JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - CBC Symphony Hall (Guest Conductor: Maximiano Valdes) - July 7, 2002

CBC Symphony Hall

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Bach to basics

Today’s broadcast was just the thing for a sunny July day—music that kept the toes tappin’, the ear engaged and the mind happily distracted from assassinations, forest fire smog, and political infighting.

Stravinsky’s charming Dumbarton Oaks—a kind of Brandenburg Concerto No.7—got things off to an impressive start with fifteen of the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s finest and guest conductor Maximiano Valdes taking stage. Valdes choose a cautious tempo, which prevented the sauciness and sparkle of this concerto grosso from being felt. But the winds kept things moving well and more than made up for the slight untidiness of the violins. In the sparser landscape of the second movement, the strings were heard to good advantage and nicely complemented the consistently able offerings from the bassoon. On my speakers, this work was the finest sound I have heard from Symphony Hall yet—give that recording engineer a raise!

The cheeky gruffness of the finale was picture perfect and the horns were generally bang on, but the rhythmic tension failed to materialize—reminiscent of the “in-the-cracks” delivery of the opening. On balance, this reading was more a survey of the notes than a convincing statement of Stravinsky’s ideas. But the sounds were gloriously captured.

Tchaikovsky wasn’t a big fan of the most sublime essay for violin and orchestra ever written: “The concerto of Brahms pleases me no more than any of his other works,” wrote the ballet-maestro in 1880. “He is certainly a great musician—even a master—but his mastery overwhelms his inspiration … His music is not warmed by genuine emotion … It lacks poetry.”

These damning words only go to prove just how deep and rich the D Major Concerto is; while Tchaikovsky has given humanity a number of gems, the appeal of his music is far more “on the surface” than lurking in the depths of emotion for those who—over a long period of hearings and study—have come to realize that the notes are merely the means to the ideas and insights of Hamburg’s favourite son.

Over a decade back, I was in the audience at the National Arts Centre when Sarah Chang dazzled us all with Paganini’s notes on her ¾ size violin. Now 21, I was eager to hear how far she has come on the road from child star to mature artist.

Chang has successfully fought off requests to perform this opus until now, but also admits that “it will be another 10-20 years before I understand it fully.” I hope she keeps a tape of this performance in her archives to compare a couple of decades hence.

Overall, she is certainly able to deliver the technical goods with a compelling, sweet tone and an array of bow strokes that show her marvellous Guarneri to great advantage. But the meaning behind the notes is not, yet, consistently clear.

The “Allegro non troppo” began with promise but suffered from slightly “untogether” entries and—surprisingly—a number of pitch “misses” from the first violins in the extreme top register. From Chang’s first entry, I knew that the sound engineer had been given bad advice: the violin was far too present. This recording could not allow the solo line to weave in and out of the orchestration as Brahms’ “engineering” of score provides. But do note them down—those levels would be ideal for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

Chang produced some stunningly thoughtful lines and, occasionally, a delicacy of touch that I admired, but too often the sound was forced, producing an edgy result that is miles away from Brahms’ intent. Push and pull is common in works of this nature but when rhythms actually change (soon after the second entry: eighth and two sixteenths became triplets) then the integrity of the underlying pulse (in this case, duple vs. triple) is lost.

Yet—literally, seconds later—the line, tension and forward movement to the next big entry of the orchestra was fabulous. The bar lines were moved to the background, permitting the music to fly off the page. Forty minutes of this level of performance might even be a challenge to my “still to be beat” favourite recording (warts and all—it's the closest one I've found to an organic whole, featuring Christian Ferras and the Berlin Philharmonic—the “definitive” awaits ...) and most certainly put Chang in with some very distinguished company.

Following in the long NACO tradition of exquisite oboe playing started by Rowland Floyd, Charles Hamann presented the second movement’s poignant theme with great aplomb. The woodwinds and horns gave telling support, but even their considerable skills couldn’t manage a perfect handoff to the soloist. This is one of those magical moments where, truth be told, it’s probably better not to watch the podium …

Throughout the “Adagio” there was an aura of caution and compromise that kept the flow at bay. Then, again, the final oboe cry was convincingly accompanied by Chang—their roles were clear and the music abundant. More, please.

Whenever I hear the Finale, my memory is immediately thrown back to an Itzhak Perlman performance in Rochester. I’ll never forget the sly look that burst onto his boyish face whenever the “tricky” passagework began. He’d stare right at the audience and shamelessly share his amazement of his fingers’ incredible work. Chang’s comfort level did not reach that, but she was firmly in control. She has worked hard and was able to toss things off with verve and throw in the harmonics “just so.” The tympani sounded strangely muffled, the violins fell short of the top a few more times and the last full-blown hurrah was a bit rough-and-ready,” but once the double bar arrived the audience responded with terrific enthusiasm and thanks.

Chang’s well on her way—can’t wait for a few more years to check back with this maturing artistt.

Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony concluded the program and provided much pleasure.

The first movement, although lacking the repeat, redeemed the violins completely as they used full bows to bring the long lines to vibrant life. The band scurried through the development with a great sense of fun and Valdes left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to where the recapitulation began.

The lively “Vivace non troppo” had everyone on the edge of their seats—including us at home—but no train wrecks occurred, yet I could have sworn someone in the woodwinds muttered “phew” at the end.

Although more pastel-lite than palette-rich the “Adagio” proceeded in a rather pleasant fashion, but the brass (particularly the trumpets) gave out more triplets than 32nds despite the many dotted notations. It all lumbered happily along to the close where even the coughers and watch alarms managed to hold off until the coda.

The finest bass section in Canada was truly in its element in the zestful Finale, which contained much real excitement and was the orchestral highlight of the concert. And who couldn’t help but smile when sunny A Major—decked out in rollicking 6/8—appears to announce the end of the struggle? Valdes then went one step further, conducting the last eighty measures like a Rossini overture—faster and faster ‘til everyone ran out of notes! JWR

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Guest Conductor - Maximiano Valdes
Violin - Sarah Chang
Dumbarton Oaks - Igor Stravinsky
Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 77 - Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor - Felix Mendelssohn
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