Anticipation, be it of food, friends or familiar art is one of life’s most pleasurable feelings. I had looked forward to savouring Beethoven’s fiendishly difficult but emotionally rich Overture Leonore No.3 to kick off Symphony Nova Scotia’s Symphony Hall broadcast. Would the opening use minimum vibrato? Would the clarinetist “risk” a single-breath solo? Would the fp at the trumpet call be executed as printed rather than the usual sfffzp? Would the strings be able to fly through the final Presto and still keep some semblance of pulse? But as the concert began I realized with despair that, like the special guest who fails to show up for an intimate dinner, the answers to my questions and enjoyment of Opus 72a would remain locked away in the CBC vault having failed to survive the transition from recording of the live performance through the editing suite. No Beethoven today! Given the gap (January concert), couldn’t the CBC webmaster verify the listed offerings for us lowly listeners?
There, I feel better—on to the music that was performed as advertised!
Guest Conductor Grant Llewellyn’s reading of The Walk to the Paradise Garden was more casual stroll than journey that revelled in the beauty along its path. Still, the oboe provided brief pleasure and the horns were heard throughout to good effect. But the near-constant changes in dynamics and articulation written with painstaking detail by Delius went by virtually unheeded, producing a palette that relied far too much on pastel rather than the full spectrum etched in the score. Even the wayward, misprinted appoggiatura (before rehearsal number 7) hadn’t been “re-coloured.” And, while the last measures held the promise of a satisfying conclusion to this thoughtful essay, the final B Major chord was robbed of its full value, confirming again the superficial direction.
Canadian Denise Djokic was the able soloist in Tchaikovsky’s splendid Rococo Variations. The work reveals all: technique, range, rhythm, pulse, insight, and “orchestral cooperation.” Once the players settled down and the horn faded blissfully away, Djokic laid out the theme with care and grace. The winds responded in kind with the ritornello—the musical glue that binds the thematic excursions together. The triplets were delivered with a sense of fun and zing, but the first of many stage noises began to mar the performance.
One of the challenges of listening to radio concerts is trying to visualize the scene in the hall. As time went on—and the wooden “thuds” continued—I guessed they were coming from whatever platform Djokic sat upon, which for many cellists provides an extra degree of sound reinforcement as the instrument’s vibrations travelling through the peg are amplified by the wooden box. Whether an uneven fit with the stage or unintended stamping of solo feet, I was sorry that they hadn’t been noticed by the recording engineer at the rehearsal (it is very likely that the CBC microphones provided those listening at home with more of these arrhythmic clunks than those seated in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium).
As the variations unfolded there was much to admire, although a certain sense of panic could occasionally be felt in some of the passagework. However, the melancholy lines were lusciously dark and full-bodied—particularly on the C-string. The coquettish 4th variation was spot-on; the dialogue here and later with the equally flexible clarinet was always together. Yet, given Djokic’s level of maturity and experience, I wished the bar lines would disappear far more often and that she would approach her art as a musician who happens to be a cellist rather than an exceptionally gifted technician who gladly risks her “sound” when communicating the composer’s subtext.
Variation five came close to sounding laboured—too much played “just so.” The Finale had lots of excitement—most of it intended—and the famous run with the flute was nearly perfect.
The appreciative audience was rewarded with a “Sarabande” from Bach’s Third Suite for solo cello. Once again the performance had warmth and control—such a beautiful sound—but it took several measures to confirm the time signature.
Djokic is an artist at a crucial point in her career. I look forward to future concerts and hope that she is able to move up to the next plateau, letting substance lead more than sound.
Prior to its performance, Llewellyn regaled us with pointless comments about long concerts depriving the audience from serious pub time and how, with the inclusion of all repeats “composed” by Mozart (erroneous: they are inserted), everyone would get “their money’s worth.” Why can’t we leave the talk shows on television?
Mozart’s sublime masterwork was given an uneven reading. The “Molto Allegro” seemed more “Presto” and produced excitement based on fear (the strings tried admirably) rather than balance, harmonic direction and thematic development.
Similarly, the pace of the magical “Andante” would be more appropriate for a Strauss Waltz. It moved but never settled, depriving us of the moments of mystery that Mozart carefully wove into this journey in and around E-flat Major.
The famous “Menuetto” produced the best results of the day, but the insistence of playing the repeats even in the Da Capo was not convincing and added nothing to our understanding of Mozart’s vision.
The fast and furious Finale kept everyone on their toes (literally as, we were told, this performance, like “pictures of the era,” was being done with everyone standing—the cellists must have been thrilled). Note lengths (half, dotted half, quarter) were merged; the repeat that Mozart “left out” at measure 210 wasn’t re-inserted and the ending seemed more a relief than an arrival.
What a stunning contrast, then, to be treated to a cut from former Symphony Nova Scotia music director Georg Tintner’s 1991 CBC recording of Mozart. The C Major March was everything Symphony No. 40 was not: in time, in tune, together, well recorded; it was filled with sparkle, zest and—above all—a thorough understanding of the art. Those who are entrusted with the future of Symphony Nova Scotia should not rest until an artistic leader has been found capable of fully unleashing the collective talent of its players. JWR