Marc-André Hamelin (piano), VSO/ Xian Zhang: Works by Chang, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, Orpheum, November 2, 2018.


We have witnessed a variety of estimable female conductors in recent years, but it has been quite a wait to see Xian Zhang, one of the earlier pioneers in this evolution. Zhang is currently Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of BBC NOW and has received considerable attention for her London ‘Proms’ appearances. Her rigourous and spirited conducting indeed made for an impressive showing on this occasion, and her discipline brought unusual tonal integration and power from the orchestra. Her Tchaikovsky ‘Little Russian’ Symphony came off like a firecracker, full of Russian fervour and elan – and very exciting. Her orchestral control also brought strong dividends to Dorothy Chang’s finely appointed Northern Star. Then, there was the appearance of celebrated Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, bringing his consummate artistry to bear on Mozart Piano Concerto No. 17: a worthwhile performance though Zhang’s orchestral accompaniment tended to be on the serious and heavy side.

Dorothy Chang’s short piece Northern Star served as an inspirational opener, starting from the mists of uncertainty and regret, opening out to the vistas of the great star that leads humanity onwards. Recalling her Strange Air (performed here in 2014), one thing I have always liked about the composer is that she never overwrites or over-orchestrates her subject matter. The images are pure, telling and an interesting mix of the universal and the personal, always set within transparent structure and natural motion. This was evident at the beginning of this piece, where Asian constructional cells floated quietly in a somber underworld, following a descending bass sequence reminiscent of the opening of Stravinsky’s Firebird. The work elevates to wonder and suspension (with telling use of the oboe), building to an explosive outpouring where overarching bell-like percussion effects intriguingly produce a feeling that is both threatening and joyous. The work ends quietly. Maestro Zhang was excellent in exposing the structure of the piece, sitting with both its sense of space and gradations of colour, and bringing the full force of the orchestra to bear on its climax. My only caveat is that the work’s soft ending may have been too elliptical.  Dorothy Chang is Professor of Composition at the University of British Columbia.

One records how infrequently one hears Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies, so it was most worthwhile that Zhang brought us his second (‘Little Russian’) to close the concert.  She obviously loves the work, and she showed us how she operates at full throttle: full of dynamism and rhythmic thrust and wonderfully in tune with the sweetness and flow of the composer’s lyrical lines. It is interesting to observe features of Zhang’s conducting: she stands very straight and rigid when performing (a style that also reminiscent of the China Philharmonic’s Yong Lu), with more discipline than expansive freedom in the arms, yet her vertical extension can range from an almost crouching position (for pianissimos) to her tip toes (for maximum power).


The symphony was superbly executed throughout and was wonderfully fresh in feeling. From the strings through the brass, there was an overall attentiveness, cohesion and tonal richness in the orchestra that we don’t witness that often. The opening horn theme flowed out beautifully, giving way to tightly-etched rhythms and lovely pliant strings, cultivating the passion and ardour that one typically finds in Russian performances. It was the quick tempos and consistent electric charge that immediately took me back to Evgeny Svetlanov’s early Melodiya recording (recall that Mravinsky never recorded it). The following march was on the quick side, but its piquant charm and underlying bittersweet melancholy were never in doubt. The rhythmic purpose of the Scherzo (with wonderfully growling basses) was fully invigourating and the finale brought one of the most exciting displays we have seen in a while. It was simply overflowing with power and energy, the rosin flying from string sections attentively on their toes, the brass tight and strong, with the conductor demonstrably in love with the composer’s flowing melodies. The coda was scintillating, a true testament to Zhang’s deeply-felt conviction and the commitment of the orchestra.

The Mozart G major Concerto takes one to a quite different sensibility, and here Marc-André Hamelin delighted with his clean, ravishingly appointed pianism. Nonetheless, it became immediately apparent that Zhang’s strong and energetic conducting was a little ‘big’ to mesh with Hamelin’s pointillistic leanings. She used a full-sized orchestra and her dramatic weight and romantic shaping tended to block the intimacy of the expression: the sense of skipping delight and innocence in the opening allegro was absent, and orchestral volumes sometimes dominated the piano. The poignant Andante fared better and allowed the pianist to assume a stronger role. It featured wonderfully pure pianism, with the minor key modulations of the cantabile theme enticingly articulated and fully felt, finishing with one of Hamelin’s ‘surprise’ cadenzas. I recall the modernist cadenzas Hamelin affixed to Mozart’s 24th years ago; this time, he started with more somber Lisztian hues and ended with the fragile musings of Schubert’s final sonata. Very beautifully done, but I will let the experts decide on how often one wants to do this.

The finale went quite well, with good energy and direction, but neither the fluidity or sparkle of Mozart’s writing, or the delightful interactions between the winds and piano/strings, were particularly exposed. Hamelin marshalled convincing push and energy at the right moments, but his articulation was a little ‘square’ overall, not putting much lyrical pulse under his finely-chiseled lines. Nonetheless, the basic spirit of the movement came through. I can’t help but feel that the pianist’s fineness of articulation would work better with a more scaled-down orchestra, and it would be nice if the maestro would modernize her Mozart slightly and smile more. Hamelin added a riveting Rachmaninoff Prelude as an encore.

I enjoyed this concert fully: Xian Zhang’s Tchaikovsky was of the absolutely highest class, as was her demonstrated orchestral control, and one never tires of seeing Marc-Andre Hamelin’s pristine pianism. I will also not forget the economical beauty of Dorothy Chang’s little piece.


© Geoffrey Newman 2018