If the Victoria Symphony’s current slogan, “Feel every note,” is meant to lure veteran and new patrons alike to its concerts, then guest pianist Angela Cheng’s motto might well be “Free every bar.” Those fortunate enough to attend last night’s Legacy Series opener were favoured with the best from both maxims as Cheng magically drew the audience, orchestra and conductor into the her very special realm of music-making. The gifted soloist’s conception, understanding and rendering of Brahms’ brooding, emotionally charged “symphony with piano” demonstrated again how one unwavering musical personality can engage and enthrall anyone within hearing. With most other artists, that couldn’t have happened here.
On paper, programming this sublime score seemed at odds with the numbers at hand. Because there are so many “modern” performances employing two-to-three times as many strings and double woodwinds—all using full-length grand pianos and the same amount of brass—the likelihood of a fine balance was slim. Yet, from the very first measures of the exposition, it was clear that while the forces were somewhat meagre, the intent and integrity of Tania Miller and her talented troupe held the promise of much more than seismic sonic booms.
The opening tempo was thoughtful—near leisurely—but why hurry genius? The table was set for the first piano line and had just the right mixture of inevitability, which had the further effect of the composer’s desire to change colour rather than unleash a barrage of soloistic bravura. Only more secure punctuation from the trumpets could have improved the transition. Once launched, the Cheng/Miller collaboration was a great pleasure. Clearly, this was a meeting of minds—a true partnership unfolding (unlike some conductors who seem unable or unwilling to find the collective groove—cross-reference below). While the first movement poured steadily forward, the valleys were more memorable than the peeks as the valiant musicians tried to match the thunder and power of the keyboard, only to just miss the heights of perfect ensemble at the crises.
In many ways, the middle frame was the highlight of the evening. Cheng’s marvellous sense of phrase and beautifully weighted legato filled the hall with a personal intensity rarely heard. Miller and the orchestra responded in kind, offering subtle support, letting the music breathe. When it was their turn to shine, the woodwinds—notably the clarinets—were just as sincere in digging deep into the anguished melodies. At these moments, Cheng effortlessly switched gears to become accompanist extraordinaire—listening intently, offering first-rate support even as her hands forged a seemingly bar-line free undercurrent that lifted and carried the double thirds above it. She has long banished the tyranny of vertical confinement, unlocking the secret to horizontal flow that is informed by pulse rather than mere beats.
The “Finale” burbled along with much enthusiasm from all parties, reinforcing Cheng’s overall plan brilliantly. Having had the first two movements declaimed with passion and poise, the “Rondo” was an incredible dash to the finish where the technical challenges were tossed off even as the power of Brahms’ harmonic forays and deft utilization of suspensions kept the ear engaged and the soul riveted. Miller and her charges scurried along earnestly but occasionally couldn’t match the heady pace. The violas did glow in their glorious moment in the sun, yet a firmer left hand and more into-the-string bow strokes (true for all sections at one time or another) could have defied their numbers and bathed the hall in Brahmsian gold.
Dvořák's D Major Symphony was a test of a completely different kind. Observing Miller try to draw the most sound possible from her talented charges reminded me of a conducting lesson with Kazuyoshi Akiyama. The work in question was Bruckner’s mighty Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. The “orchestra” (similar to the system employed for budding maestros at Tanglewood) consisted of a pair of pianists playing four-hand arrangements (in the Berkshires, most read directly from the score!). After my first attempt at building from the shimmering start to the first mighty climax, the patient maestro asked me to step aside and, without a word, redid the same measures. To my astonishment (and etched unforgettably in memory), Akiyama conducted as if the entire Berlin Philharmonic was before him. Broad gestures, full body language and a few telling looks brought the Austrian’s score to life with the complete range of power and passion that shouldn’t have been possible with “just” a piano.
Miller is encouraged to do likewise: less beat more line sculpting; reach into the centre of the sound and brush the richly coloured music onto a canvas of immense proportions; take a few risks during the transitions (as Rafael Kubelik was wont to do—driving the purists to distraction and electrifying the grateful music lovers). With such a skilled ally in concertmaster Terence Tam and winds who watch every gesture, there’s enough trust on the bench to let the music lead, leaving the beats to fall where they may. To be sure, there were moments (notably in the “Allegro con spiritu”) where the result was absolutely superb. But we’re greedy for more, please. The audience will cheer as never before when—as with Cheng—the bar lines are seen but seldom heard. JWR