JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - CBC Symphony Hall (Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin) - April 22, 2002
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CBC Symphony Hall

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The Wand of Youth

Ah, to be twenty-six-years-old once more, standing in front of a professional orchestra and conducting masterworks from the world’s vault of timeless music. I remember revelling in the genius of the notes, ideas and emerging subtext from the art of sound. I became so engrossed with the composer, I often neglected my charges; so enraptured with the structure and colours that my inner-clock belied that of the real world. The recordings surprised me: How could I have chosen such a slow pace?—You call that a “seamless transition?”—But, occasionally, well, that seemed to go fine.

A wise man once told me “Beyond the basics of physical gesture, you cannot learn to become a conductor—you can only discover if you are.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, also twenty-six, is on his journey of self-artistic discovery. Today’s concert provided hints as to progress, but in itself was not conclusive one way or the other. Recorded last January in Place des Arts, the concert was themed around rivers.

I recall standing at the back of the concert hall in Lucerne during the annual summer festival in 1984 savouring every moment of Rafael Kubelik’s extraordinary performance of Má Vlast with his Sinfonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Well over six feet, and with what hair remained on the sides of his incredible mind flying in the wind, he devoured every nuance of the score and shared its mystery, magic and beauty with the admiring throng. His often awkward movements never detracted from the sound and if his desire to draw the inner-meaning of the notes produced a few “untogether” moments, no one complained—far better to take that risk than just serve up the dots.

Nézet-Séguin’s reading of Die Moldau from Smetana’s masterwork would benefit from more risk, less notes. The overall effect was slightly anemic, lacking the continuous flow and direction that all rivers have. Thousands of dynamic and gradations, slurs and stacatti fill the pages, the rhythm—especially the dotted 8ths—is designed to push the music over the bar lines, which—like democracy—are useless, but no one has invented a better way. Attention to all of the details all of the time would be a huge step forward in bringing this fine orchestra closer to the composer’s intentions.

But that takes concentration and discipline. Sempre dim—as just one example—means what it says: always softer, not slightly softer. Human nature being what it is, the leadership for that degree of accuracy can only come from the podium; when the players realize that their maestro knows and cares about every nuance, a new degree of understanding and communication can begin.; Nézet-Séguin’s love of the music came through clearly but now another level must be achieved if the listener will be just as moved from his external results.

Throughout the broadcast I was disappointed with the sound: the percussion (notably the triangle) seemed nearly absent and the low strings could also have benefited from some reinforcement. Being “blind” on the radio, I wonder if perhaps the cellos were sitting on the inside.

The unannounced (on the CBC website where the correct spelling of the conductor’s name should also be a matter of course) bonus work, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, featured the Alcan String Quartet. Apart from an overly-quivering vibrato from the violist, the ensemble led this performance with conviction and skill. The strings responded admirably in all manner of effects including shimmering tremoli and soaring G-strings. Film composers should be forever grateful for the templates Elgar has unknowingly provided for their blockbuster orchestrations!

Schumann’s E-flat Major Symphony is one of the most sublime works to come from the troubled composer. I admire Nézet-Séguin for programming it so early in his career. On the next occasion, the overall architecture of this essay should become his point of departure. In many ways, the near-religious fourth movement is the watershed for all that precedes and follows. The lines are longer than Nézet-Séguin realizes—particularly the winds telling declamations (measures 52, 56) where breathing halfway-through is close to criminal and yes, the second utterance is fortissimo! The other movements were played well, but the absence of the “big picture” and its intertwined harmonic leadings deprived the listener of many moments of sublime understanding. The affectations of the unwritten tempo shifts left me wondering: Why? For Schumann has already slowed the pace through his choice of note lengths. One example being the last full cry of the brass in the finale.

A thorough analysis of Schumann’s Overture to Manfred will also reveal many more truths that can be mixed in to another reading of the “Rhenish.”

Every time I hear An der schönen blauen Donau, I am reminded of recording it for CBC Radio Canada at Camp Fortune in the Gatineau hills. The rehearsal had gone well (despite the appearance of a brown bear that didn’t seem interested in Viennese music) but no one was prepared when the lighting crew switched from white to blue, rendering the players’ parts nearly unreadable. We had some bits of pollution in that version!

Nézet-Séguin provided a spirited reading that was a wonderful tonic to the darkness of the symphony. However, he might benefit by trying to dance to the broadcast tape and learn something about the tempo of music that was written for people and fancy-dress balls.

Sampling a bit of the CBC Vancouver studio recording showed, again, that Nézet-Séguin has a talent that needs to be challenged and nurtured. The overture to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was technically good but musically average. The magic and the mystery beyond just the notes must be discovered and then revealed to both performers and audiences alike. When Nézet-Séguin lets the music led him rather than he it, his career cannot but help to flourish and grow. JWR

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Repertoire:
The Moldau from Má vlast - Bedřich Smetana
The Blue Danube Waltz - Johann Strauss
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major "The Rhenish" - Robert Schumann
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