I ventured into Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre last Saturday for my first live Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concert in almost two years. In spite of being masked for an hour and a half, the concert turned out to be a more than worthwhile experience. The programme was tailored for a somewhat scaled-down orchestra because of our present social distancing requirements.
Music director Otto Tausk led the orchestra in a spirited reading of Joseph Bologne’s Overture to L’Amant anonyme. It was my first exposure to the music of this French classical composer, a contemporary of Mozart - Bologne was eleven years Mozart’s senior. Born in the West Indies to a planter and an African slave, Bologne was brought to France for education when he was seven. During his adult years, he was active not only as composer, violinist and conductor, but also as a champion fencer. The “overture”, in actuality a symphony in three movements, is composed in the gallant style, and contains a wealth of felicitous melodic materials. It is good that Bologne’s music is becoming better known and more often performed, as he is obviously a highly gifted composer. The orchestra more than rose to the challenges of the music, and Tausk lavished much care into preparing the ensemble in giving a polished performance.
The next item on the programme, much better known, was the Pelleas et Melissande Suite by Gabriel Faure. As in the Bologne, this performance was prepared and executed with much care. The justly famous Siciliano was played with great beauty by the flutist Chris James.
The great interest of the evening was of course Vancouver Symphony debut of Canadian Charles Richard-Hamelin, silver medalist of the 2015 International Chopin Competition. Hamelin had already given two outstanding solo recitals in Vancouver, but this was his long-awaited debut with the orchestra, one of the last major Canadian orchestras to feature him as concerto soloist.
Appropriately, Hamelin’s choice for his orchestra debut was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor.
Since 2015, when he burst onto the international music scene with his win in Warsaw, Hamelin has matured both as an artist and musician. The freshness of his playing is still there, in spades, but add to that is now a maturity and depth in the music he plays.
From the first chords of his entry in the first movement, it is easy to see why this young Canadian captured the hearts of the Varsovians and the ears of the jury members, for he demonstrated a complete identification with the Chopin idiom, as well as the logic of the composer’s melodic invention. Even with the large number of pianists who make Chopin a major part of their repertoire, there is only really a handful of true Chopinist in every generation. Charles Richard-Hamelin obviously belongs to this very small and select group.
Hamelin played this work with a large palette of tone colours. His sound is always round and beautiful, and never forced. The shaping of each melodic idea was obviously well thought out, but without sacrificing the feeling of freshness and spontaneity. Every inflection was beautiful and poetic. In the second movement, Hamelin drew us into the very intimate sound world of the composer, and highlighted the great inner beauty inherent in the music. There was a hushed quality in his playing of this music, and the audience responded with the greatest compliment that can be afforded to any artist – silence. The Krakowiak rhythm of the third-movement, a stumbling block for many pianists, was brought to life under Hamelin’s hands.
Chopin’s writing for the orchestra has been the subject of much derision. But if one were to examine the score carefully, one can see that the composer’s orchestration is not only highly sensitive in highlighting the solo part, but offers much beauty in itself, especially in the writing for the woodwinds. Tausk and the orchestra acquitted themselves admirably in playing this difficult score, sensitively supporting Hamelin from first note to last.
The years following the winning of a major competition can be difficult ones for a young artist. After the initial buzz and attention of the musical press (and critical opinion can turn without a moment’s notice), a musician can continue to grow and develop into musical maturity, or an initially promising career can fizzle out if he or she merely keeps riding on the initial sensation. It is apparent that Charles Richard-Hamelin has now firmly established himself as a seasoned and mature artist, and we, the listeners, look forward to the coming chapters of his musical and artistic journey.