Today’s Symphony Hall featured the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in a program recorded in January—just a month after returning to work from the lockout. As always happens in artistic labour disputes, nobody won, but the wage cuts were spread around, new sponsors beseeched and the inconvenience to the loyal subscribers largely unreported—it’s the “business angles” that interest the media.
Guest conductor and music director hopeful, David Lockington, began his audition with a spirited reading of Rossini’s irrepressible Overture to The Barber of Seville. The introduction was clean if a trifle brisk, only marred by a difference of opinion between the solo oboe and French horn as to just how fast the pulse was going. The following allegro was brisker still—no overtime would be paid for this performance!
The strings, firm and vibrant, offered an excellent foundation for the first-chair winds to strut their stuff. Particularly pleasing was the bassoon’s jaunty rendition of the theme. Lockington managed to keep the proceedings on the rails but didn’t seem to know the final destination of the signature “Rossini-crescendos,” which gave the music an unsettled feeling. Similarly, the final dash to the double-bar in the coda relied on speed rather than direction to bring everyone safely home.
Beethoven’s sublime G Major Piano Concerto is a work of surprise (imagine—starting with just the piano!), drama (where in all art have two disparate points of view been so telling portrayed as the “Andante con moto”?) and verve (the relentless drive of the “Rondo” with its subtle foreshadowing of the coming “Ode to Joy.“
Pianist Katherine Chi’s opening statement was astonishing. She managed to convey the dolce with conviction, deft touch and understatement. Expectations were raised. The orchestra’s subsequent entrance (in the “wrong” key of B Major—actually C-flat major, but that’s another topic) failed to match her tenor or tone, which all great accompanists must strive to do. The staccatos were often too long, producing a different dialect to the musical line and—following the tied notes—leaving rhythmical accuracy up in the air.
That said, the Calgary Philharmonic makes a glorious sound at full cry and has a fine string/wind balance. However, the recording set-up overly-favoured the keyboard, causing much of the interaction with the orchestra to be theoretical rather a true partnership.
Chi’s “true” entrance revealed a more-than- competent technique and impressive commitment to the countless details and shadings in the score. Her ability to draw beautiful colours was most effective in the upper and lower reaches of the instrument whose middle register often came across as woody. While the music was delivered with conviction and poise it never really jumped off the page or, as can be the case in the C-sharp Minor transition or the “magic” after the cadenza, invaded our souls.
The second movement is a study in contrasts and ideas: the unison strings in gruff, edgy rhythm—unwavering in their point of view; the piano’s poignant, strangely seductive comments stated in isolation. The later finally wins out and relegates the strings to mere pizzicato accompaniment. Then, uncertainty; the low strings try one last time to assert themselves only to be removed to the background so that the protagonist can serenely utter one of the most devastating appoggiaturas in the entire literature. Unfortunately, both parties tried to support and imitate each other (orchestra too long, again for “sempre staccato;” truncating notes to less than one eighth of their value; preparing each other’s entries) rather than allowing Beethoven’s contrasting ideas to lead.
The arrival of the “Rondo” provided more than just a change of mood and tempo—it was the highpoint of the entire program. Here, pace was ideal and the partnership had its finest moments: everyone seemed more comfortable. Chi tossed off the multitude of arpeggios, chromatic scales, Alberti basses, themes and cadenzas with ease and conviction; her approach to the cadenza (like that of the “Allegro moderato”) was secure and displayed an admirable array of textures and ideas. The orchestra found new life—even the violas could be heard in all their E-flat Major glory. The final “Presto” got off to a slightly shaky start, but quickly righted itself. Soon, the Haydn-like horn calls drew us clearly into the final cadence.
A few years ago, I spent a fascinating thirty minutes at the Tanglewood conducting seminar watching Seiji Ozawa instruct a fledgling compatriot in the intricacies of successfully starting Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Rather than take on the expense of an orchestra, the scores were brought to life by two pianists (one piano). But they read from the orchestra score (rather than a piano “reduction”) and—much to this young man's chagrin—played everything they saw. Finally, our exasperated mentor, gently pushed his hapless charge aside and, wordlessly, began this magnificent E Minor essay. His hands barely moved; his whole body took a breath in the pulse of the first movement and we were treated to our most important lesson of the summer.
Today’s version could, likewise, benefit from more natural flow. The work is awash in subtle details of phrasing, dynamics and thematic transformations that are as deep as they are brilliant. No other composer, with the exception of J.S. Bach, has mastered the art of continual movement that, once started, evolves on its own then reveals its secrets—if allowed to do so. Time and time again, Lockington led us up to a great climax or turning point only to temporarily halt the proceedings (sometimes adding as much as a beat). Rather than clarifying the structure, we feel interrupted: the “Aha!” moment forever lost. The haunting, hushed sequences before the recapitulation in the opening movement, another case in point; the return (in the “wrong” key of C Major but ushered in by the home key’s leading note) robbed of its mystery with all the unwritten extra air following the woodwinds’ chordal outlines.
The “Andante moderato” fared better and, as was the case throughout the broadcast, revealed the skill and strength of the French horns. However, not everyone agreed on the placement of the 32nd notes of the theme—many times evolving into the less controlled feeling of triplets. The strings shone on many occasions delivering their long melodic lines with full bows and welcome left-hand support.
The “Scherzo“ came across well; the triangle had its effect.
The Finale’s passacaglia and thirty variations got off to a splendid start with the winds (now joined by the trombones) beautifully blended as they stated the chords that would so marvellously evolve. Special notice must be made of the solo flute whose artistry and dark low-register were especially appreciated.; As time went on, the orchestra seemed to tire; the violins had a number of misses in the top of their range, somewhat dulling the climaxes. While there was much to admire from the orchestra as a whole, the movement came across as individual pieces rather than a growing stream of consciousness forged into a magnificent whole. JWR