In my five trips to Kleinhans Music Hall since October, I have marvelled at the acoustics, admired the musicianship, nattered about the details, but knew that sooner or later all of the components would combine to create an exceptional concert capable of lingering in memory for a long time. Sunday’s performance was just such an occasion.
On paper, the selections (the genius of Ravel, book-ended by Turina’s irresistible colours and Saint-Saëns’ development-dreary but hormone-heavy organ fest) looked promising, but it took JoAnn Falletta’s uncompromising tempi, style and commitment to swirl these three disparate works into one sumptuous meal.
Not that she didn’t have help. Replacing the suddenly ailing Louis Lortie on a day’s notice, pianist Cecile Licad took up the incredible challenge with skill and panache. She brought more understatement than might be the case ordinarily to the concerto’s opening measures, watching her able conductor like a hawk, but went far beyond just cobbling the treacherous movement together, getting under its technical and subliminal skin once the initial tests had passed. That everything didn’t fit like a glove mattered not; her drive and verve kept everyone on the edge of their seats, only to relax in awe at the ease with which the delectable cadenza was rendered.
Similarly, the paradoxically simple/complex second movement was launched with a trace of “hesitato,” but its last thirty-five bars (beginning with the wonderfully bewitching interplay between the soloist and the exquisite tone and musicianship of Carolyn Banham’s English horn) provided the finest music-making I have heard at these performances. Merci, mille fois!
The collaboration concluded in the heady “Presto,” where Licad, Falletta and their eager band tossed off most of the notes, let a few fall where they might, but had us all cheering this hugely successful—although unplanned—partnership. Some things are meant to happen.
Turina’s Dances provided Falletta with the opportunity of demonstrating an underestimated quality of first-rank conductors: making a fair piece sound better than it is. With more authority than I can recall, she cajoled, moulded and drove her players like a fine-tuned luxury automobile. The salsa on these three tasty miniatures came from her left hand, which drew extraordinary phrasing from winds and strings alike, permitting the first two movements to evaporate into the Spanish heat, rather than just quit at the double bar.
Saint-Saëns mighty C Minor Symphony closed the program with numerous moments of excitement and magnificent orchestral colours. Although using electrons rather than pipes and air, the organ line filled the room with enough vibration to keep the hall’s dusters idle for weeks.
Hot from the pace of the first half, Falletta didn’t let up in the second, pushing her charges to the brink (particularly the opening “Allegro moderato” and the “Presti” where some of the woodwinds and most of the horns may be in need of medical treatment for self-inflicted tongue lashings! Nonetheless, when the unison strings declaimed their theme with the organ providing comment and support, the result was spectacular and, well, like being in Church.
Transitions traversed, the work moved confidently to its conclusion, much to the delight and hearty applause of those lucky enough to be present.
And never underestimate the power of a warhorse: the downpour that we braved to attend had been replaced by brilliant warm sunshine as I scurried back home to Niagara with sounds and ideas of other lands reverberating through my mind. JWR