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”.