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. 

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