Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Bruce Liu's Return to Vancouver

Even with the proliferation of music competition all over the world, the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw remains at the pinnacle in terms of the extremely high level of playing and its track record of being a career launchpad for some of today’s most legendary artists. That said, any artist is only as good as his or her last performance, and any artist would, every time he or she steps on stage, continues to have to prove him or herself. The greater the fame, the more the pressure for an artist to continue to develop and to play “well”.


Judging from Bruce Liu’s performance in Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre yesterday, he has developed into a more mature and insightful artist since his sensational win in Warsaw two years ago, and the performance was, by every standard, very well played indeed. 


In Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Hob XVI:32, Liu successfully highlighted the elegance as well as the mock pathos that is so unique to the composer. His fleet, stunningly accurate fingerwork and rhythmic acuity infused the performance with a breathtaking lightness. In the central Tempo di Menuetto movement, he very successfully contrasted the courtly elegance of the outer sections with the gentle sturm und drang of the minore section. Liu took a daring tempo in the presto third movement, with its canonic opening, giving it the feeling, fun and excitement of a cops and robbers chase, and highlighting the composer’s added layer of humour by setting it in the “serious” key of B minor. 


Liu played Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35, in his Vancouver debut recitals, and I was very curious to hear if and how his conception has changed in the intervening years. It was a stunning performance of great depth and feeling. I believe Liu feels the music even more than he did in his previous performance, both in Vancouver and in Warsaw during the competition. The sound is now deeper, and the drama and contrast more acute. I think, in time, he could bring out even more the violence and volcanic passion so inherent in the music. One hallmark in his playing – and this was true throughout the recital – is the utter clarity he brought to the playing no matter how thick or complex the texture. One thing that struck me two years ago, was the utter stillness he infused into the funeral march. This feeling of frightening stillness was even more apparent in yesterday’s performance. I was stunned by his sweeping and breathtaking playing of the “weird” (in the very best sense of the word) final movement, evoking so much Anton Rubinstein’s description of the “effect of wind over the graves” – a great achievement indeed for so young an artist.


As if to dispel the doom and gloom of the Chopin, Liu finished his first half with Kapustin’s Variations, Op. 41, with its influence of both jazz and popular music and, as Ruth Enns’ excellent programme notes indicate, “exploring styles ranging from swing to blues to bebop.” Liu did not pretend that the music was greater (or lesser) than what it was. Under his hand, it was a performance that was, for lack of a more sophisticated word, simply fun, and it was difficult to tell if the artist or the audience enjoyed the playing more. 


The young artist’s playing of the works from Rameau’s Pieces de clavessin showcased the pianist with all his Gallic charm and elegance. Liu made no apologies for playing these works on the piano, and infused the music with a generous range of colours. It may not have been “authentic” or “historically aware”, but it was certainly beguiling and gorgeous playing. In Le poule, Liu so successfully evoked the clattering quality of the harpsichord, as well as the lively pecking character of the work. 


It is the hallmark of a great work that every artist would bring something different to it. I am sure the presenters of the concert did not plan for two consecutive recitals to include Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, arguably the composer’s towering masterpiece. Let me say that I would not want to be without the experience of either Yefim Bronfman or Bruce Liu’s performance. Yesterday, Liu brought to the work a lightness in touch and a panther-like spring, a quickness in the changes of mood, without lessening the impact of the weight of the music. In the first movement, he did not fall into the trap of playing the opening too fast, thereby maintaining the rhythmic integrity of the work. He engaged a great deal of una corda pedal throughout, giving the music a wider range of colours than Bronfman did. Liu’s playing of the third movement was exciting indeed, played with absolutely rhythmic acuity, and he had to his advantage a young man’s energy and enthusiasm for the work not yet “seasoned” by experience. From beginning to its cataclysmic final chords, it was a performance that took one’s breath away, and got the audience to stand and cheer. 


And cheered they did, prompting Liu to grant three very different encores – a calm and reverential Bach/Siloti’s Prelude, a spirited Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1 (the so-called “Minute Waltz”), and a performance of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1, with the artist’s hallmark beauty of tone and with some truly beautiful turn of phrases.


Looking at the hour-long lineup for autographs and photographs with the artist, Bruce Liu’s popularity has not lessened with time. While it is true that success at the Chopin Competition would almost guarantee many first opportunities for any young artist, but as conductor Zubin Mehta said, and I paraphrase, it is easy to get a first invitation, but to be invited back after that first performance is the real test. If Bruce Liu continues to develop as an artist and musician, there is every indication that he would be invited again and again in any of the musical capital of the world. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

A Weekend of Music - The Vancouver Cantata Singers and pianist Federico Colli

What a musically rewarding weekend in Vancouver this has been: the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ performance of what was probably the Canadian premiere of Amy Beach’s Grand Mass in E-flat Major, and a sensational recital by the wonderful pianist Federico Colli!


With all the attention given to women composers these last few years, the music of Amy Beach has not received quite as much attention as that of Florence Price. I know of some of Mrs. Beach’s beautiful piano music, and a piano concerto which gets occasional performances. Certainly, her compositions deserve to be heard, and I am very grateful to Paula Kremer for programming this very beautiful and moving setting of the Mass.


Not knowing anything about the composition, I was at first quite surprised to learn (from the excellent notes) that it was composed as early as 1886/1887. To my ears, this would explain the relatively conservative harmonic language of the work, with hints of Mendelssohn in the choral writing, and Schumann in the writing for orchestra, especially the strings. Curiously, the orchestral introduction to the Agnus Dei was harmonically extremely advanced, with passages that even almost foreshadows Wagner’s orchestral writing in the later Ring operas. 


I found it intriguing that such a grand work would have no brass instruments, but I subsequent learned that for practical consideration, the orchestral parts had been re-written for chamber orchestra, with the organ very effectively taking over what would have been played by the brass section. 


Saturday’s performance was outstanding in every respect. Paula Kremer conducted the choral and orchestral forces with authority, and a palpable sense of commitment and love for the music. Members of the Allegra Chamber Orchestra acquitted themselves more than admirably in the demanding orchestral writing. The solo quartet of Benila Ninan, Melanie Adams, Andy Robb and Peter Alexander, drawn from the choir, delivered performances, both individually and as an ensemble, of great musicality. The Vancouver Cantata Singers is certainly one of the city’s finest choral ensemble. Beach certainly gives equal attention to both soloists and choir, and members of the choir delivered a performance that lived up to their usual very high standards. Particularly memorable and moving for me was Andy Robb’s singing of the Graduale, as well as the performance of the “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto” section of the Credo.


At the Vancouver Playhouse Sunday afternoon, Federico Colli gave a truly scintillating performance of a demanding programme – both performance and audience - of works by Ligeti, Couperin, Prokofiev, and Ravel. Even at his Vancouver debut, it was evident that Colli is one of today’s most original thinking musicians. His performance last Sunday confirmed this initial impression. 


Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata was a first hearing for me, and without the aid of a score, I cannot really say more than the fact that he gave a pianistically impregnable and musically committed performance. I am grateful to Colli for this first hearing of the score.


In the works by Couperin that followed, Colli dispelled any suggestion that such pieces should be the exclusive domain of the harpsichord. His performance was elegance and musicality personified, with every note like a droplet of water projected to the far reaches of the hall. Prokofiev’s Vision fugitives, Op. 22, presents a wide range of colours and emotions, and Colli very effectively highlighted the distinctive characteristic of each piece within the set. His performance of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin – Ravel’s artistic effort to create something new by returning to the old - was simply sensational, and showed his towering command of the piano, with an infinite palette of colours under his fingers as well as a shimmering sound that emanated from the Steinway. The word that came to mind at the end of the concert was - effervescent.  


Perhaps to dispel the mood created by the “serious” programme, Colli played an encore that was pure fun, as well as a pure display of musical showmanship, in the best sense of the word – pianist Fazil Say’s transcription of Mozart’s Rondo alla turca – playing that brought the audience to its feet. It was, as they say, just what we needed. Certainly, Colli is a pianist I would go and hear anytime and anywhere.


With summer just around the corner – even though it does not feel like it yet – and the impending conclusion to the current concert season, we can be justly grateful for the many indelible musical experiences we have had this year. I was sad to see that Colli did not have a bigger audience at the Playhouse – this was a performance that deserved to be heard by many. It appears that many arts organizations have more difficulty filling halls since the global pandemic. Perhaps too many people have become too used to enjoying their music at home. I do hope that more and more people would begin to venture out and experience the magic and excitement of live performances – for me, there really is no substitute.