifully played the Nocturne in E major, Op. 62, No. 2, with an almost cinematic unfolding of the evolving stream of consciousness, from the calm, stately opening, to the agitato middle section with its complex polyphony, and to the flowing cantabile of the closing.


The young artist gave a masterful performance of the Scherzo in C-sharp minor, Op. 39, immediately conveying the restless quality of the music in the opening bars, as well as highlighting the stark contrast between light and shadow throughout the work. Amazingly, Kuszlik shaded the chorale theme and made it different with each appearance. The rippling descending broken chords that follow the chorale theme were played with a beguiling lightness, like shafts of lights shining through the clouds. The tempestuous and fiercely difficult coda was absolutely thrillingly played.


The second half of Kuszlik’s recital began with the Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49, the only work of Chopin’s with this particular title. For me, a successful performance of this work has to have a storytelling quality, a feeling of, “Long ago, and far away…” To my ears, Kuszlik’s performance had this quality of a continuing narrative through the music many disparate episodes, but also a feeling of wholeness, or organic unity.


Kuszlik’s performance of the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 was simply masterly. It had nobility, beauty and a sense of freshness, of discovery, all the more remarkable given our familiarity with this music. In the first movement, the sense of urgency in the opening flowed very nicely into the beautiful D major theme. Indeed, he made the move from one of a wealth of melodic ideas to the next completely natural and logical, and gave the movement a sense of cohesiveness, rather than meandering from one beautiful idea to another. In the brief scherzo, the enharmonic change that marked the transition from E-flat major to B major was absolutely magical. Kuszlik made this short scherzosounded like a logical intermezzo that took us from the opening movement through to the Largo that follows. This Largo movement was played with much attention to detail, beauty of sound, but with a flowing quality that again took us through Chopin’s many melodic ideas. I was particularly taken with the pains Kuszlik took to highlight the beauty of the composer’s writing for the left hand. He gave the presto non tanto movement an incredible urgency (without any feeling of rushing), a relentless quality, with almost a feeling of desperation, all the way until the work’s cataclysmic ending.


At the conclusion of the sonata, the audience gave Mr. Kuszlik a rousing and well-deserved ovation, whereupon he granted us two encores – Brahms Rhapsody in E-flat major, Op. 119, No. 4, which he played with brimming enthusiasm, an infectious vigor and youthful ardour (different from my own view of this work), and the same composer’s Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 116, No. 2, highlight the grey-tinged autumnal colours of the work.


In additional to the many of the aforementioned musical qualities of Mr. Kuszlik’s performance, it was, above all, music-making that moves. There is a depth of quality as well as an emotive quality in Mr. Kuszlik’s playing that drew me into his, and Chopin’s, sound world – a rare gift indeed.


Illness prevented Rafal Blechacz from fulfilling his engagement in Vancouver, but The Vancouver Chopin Society scored a real coup here in having found Mr. Kuszlik. We look forward to being witnesses to the many subsequent chapters in his artistic journey.



Saturday, April 2, 2022

Music of Exile

I returned to the Orpheum Theatre last night to hear cellist Mischa Maisky as guest soloist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.


The originally scheduled conductor had to cancel in the very last moment because of a family emergency, and the orchestra was fortunate in having secured the services of Stefan Asbury, a highly experienced conductor.


Perhaps it was Mr. Asbury’s experience that allowed him to put together this challenging programme in such short notice. Verdi’s I Vespri Siliani Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major were both well played by the orchestra. The Verdi was, however, curiously lacking in tension throughout, a “pleasant” reading rather than one that gets one’s pulse going. I had the same impression with the performance of the Beethoven, an interpretation that looks back at the genial music of Haydn rather than the revolutionary sounds of the Eroica; last night’s performance lacked a tautness in the musical fabric.


For the performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, I have a feeling that the musicians of the orchestra were inspired, and really rose above themselves because of the presence of a great soloist. The missing musical tension in the first half of the concert was suddenly there, in spades.


Mr. Maisky gave a big, bold, heroic and ardent performance of the concerto, painting on an extremely large canvas. An experienced and avid chamber musician, he took pains to blend his own sound with that of the orchestral fabric, and conductor and soloist worked to make the work a symphonic experience. The range of sounds and colours he got from his instrument was nothing short of astounding. In the beautiful and soulful second theme, Maisky drew us into his emotional and sound world with playing that was both ardent and confiding. His playing of the second movement – music inspired by the illness of Dvorak’s sister-in-law and true love - was deeply heartfelt and overwhelmingly moving. In the third movement, he played with a rousing virtuosity that was breathtaking. 


Mr. Asbury should be given much credit for his role in the performance, for the Dvorak concerto is one that is littered with many potential ensemble pitfalls, all of which he and the orchestra deftly negotiated. He managed to give the work an organic whole. 


I was extremely touched by the entire performance, not only because of the great performance by this great musician. The Dvorak concerto is music of exile, as the composer had written it while living in America, far from his beloved Czech homeland. Throughout the work, there is a palpable sense of longing, a longing for home. 


Musical works created in exile and by exiles are often the most powerful – this would explain the power of the music of Chopin. 


In these last few years, when political persecution by ruthless dictatorships, and illegal war by a brutal dictator, had driven countless people from their homeland – in Hong Kong, in Syria, and of course Ukraine - last night’s performance of this Dvorak concerto became, for me, not only moving but extremely relevant. 


I do not know whether Mr. Maisky had any of these thoughts last night, but perhaps his choice of his only encore was telling – the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite in C minor – a performance filled with dark colours and meaningful silences, one that had the audience holding their breath. Maisky, wisely, did not make any announcement or pronouncement, perhaps leaving it up to the imagination of the audience whom this mournful music was meant for.


All of a sudden, the world became a better place. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Vancouver Recital Debut - Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu

Bruce Liu, the young pianist from Montreal who captured the hearts of the Varsovian audience at the 18th International Chopin Competition, made his Vancouver recital debut in two recitals this past weekend. Hearing the same programme two days in a row, in different venues, and with two beautiful but very different Steinway pianos, make for some interesting comparison.


The excellent acoustics of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts gave great warmth to the sound of the piano. At the Orpheum Theatre, in spite of its size, the Steinway there had greater projection and a bigger sound, thereby allowing the music to create a greater visceral impact and giving it more clarity of texture. I am grateful to have heard this young artist twice in such different surroundings, and I wouldn’t want to have to choose one from the other.


It is evident from the first piece on the programme, Chopin’s ethereal Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. 27, No. 1) that Liu understands the shaping and projection of phrases in this difficult work. From the mysterious opening with the widely spaced broken chords of the left hand, to the high drama of the almost mazurka-like middle section, and back to the slightly unsettling beauty of the opening theme, Liu made the music float. Phrases melt from one to the next, and I was stunned by his ravishing pianissimos


In my conversation with him, Liu said that he is interested in playing some of the lesser played youthful works by Chopin. His affinity for the more overtly virtuosic early works of the composer was evident in his performance of the Rondo a la mazur in F major, Op. 5. His playing of this youthful work was utterly filled with charm as well as a youthful, carefree sense of playfulness. Moreover, he captured the elusive rhythmic hurdles of the mazurka, to the manner born, as the saying goes.


In the larger works, like the Ballade in F major, Op. 38 and the Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47, Liu was clearly at home with these larger-scale compositions of Chopin. In time, perhaps he will create greater contrast between the calm of the opening of the F major Ballade and the storm of the B section. For me, the highlight of the recital’s first half was the Ballade in A-flat major, where the sheer beauty of Liu’s sound on the Steinway was truly something to behold. He played this A-flat Ballade with breathtaking lightness and a disarming gracefulness. It was truly a remarkable achievement for so young an artist.


In Liu’s performance of the Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35, he brought to the work a sense of organic totality, from the high drama of the opening to the cataclysmic end of the final movement. In the Doppio movimento section of the first movement, there was a sense of desperation in Liu’s playing of the unsettling right-hand theme. Liu’s effortless virtuosity in the Scherzo was truly astounding. In the middle section of the Scherzo, he not only played the rocking theme with great beauty, but he made us aware of the intricacies of the composer’s writing for the left hand. The iconic funeral march was played with an overwhelming sense of stillness, making it truly a frighteningly relentless march of death. In the final movement, I “saw” with my ears the phantasmagoric and spookiness of the wind blowing across the deserted graveyard. A stunning performance indeed.


Liu’s ability to create a beautiful – not a superficial kind of beauty, but one with great substance – was evident in his playing of the Andante spianato, the last work on the official programme. It was utterly, meltingly beautiful, with one note dissolving into the next in the long-breathed melodic line. The fanfare that opens the Grande Polonaise was played with a great sense of occasion and rhythmic acuity. Because the theme of the Polonaise returns so often, this work can sometimes feel long, under the wrong hands. Not so with Bruce Liu, who managed to infused each return of the theme with different inflections and colours. His virtuosity towers over the blistering technical and musical demands laid down by the composer. 


In both recitals, the audience clamored for more at the end of Liu’s performance. The artist obliged with two encores on the first day, and three after his second recital – the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth and the Etude in G-flat major, Op. 10, No. 5 (“Black key”), which he played on both days, and one of the three Ecossaises the composer wrote. I am certain the audience would have been happy with many more.


All in all, a highly successful debut by a major young artist at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career. At this time, I only wish him continuing artistic and musical development, and that he would successfully navigate through the challenges and temptations of sudden fame. It would now be very interesting to hear Bruce Liu in other repertoire. From the evidence of this weekend’s recital, there is no reason to doubt that this young man can become one of the great artists of the next generation. 


I wish him Godspeed in his artistic and musical journey.