Sunday, December 3, 2023

Two Expressions of Love in Seattle

This past Thursday’s Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert featured two very different expressions of love – David Robertson’s Light Forming a Piano Concerto, a “love letter” written for his wife Orli Shaham, the piano soloist of the evening, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, who’s ethereal Adagietto movement is, according to conductor Willem Mengelberg, an ardent love letter for the composer’s wife Alma. 


It is difficult to judge a complex new work without the score or any prior knowledge about the work of the composer. David Robertson, who was also conductor of the evening’s performance, wrote in the programme notes that he composed the work with his wife’s formidable pianistic and musical abilities in mind. Certainly, the concerto poses incredible technical hurdles for any pianist who attempts it. The three movements of the work, played without pause, takes the audience through a gamut of moods and emotions. From the restless opening movement (“the uncertain music of their voices”), to the slow movement (“amphorae of the heart”) that obviously forms the emotional core of the entire work, and to the joyous final movement (“Resounding to joy”), Shaham was in complete technical and musical command of the Olympian challenges her husband laid down in this work. The soloist was also very aware of the many interplays between piano and the instruments of the orchestra, especially the horns and bassoon. The middle movement, given a deeply felt performance by Shaham, was indeed a sort of chamber music, with much dialogue between pianist and the orchestral musicians. In spite of the large orchestra the work calls for, Robertson managed to always maintain a clarity of texture, both for the hardworking soloist and in the orchestra texture.


It is difficult for us to imagine that there was a time when the music of Gustav Mahler was found to be strange, vulgar, and downright incomprehensible. Mahler’s time indeed has come, and this enthusiasm does not seem to be going away, as any performance of a Mahler symphony would form the highlight of any orchestra’s season. Last evening, Robertson and the musicians of the orchestra offered us the composer’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, in a performance that left me emotionally overwhelmed. 


In the funeral march of the opening movement, Robertson kept up the pace of the march, which resulted in a frightening stillness in the music. Even with the massiveness of the sound, there was always a transparency of texture, and the entire movement was wonderfully paced, with the sound carefully gauged such that the listener felt that there is still something in reserve. The seating arrangement of the string section, with the first and second violins seated on opposite sides of the stage, also gave a different perspective to the texture of the polyphony. There was truly stellar trumpet playing last evening, especially from principal trumpet David Gordon, whose sound really formed the palette of the sonic landscape throughout the symphony.


My only reservation is that the final two triplet figures, played by muted trumpets, did not have more of a far-away, almost disappearing quality to them; as well, the final pizzicato C-sharp by the violas, celli and basses, could have had much more vehemence. 


The gigantic rondo which forms the second movement – Mit grosser Vehemenz – was indeed that. There was some truly spectacular playing from all the members of the orchestra. In the long cello recitative based on the main March theme, the orchestra’s cellists played with a palpable depth of feeling that was deeply touching. 


In the Scherzo, I have some reservations about the lightness of the sound, a lack of a sense of weight, a pesante as well as dunkel quality in the sound and a little lacking in the cohesion of the logic. Perhaps the conductor’s desire for transparency of texture carried over into this movement? That said, the movement was splendidly played by members of the orchestra, with truly virtuosic playing by principal horn Jeffrey Fair. The pacing of the second Trio, the dialogue between the obligato horn and the celli, leading to a hushed passage by a magically played pizzicato strings, and then a nostalgic waltz, was well paced indeed.


The Seattle Symphony strings played the justly famous Adagietto with a great beauty of sound and sensitivity. Even though the composer marked this movement Sehr langsam, conductors have taken this movement in a range of tempi. Robertson took the music in a somewhat moderate tempo, and paced the movement well, not pushing it to its emotional edge, but letting the music unfolds naturally, and always taking care to maintain the flow of the music. 


From the almost rustic opening of the Rondo-Finale to the triumphal brass chorale that ends the movement, Robertson inspired the orchestra to a totally committed, rousing performance, bringing us in the emotional journey from utter tragedy in the beginning to its life-affirming, joyous conclusion. It was not the heart-on-sleeve, hyper-emotional Mahler advocated by Leonard Bernstein, but one that presents the masterful architecture of the composer’s design, as well as a performance that touches our emotions with its sonic splendor and depth of feeling. The end result is a performance that I found deeply moving. The sounds of this majestic symphony resounded in my mind during the long trip back to Vancouver.


Robertson is a thoughtful conductor with deep insights into the music, who invites (often with a smile) rather than commands the musicians to contribute in the collective act of music-making. There was obviously wonderful chemistry between orchestra and conductor. I am quite aware that the orchestra is going through a search for a new music director. Judging from last evening’s performance, I do not think they could do any better than David Robertson.



Saturday, September 9, 2023

Vancouver Symphony Season Opener with Yo Yo Ma

Cellist Yo Yo Ma made a flying visit to Vancouver to open the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s 105thconcert season. 


The orchestra wisely placed Ma’s performance at the second half of the concert, so there was a great feeling of anticipation when Ma finally stepped onto the stage of the Orpheum Theatre for a performance of the Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104. 


In a sleepless night after the concert where the sounds of Ma’s cello kept playing in my mind, I pondered what it is that makes Ma such a compelling artist. 


Unlike cellists such as Rostropovich and Maisky, Ma doesn’t produce a big bold sound from his instrument. What drew listeners, and members of the orchestra that played with him last evening, is a high personal, emotion-filled, intimate, even confiding tone that he produces on the cello. He has reached a point in his music-making that it isn’t even sounds that he makes on his instrument, but an endless range of emotions, with Dvorak’s notes as the medium. It was a highly personal approach to this very familiar concerto that would sound disjointed and illogical under the wrong hands, but somehow, Ma was able to infuse his performance into an organic whole.


I believe that Yo Yo Ma belongs to that very select group of artists who, in spite of the fame and adulation, never lost the sense of wonder about music, or the sense of privilege in making music. During the performance, he was evidently listening to members of the orchestra, making eye contact with them, almost cajoling them to join him in this act recreating something incredibly beautiful. I am certain that Ma has played this work countless times, but he was somehow able to make it sound fresh and spontaneous. 


In the second movement, a lament to the death of Dvorak’s sister-in-law and the true love of his life, Ma certainly bared his soul, and invited rather than commanded his listeners to enter his innermost thoughts. 


I have been attending performances of Mr. Ma since he was a very young artist, and it really has been a privilege to witness his artistic growth, through his performances and many recordings. At this time, one can only hope for many more years of his performing life, so that he can continue to share with us such indelible moments of beauty. 

Monday, August 21, 2023

Seattle Opera's 60th Anniversary Das Rheingold

Beginning with its production of Die Walküre in 1975, Seattle Opera has since put the city on the map as the Wagner capital of North America. This season, the 60-year-old company celebrated its anniversary with a presentation of Das Rheingold, directed by Brian Staufenbiel, and with former Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot directing the musical forces.


Vocally it was truly an impregnable performance – the voices were uniformly outstanding, from the commanding vocal and dramatic presence of Greer Grimsley, to the smaller role like Froh (Viktor Antipenko) and Donner (Michael Chioldi), singing actors all carried off their role with vocal beauty and dramatic conviction. Peixin Chen and Kenneth Kellogg were memorable and suitably menacing in their portrayal and singing of Fasolt and Fafner. Melody Wilson as Fricka and Katie Van Kooten as Freia, both sang with palpable musicality and a convincing degree of humanity - as well as all-too-human frailties as the all-too-human gods. 


Most memorable were Martin Bakari’s masterful portrayal of a crafty and slippery Loge, and Michael Mayes as a menacing and power-hungry – though not really all that lustful - Alberich. The vocal prowess of these singers was well-matched by a dramatic presence they brought to their roles. They truly became the characters they were singing.


Production designer David Murakami and Lighting Designer Mextly Couzin made effective use of projections and lasers to create visual effects that would otherwise have been near impossible – the rainbow bridge to Valhalla in Scene Four, for instance. For me, the drawback of the production design lay in the use of the stage as well as the orchestral pit. The production team placed the entire Seattle Symphony on the stage, with the singers singing either in front of the orchestra or above it on a metal bridge that supposedly signifies the “open space on a mountain, a castle glimmering in the distance”. 


To be sure, such placement of voices and orchestra gave the vocal lines much more prominence than we are used to. Unfortunately, from my vantage point, the all-important orchestral sounds did not match the presence of the voices. Rather than having the sound of the orchestra envelope the vocal lines, the sounds of the instruments seemed receded in the background. 


The musicians of the Seattle Symphony played with great sensitivity and beauty of sound for Ludovic Morlot. Perhaps it was because of the placement of the orchestra, I did find myself wishing for a greater richness as well as weightiness in the sound, especially in the strings.


The orchestra pit was put to use dramatically, doubling as the Rhine River in Scene One as well as the subterranean Nibelheim in Scene Three. Although the use of projected “water” on a scrim made the image of the Rhine quite effective, it was much less visually convincing as Alberich’s labour camp for Mime and the Nibelungs.


The presence of the orchestra on stage somehow diminished the “magic” of the drama, giving it the feel of a semi-staged production. The absolute mystery of the beginning of the opera was missing, as we clearly saw the conductor giving the downbeat for the music. The low E-flat that begins the opera did not “come from nothing”, as I believe Wagner intended it to.

Of course, Wagner’s dramatic demands of these operas would challenge the most intrepid and ingenious director, and no one production could really claim to overcome all the problems posed by what the composer had in mind. It is when the director strayed too far afield from Wagner’s direction that lessened the impact of the drama.


That said, yesterday’s performance of Das Rheingold did make an indelible impression on me, at least musically. Let’s hope that the new general director of Seattle Opera would see to it that the other three operas of the Ring would soon be presented in the Emerald City.




Friday, August 11, 2023

A Magnificent Recital in the Summer

The drought of piano recitals in the summer was broken on Tuesday, August 8th, with pianist Sergei Babayan’s magnificent recital at Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral. In spite of the sounds of the Steinway competing with the occasional traffic noise, Babayan’s performance confirmed my previous impression that he truly is one of the Elect.


The concert commenced with Franz Liszt formidable and masterful Ballade No. 2 in B minor (S. 171), one of his finest solo piano works. I can see why this piece is rarely performed, as it takes not only a musician with transcendental technique, but also the ability, and vision, to hold all the disparate elements of the score together. Under the wrong hands, this work could sound like a series of beautiful episodes. In Babayan’s performance, there was a sense of unity, an organic cohesiveness to the score. The artist understands what Alfred Brendel calls Liszt’s nobility of spirit, and he underscored the ecstatic quality of the music, as well as the dark brooding colours found in so much of the work. He exploited – in the best sense of the word – and brought out the full resources of the piano. It was with this masterful performance that Babayan began his recital. 


With his performance of Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s Lieder, the piano was suddenly transformed into a songful instrument. In spite of the very high standards of piano playing today, few pianists could produce a true legato on the instrument. Under Babayan’s hands, the piano took on a palpable liquid, flowing quality. From the starkness of Die Stadt (D. 957) to the yearning of Der Muller und der Bach (D. 795) to the utter despair of Gretchen am Spinnrade (D. 118) and to the beautiful flowing melody of Auf dem Wasser zu singen(D. 774), Babayan gave the piano an absolute vocal beauty and a complete identification with and affinity for the Schubertian idiom that would be the envy of a Fischer-Dieskau or Ameling. 


I have long admired Babayan’s Rachmaninoff interpretations, so beautifully highlighted in his solo album for Deutsche Grammophon. At the risk of running out of superlatives, his performances of the composer’s Etudes-Tableaux (Op. 39) and Moment musicaux (Op. 16) highlighted all the beauty and inventiveness of his music. In his playing of the Etudes-Tableaux in E-flat minor (No. 5), Babayan brought absolute clarity to the dense texture as well as the passionate and tumultuous quality inherent in the score. The artist’s performance also highlighted the intricacies and forward-looking aspects of Rachmaninoff’s later works, as was evident in how he masterfully negotiated the complexities of the Etude-Tableaux in C minor (No. 1). At the same time, in his performance of the two earlier Moment musicaux, Babayan brought out the beauty of the composer’s harmonic and melodic inventions that so attracted musicians and music lovers to his earlier works. 


After intermission, the artist took the audience back to the 18th century with his performances of Mozart and Haydn. In many ways, the music-making in the second half was even more incredible, as the virtuosity required was even more subtle. The playing throughout was enthralling and moving. I was astounded by Babayan’s interpretation of Mozart’s early Sonata in B-flat Major (K. 281). There was great souplesse in his playing and breathing room for the music, but without disturbing the structural integrity of the work. Under his hands, the music seemed to have taken a three-dimensional quality, with a perfect balance between vertical and horizontal elements. His tempo choice in the second movement (Andante amoroso) reminded me of Horowitz’s admonition about this movement, “This was Mozart in love!” Babayan’s playing of the third movement brought out all the joy and humour of this jaunty movement, still so steeped in the aesthetics of the rococo. 


Haydn’s Sonata in E minor (Hob XVI: 47bis) is, for me, one of the most original works in his vast output of sonatas. A combination of sturm und drang as well as great humour, and a juxtaposition of joy and melancholy. Babayan’s playing of the first movement was, to my ears, like a beautifully shot black and white film, with infinite shades of light and darkness. His performance of the Larghetto was perfectly placed; he did not make it bigger than it is meant to be, but allowing the music to serve as an intermezzo between the two outer movements, and his romp through the third movement was simply breathtaking. 


Babayan brought out the elegance and humour in the first movement of the same composer’s Sonata in E-flat Major (Hob XVI:49). For me, the emotional core of the work lies in the magnificent slow movement - Babayan underscored the great depth and beauty of the outer sections and the gentle anguish, not to mention the darker colours, of the middle section. He took the gently rocking minuet of the third movement at a slightly slower tempo than I hear in my mind, which somehow made the humour inherent in this music even more pronounced. Somehow, Babayan managed to give the left hand a quality of a ticking clock. 


The artist gave an utterly charming performance of Mozart’s utterly charming Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” (K. 265). With the first notes of the music, the audience heaved a pleasant sigh of recognition of the famous tune. Babayan’s performance of this enchanting work with great panache, ending the evening’s performance with a palpable sense of joy and great good humour. It was, indeed, akin to a perfectly made dessert following a gourmet meal. 


Throughout this second half of the recital, I felt that the music-making had a sense of fantasy to it, a spontaneity and freedom, a feeling of discovery, and always full of surprises.


After a well-deserved ovation from the capacity audience, Babayan generously granted a single encore – although I am certain that the audience would have happily listened to many more – the Aria from Bach’sGoldberg Variations, a performance filled with all the grace and beauty it calls for, and one infused with a spiritual quality, as well as the quality of a benediction. 


Even in today’s crowded field of outstanding pianists, Sergei Babayan remains in a class of his own. Last Tuesday’s programme – indeed a traversal through a vast segment of the piano literature - amply demonstrated the artist’s generosity of spirit. The performance was a perfect synthesis of the intellect and the soul, the mind and the heart, and a reminder of how the greatness of music can make the world a better place. 

Patrick May



Monday, May 22, 2023

A Stunning Debut

There are many pianists who play Chopin. There are far fewer, in spite of the high level of piano playing today, who can really play Chopin. Happily, pianist Kyohei Sorita clearly belongs to this small second group, as he amply demonstrated in his all-Chopin recital yesterday, his Vancouver and Canadian debut. It was piano playing and music making that sought to move, rather than to impress, and he succeeded beyond our highest expectations. 


I don’t remember any pianist who would begin – or have the courage to begin - his or her recital with the Polonaise in A-flat Major (Op. 53), nor do I remember any pianist who made the great polonaise theme dance quite so vividly, or infused a lightness to the dance rhythm. And in the left-hand octave passage in the E Major section, Sorita tossed it off with nary of its demands, and managed the feat without pounding the piano. In the melancholic C section, he brought out details in the left hand that I had not noticed before. From there, he managed an incredible build-up of tension toward the incredible coda of the piece. 


Sorita played the Waltz in F Major (Op. 34, No. 3) with a breathtaking lightness, and managed it with a magical display of incredible finger-work. In the ascending series of grace notes (mm. 83-84) and the descend following it (mm. 87-88), he brought out the music with great charm and a true sense of humour. This was a masterful performance of one of Chopin’s most rhythmically challenging works. 


In the technically challenging Rondo a la Mazur, Op. 5, Sorita towered over the pianistic hurdles, and showed that he truly feels the mazurka rhythm, as well as bringing out the charming, almost music-box like quality of the music, that one felt like one was hearing the composer improvising on the piano. 


The opening section of the Andante spinato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22 contains one of Chopin’s most beguiling melodies (and that is really saying a great deal), and Sorita played it with a most beautiful, most liquid legato. As in his performance of the “Heroic” polonaise that opened the recital, the young artist again brought to life Chopin’s dance rhythm. With a less-than-perfect realization of this work, the listener is sometimes made to feel that the theme comes back perhaps once too often. Not so with Sorita’s sweeping performance, which somehow made each appearance of the polonaise theme slightly different and renewed energy.  


Before the audience had an opportunity to catch its breath, Sorita returned after intermission with a performance of all four Ballades. To play a single ballade is a challenge, but to play the entire set takes an artist who possesses the technique, the stamina, the musicality and understanding, not to mention the courage, to attempt this feat. Sorita showed that he possesses all of the aforementioned qualities, in spades. In each of the four Ballades, very familiar music indeed, Sorita managed to find new ideas, and new beauty not heard before. 


Even the much played and much heard Ballade No. 1 in G minor (Op. 23) sounded fresh under his hands. Each of these four large scale works was played, not as a series of beautiful episodes, as it is so often done, but with an organic unity, with the sense of one idea melting into another, and yet being part of the larger design. 


With each of the pieces, Sorita was the master storyteller, a great bard regaling us with tales from long ago times and far away lands. In the Ballade No. 2 in F Major (Op. 38), I had rarely heard the bell-like sonorities of the opening chord voiced quite so beautifully, or with such a contrast to the Presto con fuoco section, that it was, in the best sense, a rude awakening from a beautiful reverie. 


The Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major (Op. 47) was played with an overwhelming feeling of joy, and of elation, as well as a palpable musicality. The bell-like sonorities in the right hand that opens the Ballade No. 4 in F minor (Op. 52) was played as if coming from nowhere, giving us a feeling that the music had been going on long before we heard it. And the great coda was performed with sweep, but at the same time with clarity, as well as an obvious awareness of the contrapuntal complexities that is such a part of Chopin’s late works. 


The performance of these four great works certainly gave the audience a reason to cheer, and cheer they did, long and loud. Sorita graciously granted this appreciative audience three encores – Chopin’s Etude in C minor, Op. 25, No. 12 and Mazurka in C Major, Op. 56, No. 2, as well as Schumann’s Widmung – the composer’s great love song for Clara Schumann - as transcribed by Liszt. In the mazurka, Sorita brought out the fragrance of earthiness in the music. And in Schumann/Liszt’s Widmung, he downplayed Liszt’s invitation for virtuoso display, but gave the music a true sense of ardour and quiet ecstasy. 


The all-too-short afternoon was one that was filled with beauty and inspiration, leaving everyone with an overwhelming impression of communion into something very special. 


The performance confirmed my impression from the 2021 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, that Kyohei Sorita was and is the true artistic find from that very high-level competition. It was a real coup for The Vancouver Chopin Society to have engineered the Canadian debut of this outstanding young artist. Surely the sky is the limit in what will surely be an interesting artistic journey for this young musician. May he always reach for the stars.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

James Ehnes in Vancouver

Violinist James Ehnes returned to Vancouver and gave the first of three performances with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under conductor Katharina Wincor. 


Ehnes is truly a wonder of the violin world. Even among the many distinguished violinists playing today, he stands out with the musicality of his music making, and the beauty of his intonation and sound. In Korngold’s gorgeous violin concerto, whose thematic material is drawn from many of the composer’s film scores, he played with a freedom and utter expressiveness that was utterly disarming. In the final movement, the mild-mannered Ehnes played with an effortless and rousing virtuosity that simply took one’s breath away. 


Wincor and the orchestra provided a sensitive tapestry of sound for the solo violin, though I wished at times that Wincor would take a more assertive role in the Korngold’s beautiful writing for the orchestra. This was especially apparent in the swashbuckling third movement, with music from the film The Price and the Pauper, where the orchestra could have played with much more swagger.


It was truly a testament to Ehnes’ talent that he switched to the viola in the second half of the concert, playing Bartok’s unfinished viola concerto (which was completed by Hungarian-born composer Tibor Serly, based on Bartok’s drafts) with the same assurance and beauty of sound that we heard from his violin playing. Even though the viola plays continuously, one could clearly discern three disparate “movements” in the work. The first movement’s sparse scoring highlights the quietly mournful melodies of the viola solo, something that Ehnes sensitively highlighted with his playing. The soloist played the chorale-like slow movement with palpable depth and feeling, as much as he brought out the wildness of the folkdance-like third movement. As in the Korngold, Wincor and the musicians of the orchestra travelled with Ehnes through the gentle lyricism of this music of Bartok’s late years.


Katharina Wincor is a talented conductor with ideas about the music, and she drew a truly beautiful sound from the orchestra. The opening work – Johann Strauss’ On the Beautiful Blue Danube – was well played indeed, but alas terribly un-Viennese. The much need lilt that makes or breaks any performance of this work was missing, as was breathing space between the notes, with the result that the music did not really take off. What was also missing was a palpable sense of nostalgia, nostalgia for a world that perhaps never existed.


In Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which closed the concert, she drew an incredibly rich sound from the VSO strings in the introduction. I did feel, however, that she dwelled a little too much on the sound and less so on the forward motion of the music. In the Lassan section that follows the introduction, she indeed brought out Liszt’s indication of mesto, but not so much the composer’s tempo indication of andante. This slowness somehow took away some of the music’s tension and upset the tempo relationship of the opening with the rest of the work, for instance, the extremely vividly played Friska. The result was a performance, albeit well executed, that seemed out of proportion and lacked cohesion.


Nevertheless, it was a concert that not only showcased the artistry and virtuosity of James Ehnes, but the outstanding players of the orchestra. It is also a very interesting example of thoughtful programming, one that represents four very different art works of the Central European tradition. It would be interesting to hear this young conductor again in other repertoire, to have a more complete picture of her artistry.









Monday, May 8, 2023

Verdi's Compassionate Human Drama

Seattle Opera’s season-closing production La Traviata is one of those rare occasions where everything comes together – vocally, dramatically, visually, musically – resulting in an overwhelmingly moving and emotionally devastating theatrical and musical experience.


As soon as conductor Carlo Montanaro gave the downbeat for the Prelude to Act I – a masterpiece in string writing - I sensed that we were in for a special afternoon. The musicians of the Seattle Symphony played with great sensitivity and feeling, although the great theme of the Prelude – the melody from Act II when the heroine sings, “Amami Alfredo, Amami quant’io t’amo” – could have been played a little less aggressively, and with more of a glow in the sound. Behind the scrim, we already see what we know to be the end of the opera, a dying Violetta, being cared for in a hospital ward. At the end of the Prelude, the set changed in an instant to the party scene in Violetta’s house, conducted with great energy and a palpable sense of urgency. Indeed, throughout the opera, he managed not only an effective “accompaniment”, but created a curtain of sound that underscored the stream of drama unfolding on stage, and propelled the action with logic and a sense of flow from one emotion, one scene, to the next, until the devastating end of the opera.


There were many reasons why this production worked so effectively. The excellence of the young and wonderful voices and the absolutely convincing portrayals of the characters. Even secondary characters, especially Annina and Doctor Grenvil, were beautifully sung, and with palpable compassion. Mane Galoyan’s vocal pyrotechnics, especially her thrilling Sempre libera, certainly sent the first of many chills up my spine. 


But vocal pyrotechnics would have been meaningless if the leading soprano did not rise to the dramatic demands of the subsequent. This Ms. Galoyan did, in spades, as she was equally affecting in showing Violetta rising to her ultimate sacrifice in Act II, as well as in Act III, when she succumbs to her tragic fate. Tenor Duke Kim cuts a handsome figure on the stage, and he was utterly convincing in Alfredo’s evolution, from the innocent and guileless youth who lost his heart to Violetta in Act I, to the bitter and angry man at the end of Act II, and to the rather more worldly, but remorseful figure in Act III. Joo Won Kang’s Giorgio Germont gave this Verdi father figure great dignity, effectively using his remarkable voice to convey harshness (in Act II) and fatherly tenderness (in Act III) and convincingly portrays his evolution from the heartless request he made in Act II (perhaps a commentary of Verdi’s contemporary society on “fallen women”?) to the truly compassionate father figure – in this case to Violetta - Verdi is so effective in creating. In the words of that wise and insightful commentator on opera, the late Father Owen Lee, “The scene between Violetta and Alfredo’s father – the courtesan’s generous response to the honest plea of bourgeois respectability – is the great heart of Verdi’s opera.” I would add that Giorgio Germont’s final embrace of Violetta, as a father, is even more overflowing with the composer’s compassion for the neglected in his time. 


All three characters grow in different ways during the opera, and the three principals convincingly convey this gradual change through the drama. There was real chemistry between not only the star-crossed lovers, but between the older Germont and the woman yearning for his fatherly love. 


After the devasting encounter between Alfredo and Violetta at the end of Act II, the action froze, literally, the scrim comes down, and the music of the Prelude to Act III commenced, a highly effective way to put in sharp relief the strong emotions of Act II and the death-haunted atmosphere of Act III. As the Prelude was being played, the scene gradually changed from the bright colours of the party to the bare walls of a hospital ward. Ms. Galoyan’s delivery as she read aloud the lines from Alfredo’s father, who finally understands the depth of her sacrifice, was highly effective and emotionally searing. At the final moments of the opera, before falling to her death, Violetta rose and, with the almost-too-bright white light on her stark white hospital gown, almost like a transfiguration, stretches out her arm and delivers the lines, “Ah, ma io ritorno a viver! Oh gioia!”, one couldn’t help but felt that power of the miracle that Verdi has created, a miracle of compassion and love. 


I can say without hesitation that this was the most dramatically and musically convincing La Traviata I have seen in a long time. How privileged we were to be able to experience this remarkable recreation of Verdi’s supremely moving commentary on, again in the words of Father Owen Lee, “that half-acknowledged society below respectable society”.



Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Vancouver Debut - Tomasz Ritter, Fortepianist

Tomasz Ritter, the distinguished young Polish pianist, winner of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, made his Vancouver and Canadian recital debut yesterday, under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society, celebrating its 25th Anniversary season. Ritter performed on an 1819 Conrad Graf fortepiano, built by Paul McNulty, and I am as fascinated by the sonorities evoked by Ritter on the instrument as I am by his interpretation of the music.


In the two Chopin Nocturnes (Op. 15, No. 1 and Op. 9, No. 1), one is struck by the beauty and absolute softness of the piano’s sonority. Unlike a modern concert grand, the sound does not “hit” you like an arrow out of a bow. Rather, the sound of the instrument draws one in and compels one to really listen intently. With an artist who knows how to exploit – in the best sense of the word – the instrument, Chopin’s ppp markings, in, for instance measures 24 and 61 of the B-flat minor Nocturne (Op. 9, No. 1), were truly realized. In the beginning of the same Nocturne, as well as when the main theme returns at measure 70, the sound drifts in as if from nowhere, creating a magical effect. That said, this is not to say that the instrument is incapable of power, but the power of the sound comes not from volume, but from the contrast in the sound, as was fully evident in the stormy middle section of the F Major Nocturne (Op. 15, No. 1).


Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109 was another wonderful demonstration of the capabilities of the Graf fortepiano, and the gently rippling opening theme of the 1st movement never sounded more tender and loving than it did yesterday under Ritter’s hands. I appreciated the sense of totality with which Ritter handled the theme and variations of the 3rdmovement. In the same movement, I was astounded by the clarity of texture in the many layers of sound in especially the 4th, 5th and 6th variations. As well, Ritter fully evoked the other-worldly beauty of the theme of the 3rd movement, both in its initial appearance as well as in its heartbreakingly poignant return at the end. 


For me, the highlight of the afternoon was Ritter’s tour-de-force performance of Brahms’ transcription of Bach’s monumental Chaconne. This was a masterful reading of this challenging work, but our young artist rose far above Bach and Brahms’ musical and technical challenges. It was a perfect balance between clarity of the vertical texture and a sense of horizontal forward motion. The performance was so compelling that one almost doesn’t miss Busoni’s more well-known technicolour transcription. In fact, under Ritter’s hands, Brahms’ more austere transcription comes much closer to the spirit of Bach’s original.


After the interval, Ritter delivered a compelling performance Mozart’s great Fantasie in C minor, K. 475, taking us on a journey through the work’s kaleidoscopic range of colours and emotions. In the forte-piano contrast at the very beginning of the piece again took on a sense of light and shadow. Ritter conveyed the angst-ridden Allegro section (m. 42) by exploiting the different colours of the Graf. As well, he highlighted a contrasting sense of repose in the Andantino section (m. 91). On the instrument, the descending octave scale at m. 90 had a lightness one does not always hear on a modern piano. 


Likewise, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 784, highlighted both Ritter’s musical gifts as well as the beauty of the instrument. The hushed quality with which Ritter played opening pianissimo unison theme captured my attention right from the first notes. Even with the relatively softer sounds of the Graf, the fortissimo passages, like the octave restatement of the opening theme, were no less powerful. The chords of the E Major second theme took on a magical floating quality, with a sound that seemed to have come from nowhere. In the slow movement, Schubert’s indications of both ppp as well as sordini (m. 4, 15, 18, 34, 38 and finally 59) really became possible. In the final movement, Ritter really highlighted the feeling of a chase between the two hands in the opening measures. This feeling of restlessness effectively contrasted with the relative sense of repose in the second theme (m. 51). All in all, it was a very convincing, and absolutely committed, interpretation of this great work. 


Ritter chose, appropriately, to end the afternoon’s performance with Chopin as his encore – the now very popular Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth. Surely, a highly successful debut by one of today’s most distinguished exponents of the period piano. With the second edition of the International Chopin Competition for Period Instruments coming up this October, we can perhaps expect more performance on historic instruments in Vancouver? 

As much as I love the Steinway piano, Sunday’s performance certainly gave us a different and unique perspective on music that we all love and know so well. For that we can be grateful to Mr. Ritter’s visit to our city.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Glenn Gould - Selected Letters

Glenn Gould was an inveterate letter writer. Throughout his short life, he wrote letters to his parents, friends, colleagues, lawyers and mangers, specialists in various fields who contributed to his various projects, and fans.


In 1992, Oxford University Press published Glenn Gould – Selected Letters, a book that I treasure, and have read and reread, prompting me to write down these brief thoughts. 

In the National Library of Canada, the Gould collection includes 2030 letters written by the pianist, and 184 were chosen by the editors to be included in this volume. These letters shed light not only into Gould’s life – a life that is endlessly fascinating to his fans, even these many years after his death – but also his personality. 


The earliest letter (c1940) included in this volume is a Valentine poem Gould wrote for his mother, one that already demonstrates Gould’s early penchant for word play. 


Dear Mistress

Sometimes I’m as bad can be,

I run away quite often;

But when I give you my sad look

I know your heart will soften.


And so it begins…


The last letter in the book, and the last letter in the National Library’s collection, is one that he wrote to Teresa Ximenes of the Toronto Humane Society, granting permission for them to use one of his recordings in what I assume to be a promotional film. Gould was a great animal-lover, and the Toronto Humane Society was one of the major beneficiaries in his will. In his own words, “(A)nimal welfare is one of the great passions of my life, and if you’d asked to use my entire recorded output, in support of such a cause, I couldn’t possibly have refused.”


Many of the letters reveal Gould’s irrepressible sense of humour, another aspect of his personality that he carried to elaborate lengths, sometimes to the consternation of his friends and colleagues. In a letter to his lawyer, Stephen Posen, Gould humorously went on (and on) to question a discrepancy in one of Posen’s invoices, to the amount of $2.35, citing a fictional precedent of the case of “Lin vs. Lum” from the County Court, Bangkok (Judge Lae Chin-Ho presiding). In another, to his close friend John Roberts, Gould introduced himself as an unknown young harpsichordist, with a facetious proposal of a project for the C.B.C.’s “Celebrity Recitals” series, saying that a “recording is a pale and artificial memento of the concert experience”, which of course is the exact opposite of Gould’s view.


A couple of letters struck me as unintentionally funny. One is his reply to Virginia Katims, wife of Milton Katims, music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, about her request for him to contribute to a recipe book she was compiling. Another is his response to the CBC for his favourite eating spots in Toronto. Gould was almost totally indifferent to food, and his diet consisted of scrambled eggs, arrowroot cookies, or some such unremarkable culinary delicacies. In Gould’s own words in his reply, that. “(A)s such time as the entire experience of nourishment-taking can be synthesized by a convenient table, I’ll be the very first to avoid all restaurants like the plague.”


His letters to producers and managers discussing repertoire choice, or details about his radio documentaries or other projects, reveal a highly organized mind, a far cry from the absentminded artist that he has been often portrayed as. 


Some of the recipients of Gould’s letters are very much in the “A list” of musicians – Leonard Bernstein, Leon Fleisher, Leonard Rose, Yehudi Menuhin, Leopold Stokowski, Lukas Foss and Rudolf Serkin; others include notable figures like Yousuf Karsh, Marshall McLuhan, Willi Reich, Madame Pablo Casals, John Cage, and Barbara Tuchman, among others. Then there are letters to managers, film, television and record producers, figures like Walter Homburger, Ronald Wilfred, Schuyler Chapin, Humphrey Burton, Goddard Lieberson, Paul Myers, and Andrew Kazdin. Whether Gould was writing to a world-famous celebrity or a young fan, he was always unfailingly courteous and kind. 


The most impressive, and sometimes moving letters, are the letters he took time to write to fans. From those writing to ask his opinion, or engage in a most serious discussion on his views of certain musical subject, to a little girl asking if Bach were his favourite composer, Gould would take the time to serious consider what was being asked of him, and answered accordingly. In fact, the recurrent tone of Gould’s letter is one of kindness and gentleness. The statement of conductor Erich Leinsdorf, who called Gould “perhaps one of the all-time greatest (and in my view perhaps also the kindest and gentlest) artists”, is certain borne out in these letters. 


In an interview on the CBC, Gould was asked to describe in one word what it was that attracted him to the music of Bach. His answer, “Compassion”. Indeed, compassion seems to have been the motto of Gould’s personal and artistic life, as he saw art as a moral force, an instrument of salvation. His favourite prayer was, “Lord, grant us the peace the world cannot give.” This can perhaps explain Gould’s seeming detachment from the world, to live life completely on his own terms, interacting with the outside world by means of technology. It is a tantalizing thought to consider what Gould would have done with the Internet, emails, and today’s cybertechnology.


In an age when great art and music are often used to further one’s “career” or to enhance one’s self-importance, Gould, even after all these years, still stands alone as an artist who went his own way, and struck out a path that remain an ideal for any musician or artist. It seems fitting to end with these thoughts from Yehudi Menuhin, “Perhaps one day when sufficient time has worked on sufficient love we may arrive at a truer appreciation of Glenn’s genius.”






Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Dang Thai Son in Vancouver

It had been many years since Dang Thai-Son performed in Vancouver, and so there was a keen sense of anticipation before he walked onto the stage of the Playhouse last Sunday.


Looking every bit like the seasoned artist that he is, very different from the photograph that graced the cover of his debut album some 43 years ago, Dang began his performance with Faure’s Nocturne in E-flat minor, Op. 33, No. 1 and Barcarolle No. 1 in A minor, Op. 26. Right from the first notes, he caught my ears with the depth and beauty of his sound, as well as the beautiful flow of the music. In both works, but especially in the Nocturne, still so heavily indebted to Chopin, but with Faure’s own unique harmonic progressions, every note from Dang’s hands seemed to project like an arrow straight to the last row of the auditorium. 


In the Arabesques by Debussy, pieces that are technically within reach of many competent pianists, Dang showed his mastery by the colours he evoked from the beautiful Steinway piano, as well as his impeccable sense of timing. His affinity for the music of Debussy continued to show in his interpretation of both books of Images. In these masterpieces, the composer takes us into the world of the Orient, not in the cheap stereotypical picture postcard version promulgated by Hollywood, but into the true aesthetics of the art of the Orient. Pianist Fou Ts’ong once commented that Debussy’s soul as an artist is that of the Orient. Dang struck a perfect balance between the mixing of the colours, so much like a Chinese ink painting, and maintaining an absolute clarity of texture. In Mouvement, Debussy’s study in line, Dang played this music with a bracing and stunning virtuosity. As well, he presented the most vivid and colourful Poisson d’Or I can remember. In Hommage a Rameau, he brought to the music an eerie stillness, and a feeling of bleakness and desolation. 


After the intermission, Dang gave us an exploration of the many dance forms used by Chopin as vehicles for his creativity. The Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2 was played with great feeling as well as a palpable depth of sound. Dang evoked a sound from the lower register of the piano was nothing less than astounding. In his very stylish playing of the Three Ecossaises, Op. 72, No. 3, he highlighted the charm, the brimming high spirits as well as the youthfulness conveyed in this music. Dang went on to give characterful readings of three of the composer’s waltzes. The Waltz in A minor, Op. posth., was played with such profound feeling that it elevated this relatively simple work, so often relegated to young students as an “easy” Chopin piece, into a miniature tragic tone poem. The Waltz in F minor, Op. 70, No. 2 as well as the Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1, were given readings that were stylistically impeccable, reminding the listener that these miniature masterpieces are really dances of the soul.


The performance continued with a delightful romp through Chopin’s rarely-played Tarantelle in A-flat Major, Op. 43, which makes one wonder why not more pianists would incorporate this work into their active repertoire. The set of four Mazurkas, Op. 24, demonstrated Dang’s absolute identification with these elusive miniatures, compositions representing the composer at his most profound and original. He invested into each of these pieces, none lasting more than a few minutes long, with great profundity and depth of feeling, as well as an acute stylistic awareness. The great Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, played to the manner born, rightly brought the audience to its feet. 


After the thrilling performance of the Polonaise, and at the behest of the enthusiastic audience, the artist graciously granted us an encore – Bach/Busoni’s great Adagio, from Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata in C Major. Dang’s performance of this great work served as a fitting close to this very special afternoon, almost as a form of a benediction. I felt that everyone in the audience knew that they were sharing something very rare and special.


In his playing of Chopin, Dang Thai Son reminded me so much of Arthur Rubinstein – and I can think of no higher compliment. There was the same lack of affectation, the same simplicity, the same directness in his music making that makes the interpreter a perfect conduit between composer and listener, and the results are both disarming and moving. It is playing that strives to move, not just to impress, for me the highest form of music making.


I am grateful that Vancouver had the opportunity to experience the artistry and musicality of this sovereign artist, at the heights of his maturity. One could only hope for many more opportunities for him to share his art with us in the very nearest future.