In a remarkable display of steely courage and first-rate artistry, David Jalbert brought the capacity crowd to its feet in his maiden performance of Tchaikovsky’s formidable first concerto. The achievement bodes well for Jalbert’s future as a world-class pianist who happens to be from Canada.
The performance coalesced as it proceeded. The excitement and tension of the opening measures had less than satisfactory statements from the horns and a variety of tempi that never really settled until the second utterance of, arguably, Tchaikovsky’s most endearing melodic line. The strings gave their all, only occasionally leaving the soaring lines to finish themselves, rather than consistently apply left-hand pressure and right-hand push/pull to the heady tune.
From the outset, it was clear that Jalbert had mastered the bulk of the technical challenges—a feat in itself given the fact he had weeks rather than months to prepare. Rare among musicians today, he is not reticent to deliver a true, dry staccato when called for, more faithful to the score than his personal tonal spectrum. The result was a variety of touch, tone and texture that few pianists today have at their disposal. Happily, a Yamaha concert grand was made available for the occasion, one hopes they will forget to retrieve it.
As a collaborator, music director Daniel Swift is always supportive and cognizant of the perpetually shifting input from his guests. With Jalbert, the will was there but too often in the early going the moves in and out of the tuttis were just a fraction out-of-sync, like a film where the dubbing is off.
Left to his own devices in the extended solo sections, Jalbert relaxed and offered numerous examples of his dexterity and panache: his left hand was a marvel at declaiming the theme while simultaneously showering the keyboard with “too many notes”; the fiendish extended trills effortlessly placed—just so—in the background.
And if there were moments when this mighty creation slipped off the rails, they were more than made up for in the “Finale.” Here both parties threw caution to the wind (ably caught throughout by principal clarinet, Zoltán Kalman), providing the finest playing of the afternoon. Swift, Jalbert and the intrepid band flew through the pages with verve, delivering the transitions with seamless authority. Perhaps more vertical than horizontal in design, Jalbert came through this demanding test with brilliance and left everyone eager for more.
The program opened with a gentle reading of Stewart Grant’s Chaconne. It was the perfect foil for the concerto to follow and provided an opportunity for the strings to shine—in particular the violas in their delivery of the theme. Unfortunately, writing about Big Bands all morning, my ears couldn’t let go of the near quote of the main idea from “Autumn Leaves” that returned again and again between the opening and closing of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City octave/unison draperies that framed the work.
This year’s composition from the Composer-in-the-Classroom, Hogwarts’ Symphony, was a collection of soundscapes (or “scrapes,” given some of the instrumental effects) based on a character from the Harry Potter tome. The largely improvised piece, notable for its totally believable train rides and the playoff-timely rhythmic event that had a few spontaneously utter “Go, Leafs, Go," was performed by Grace Elementary School students of Ms. Susan Platt-Lindsay and ably conducted by a young Wizard, MacKenzie.
Surprisingly, the concert and this year’s Masterworks Series ended with Borodin’s First Symphony. Given the drama and maturity of the Tchaikovsky, Borodin’s music failed to excite the ears and minds in anywhere near the manner of his countryman. Still, there were moments: Laura Thomas (as was also the case in the concerto) continuously drew sounds of strength or discretion from the tympani, supporting the musical whole in ways few others can; the cellos excelled in the “,” but no one left humming that tune; the “” was too playful by half, providing unintended moments of a different kind of excitement.
Looking ahead to next season, Niagara will be treated to a wide variety of styles and artists, once again confirming the NSA’s status as the Region’s brightest cultural gem. JWR