Violist extraordinaire, Rivka Golani’s performance of Béla Bartók’s fiendishly wonderful Concerto for Viola and Orchestra with the Niagara Symphony to open this season’s Masters Concert Series inspired the finest music-making in Niagara that I have heard since arriving a year ago.
Very few people on the planet are capable of meeting this posthumous work’s technical challenges, much less reveal its inner beauty and passion. But from the first statement, Golani transcended the notes then challenged both conductor and orchestra to stay with her as she fearlessly worked through its pages.
In the outer movements she led a merry race often leaving her colleagues just a hair behind, which she discreetly remedied, letting her body and bow up the pace. Soaring effortlessly to the top of the A-string, Golani flooded the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre with her robust, surety of tone that was only occasionally swamped by the band.
But the highlight of afternoon was found in the ethereal “Adagio religioso,” where Bartók has penned some of his most intimate utterances, which were stunningly conveyed through the soloist’s thoughtful repose and veiled in the finest string tone heard to date.
Watching Golani merge with her instrument was to witness a master class in commitment and musicality. Surely every string player on stage couldn’t fail to notice how she uses the entire bow, is not afraid to start a phrase “up,” and never, ever lets a line end before it has truly finished. Ah, if only those skills could be bottled and sold.
She ably demonstrated the secret of great artists: hard work and razzle-dazzle technique by themselves, are not enough for greatness; risks must be taken for the composer’s truth to emerge. So not every note will always be “just so” and once in a while ensemble may slip, but when—as happened so often in her performance—substance led sound beyond the notes and into ourselves, there is no better place to be. Much more, please.
Not surprisingly, nothing else could come near that magical collaboration.
But what fun: the brass kicked everything off with a stand-up Dukas fanfare, which, literally, set the stage for fine music to come.
The horrific recent events in Bali added extra meaning to Jim Hiscott’s pleasant Dancing on the Wings of Fire. His mastery of the button accordion was apparent right from the start and, along with his far less dense orchestration than the Bartók, was just the tonic after so many moments of dark dissonance. However, the editor in me wondered if a couple of judicious cuts would give this largely monothematic music more punch. Many thanks to the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada for financially assisting Hiscott’s appearance through its Foundation’s Composer Residency Program./p>
Brahms provided sage advice about his pastoral Second Symphony: “Here the melodies flow so freely that one must be careful not to trample on them.”
Daniel Swift cobbled together a reading that didn’t step on any toes but left much of the score’s exquisite details untouched. Still, given the limited amount of rehearsals available to him and the demands of the whole program, there couldn’t have been enough time to work out every bar.
It didn’t help that the acoustics seemed to play a role in keeping the winds—particularly the brass—out of sync with the strings. Despite a clear beat, it was often “untogether” in the loudest sections, causing me to wonder how well the players could hear each other and how the stage baffles ended up in their current configuration. I wished we could borrow Kleinhans Music Hall from Buffalo for these concerts—what a wonderful room, but that should come as no surprise given that it wasn’t built as a lecture theatre first!
There were some magical moments: Swift’s gesture to close the first movement produced the finest adieu of the day: the music ended cleanly, but then given a moment to dissipate. Principal oboe, Barbara Bolte’s supple tone made the “Allegretto” sing; Douglas Miller’s ease of register change and breath control were constant pleasures. But the rhythmic and harmonic complexities of this miraculous essay left everyone trying too hard just to get through it, rather than using the notes as mere tools on the way to scaling the heights from one of classical music’s most brilliant minds. JWR