Alessio Bax, piano; Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/ Bramwell Tovey: Music of Morawetz, Bernstein, MacDowell and Copland, Orpheum, March 11, 2017.

As we usher in the ‘new’ America, it was nice to hear a programme that combined good old-fashioned Americana with a dose of Canadiana. The occasion took us back to happier and less volatile times where there was no spectre of border taxes that might inhibit even the flow of artistic products between these two amicable neighbours, and where institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts would always continue as fully bounteous and thriving entities. It was thoroughly redeeming to hear the quotation from Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man in the composer’s Third Symphony: not imbued with Populist indignation but standing as a beacon of pride, nobility, honesty and inclusion, attributes that are in conspicuously short supply today. Oskar Morawetz was the esteemed Canadian composer represented, playing off against Bernstein, Copland, and Edward MacDowell south of the border.

Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007) came to Canada from Bohemia at the start of World War II and spent 30 years as a senior faculty member at the University of Toronto, teaching and composing widely in all genres. The Railway Station (1978) was a commission from the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, and is based on the poem by celebrated Canadian poet Archibald Lampman. It is a worthwhile piece, sympathetic to all the train squeaks, hisses, and rhythmic momentum that Honegger brought to public attention in his Pacific 231, but also capturing more restrained dimensions of the train station, its people, its moments of quiet, and so on.  In this respect, the contrast was of somewhat the same lineage as one finds in Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony, with the bluntness of some of his construction taking me more to Malcolm Arnold and other European influences. I enjoyed the contours of this work thoroughly, though the performance might have achieved a sharper projection from the orchestra and more sentient feeling in the quieter interludes.

The concert began with Leonard Bernstein’s distinctive Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, building up with just the right combination of jazzy motion, abandon – and sheer joy – to get the audience going. The saxophones put on a fine display and Jeanette Jonquil contributed a requisitely-sassy clarinet. The big work of the first half was MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto, with Alessio Bax coming on stage.

Critics have often shied away from the derivative Lisztian postures and bombast in MacDowell’s concerto, though Van Cliburn’s early recording certainly showed that enough bravura could bring the work home successfully. Nonetheless, the reading that originally convinced me was the one by Eugene List (1962), possibly now forgotten (though surprisingly still surviving on YouTube). List brought such rhapsodic imagination to the work and combined this with a beguiling combination of drama, charm and tenderness that I actually fell in love with the piece, regarding it as magical and playing the LP over and over again. I have always warmed to young Alessio Bax’s playing too, but his pianism here tended to be ‘straighter’ and less flexible than it might be, though it showed power and virtuosity in all the right places. Maestro Tovey also tended to concentrate on the fulsome romantic outlines of the score more than its underlying mystery and intimacy. The collaboration turned out pleasurable enough, but definitely on the sober side. More charm and caprice, and perhaps warmth and tenderness, are really needed to exempt the work from the charge that it is lightweight and overwritten.

The closing Copland Third Symphony left a richer impression. There was clear conviction in the conducting of both opening and closing movements, and while there was some want of executional precision and tonal lustre, I thought the basic shape and message of the work came through strongly. Perhaps there might have been even more colour in the Rodeo-inspired second movement and a better sense of line in the Andantino (it seemed a little aimless towards the end), but this was not distracting. The finale’s quote from Fanfare for a Common Man somehow seemed more provocative in these turbulent times: I felt proud, yet slightly ambivalent.

It was good to get back to the genuine ‘old’ America – and there was overwhelming applause at the end of the concert. Perhaps it was just the delights of the music performed, or perhaps it was something bigger: the recognition that music bonds all of us substantially better than current politics does.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017