Monday, February 26, 2024

Symphony at the Chan

Pianist Eric Lu made his concerto debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and conductor Earl Lee this past Saturday. Lu, a laureate of the 2015 International Chopin Competition (at age18) and gold medalist of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition (at age 20), had already made a highly successful recital debut in Vancouver under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society. So it was with eager anticipation that I attended the weekend’s concerto featuring Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. The venue was not the orchestra’s home in the Orpheum Theatre, but (thankfully) the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.


From the pensive opening chords of the 1st movement, and throughout the performance, I constantly thought how Lu’s playing harkens us back to pianists of the past – figures like Lipatti, Cortot, and Edwin Fischer – not that his playing resembles any of them stylistically, but in the individuality of his style and musicality of his playing as well as the sense that he was putting musical concerns far above the work’s formidable technical challenges. 


In the same aforementioned opening chords, he struck a perfect balance between the vertical and the horizontal, making each chord floats, but at the same time propelling the music forward. In the orchestral exposition, he managed to subsume the piano figuration within the orchestral texture. His tone was always beautiful, never forced, even in the more bravura passages. In the A-flat Major Andante espressivo section, when the piano plays with as well as “accompanies” the clarinet, Lu played this theme with melting tenderness that was palpably moving. In Schumann’s written-out cadenza, Lu played with a combination of musicality and bravura. 


The gracefully and intimately played Intermezzo served as the perfect bridge between the 1st and 3rd movements. In final movement, Lu really threw caution to the wind, and the result was a performance that was overwhelmingly joyful, even exultant. For such a young man to play with such depth of feeling as well as maturity that is far beyond his years, is truly a remarkable feat. 


Under Earl Lee, the orchestra sounded fabulous, with a warmth of sound that one does not always hear in the Orpheum. This is a notoriously difficult concerto to conduct, and the young conductor was at one with Lu from beginning to end.


After intermission, Earl Lee led the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the composer’s paean to the glories of nature. It was a performance that was impeccably paced and played, with a cohesiveness and a uniformity in structure rather than a series of charming episodes.


I appreciated how Lee brought out the colours of the woodwinds throughout the work, not only in the solos but within the orchestral texture, somewhat like a meticulously tinged watercolour. I thought that Julia Lockhart’s bassoon playing was especially outstanding on Saturday evening. In the second movement, Lee managed to maintain the flow (pun intended) of the Szene am Bach, without getting bogged down by every detail of the melody; the oft-repeated main theme was also given an infinite variety of colours, and a feeling of renewal every time it returns. 


Lee took the Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute at a perfectly energetic pace, and the liveliness of this country dance – with the horn player who kept coming in at the “wrong” place – was very much kept alive from start to finish. The transition from the third movement to the fourth and then the final movement was expertly handled indeed. 


In the Hirtengesang, there was a palpable sense of thanksgiving, of wonder, as well as a feeling of benediction. After the performance, Lee was all-too-ready to acknowledge the members of the orchestra for their outstanding contribution in the performance.


We have Earl Lee and Eric Lu to thank for this evening of beauty. 


Let’s hope these wonderful artists return to Vancouver soon and share their artistry with our audience.







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