Canadian piano virtuoso, Robert Silverman, paid a most welcome visit to the Niagara region and thrilled the near-capacity house with a sensitive and authoritative reading of Beethoven’s most sublime concerto. There hasn’t been such excitement and rapt attention in the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre since Rivka Golani’s barn-storming appearance last fall (cross-reference below). Daniel Swift’s programming and ability to lure these fine artists to St. Catharines is to be commended and applauded.
From Silverman’s opening statement—“seul”—it was evident that he was very much in tune with Beethoven’s inner thoughts and ideas. The line was presented near matter-of-fact but with an underlying dryness and light eighths that were the essential clues for winds and strings alike when it came their turn to respond.
The violins got the message better than the woodwinds, especially the oboe whose replying stacatti needed a trip to weight watchers. The overall balance of the ensemble was splendid throughout the concert, not least because the entire menu consisted of works written for forces of this size. Even though it’s believed that audiences will stay away unless they have their Tchaikovsky and Brahms warhorses, hearing them with half the string requirement is like seeing the Mona Lisa in black-and-white.
From his second entry, Silverman was as attentive as he was forceful in ensuring that the many links in and out of the band were together, keeping the tempo moving forward with compelling authority. His first cadenza was at times thoughtful, resourceful and shiver-inducing. He even managed to pull golden tones from the top register of the resident grand whose keepers might rightfully be charged with a malpractice maintenance suit.
The 72-bar “Andante con moto” was the least successful movement. It was never clear whether the strings were in conversation with the beguiling melodic line or purposefully at odds with it. Many of the note lengths were not uniform—particularly the quarters—which added to the emotional confusion. For his part, Silverman seemed more intent on ensemble than discourse—perhaps one more rehearsal would have clarified the collective approach. Nonetheless, he conjured up the finest resolution to the major ninth’s pain that I have yet heard.
The Finale, like the dashing if a tad untidy Overture to the Impresario that began the afternoon, bubbled beautifully throughout. Any doubts about Silverman’s ability to respond to the monstrous technical challenges were quickly laid to rest, although I have yet to hear a note-perfect performance and am not entirely sure if it matters (cross-reference below).
Once again the cadenza was superb: the entire room in awe of Silverman’s poise and stylistic integrity.
Having guest artists of this level inspires the musicians to raise their own bar and treats the faithful audience to many fine moments of artistic excellence. Let’s hope Silverman’s engagement will be the first of many.
Daniel Foley’s wry and well-crafted Ménagerie was the perfect tonic to the classical structures of the first half. The five movement suite, with its fluctuating pulse, colour and rhythm is a challenge for both conductor and orchestra. Swift led his charges ably with only the tail end of “The Mouse,” escaping his grasp. Concertmaster Valerie Sylvester soared readily through her stratospheric solo line and Stephen Koshurba brought assured tone and phrasing finesse to the marvellous English horn writing in “The Nightingale. Finally, “The Bear,”—once sprung from its cage and convincingly driven by principal French horn Tim Lockwood’s steady tone—brought these wonderful miniatures to a heady conclusion.
Swift’s tour de force was his reading of Haydn’s second-to-last symphony. From the hushed, gentle murmur of the famous tympani launch (produced with impeccable touch and stick selection by principal percussionist Laura Thomas) to the driving horn signals of the Finale, the music director cobbled together a convincing view of this gem of the Classical Style. The players responded with equal enthusiasm, which resulted in crisp ensemble and lively transitions.
My only quibble came in the “Andante,” where the variety of tempi prevented Haydn’s variations from having a stable basis from which to compare one to the other and forced the violin solo more into yielding the notes than shaping the line.
Nonetheless, the NSO and its supporters should be justifiably proud of the level of excellence produced by Brock University’s resident orchestra. JWR