Bradley Thachuk, the final entrant in the “Four Batons, One Podium!” competition to become the next music director of the Niagara Symphony presented a challenging program that asked more tough questions that it satisfactorily resolved.
1. Will the Carrabré ever come together in all aspects of ensemble and balance?
Not here, nor in the previous three performances. The brief, colourful soundscape has proved to be the ideal test piece. In his remarks, Thachuk stated that “the orchestra knew it inside out,” yet, with the inevitable schedule conflicts that are the bane of community and regional orchestras everywhere, Chase the Sun was brought to life to varying degrees by four distinct orchestras, and the quartet of musical candidates.
2. Are the ensemble problems largely caused by the players or those who stand before them?
Over the course of many interviews as music director of the Nepean Symphony Orchestra, when asked “What instrument do you play?” I invariably replied: “the orchestra.” If I’d learned nothing from study and mentorship with the likes of Karl Ancerl, Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Rafael Kubelik and Leonard Bernstein, it was the plain truth that an orchestra is a multi-limbed, complex instrument that produces its best results when played seemingly silently by a maestro with the same care, skill and love as those on stage who are actually producing the sound. The ability to breathe with every musician, the too-rare talent of feeding the musical engine with an unequivocal pulse that can be readily fathomed from the front desks to the nearly-in-the-wings second harp—using both hands—simultaneously with all other traits (particularly expert knowledge of the unwritten harmonic implications of the music) have created some miraculous moments in the concert hall and recording studio that release the art from its shackles of bar lines, printed dynamic and tempo indications.
Sad to report, despite clearly honourable intentions and passion for the scores, Thachuk’s style leaves him more as a delighted observer (the Cheshire cat grin frequently seems at odds with composers’ frames of mind) rather than inspired leader of the pack.
Curiously, not surprisingly, his best moments came on the very occasions he abandoned the clenched stick and relied on body language to shape the phrase. Much more, please.
Accordingly, Sibelius’s Second Symphony failed to find its centre, much less reveal its power and mystery (beyond merely full-throated climaxes, many of which had impressive colour but were bereft of preceding substance). The “Vivacissimo” was not yet ready for public consumption. Astonishingly described in Thachuk’s own words as “emotionless” the Tempo andante, ma rubato was filled with unwanted panic in the transitions (as were many in the other movements); its deeply-written angst, inner turmoil and despair all left for another day. Standing still, admiring the considerable efforts of his charges only pulled the drama out of the mix and left many releases orphaned or suddenly truncated.
Without doubt, the highlight of the afternoon was Beethoven’s mighty “Emperor” concerto. Not since Rivka Golani’s unforgettable appearance nearly a decade ago (cross-reference below) has a guest artist been able to single-handedly draw the orchestra into a world of magical music-making. David Louie, the consummate chamber musician, expanded his reach considerably, scaling the mountain of art that has seldom been surpassed in terms of both technical and emotional content by other composers.
Having been brought up with the George Szell/Emil Gilels recording (and Gilels live at the National Arts Centre), it would be difficult for any performance to equal much less surpass that “as one” thundering opening which, fortunately, has been captured for posterity. How hard can it be to match a full-bodied piano chord with an equally fulsome group of instrumentalists?
It fell to Louie to both dig deep into the incredibly varied solo part and persuade Thachuk and the players to share his vision. The dual role was not without its risks, yielding a few blemishes in the early going that were all but banished before the “Allegro’s” heroic coda appeared. There was an excitement in the air and quiet from the enraptured crowd that hadn’t been felt for years.
In the “Adagio un poco mosso,” Louie revealed the inherent poetry of the distant tonality (not so much if one considers F-flat Major) and long, singing lines where duples and triples coexist in concert with the marvellously crafted stanzas of ideas and emotion. Only a slight “hesitato” into the aptly named deceptive cadences could have improved the result.
Once the French horns convincingly took the transitional torch from the bassoons, the ensuing drama unfolded in a breathtaking manner before Louie launched into an ideal tempo for the “happy” implication rather than “fast” of the closing “Rondo: Allegro.” Once settled into its skin, this movement was a bravura display of first-class pianism, where every episode said something new even as the way home was never in doubt. Here’s to an early return from a gifted pianist who also knows why the notes are on the page.
3. What next?
As promised after the first of the four contestants took the stage last October, JWR offered to weigh in a suitable choice, but based exclusively on the Masters series and none of the Pops or extra-curricular activities that are so important in the job description of the fulltime music director.
With one candidate having already withdrawn (John Morris Russell), the last question remains:
4.Could hiring any of the three remaining candidates be in the best interests of the orchestra and its audience?
Over the course of this past season, there have been a heartening number of exquisite moments heard and savoured in the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre. More the exception than the rule, they were driven by the palatable desire of the players to excel and from the inspiration of the soloists. Audiences have been universally appreciative of the results.
Given all of that, JWR recommends more of the same: Another round of guests until one truly demonstrates her or his ability to let the orchestra perform up to its potential. Engage Laura Thomas as resident conductor to conduct more frequently and deal with the inevitable behind-the-scenes issues; obtain the services of an artistic advisor to assist with programming. Use some of the cash saved (a fulltime MD is one of the top-two line items in the budget after musicians’ fees) to hire soloists of the first rank (the audience will be pleased and the orchestra will continue to improve) and put the rest into the deficit reduction campaign that seems to never be over.
Just one opinion, of course. But having seen glimpses of what could be the norm rather than the rarity, here’s to the notion of tracking down a maestro who knows how to really play music’s most magnificent instrument. JWR