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.