Kirill Gerstein, piano; VSO/ Ben Gernon: Works by Nielsen, Shostakovich and Sibelius, Orpheum, January 24, 2015.

Fresh off his appointment as a Dudamel fellow and his appearance at this year’s BBC Proms, British conductor Ben Gernon joins the continuing stream of young conductors making their debut with the VSO in recent months.  Gernon’s principal contribution was the performance of two works that celebrate of the simultaneous 150th anniversaries of the birth of Jan Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, collaborating in between with pianist Kirill Gerstein in Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto.

Carl Nielsen’s Alladin (1919) is the composer’s longest and most important work for the stage, running fully over eighty minutes in duration. Unfortunately, neither it, nor the twenty minute “suite” derived from it and heard on this occasion, are programmed very often in North American concert halls.  This is certainly engaging and mature Nielsen, composed between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, and offering a wide range of orchestral innovation and colour from the master at the peak of his powers.  Ben Gernon took the music to heart, moving into the opening “Oriental March” with great strength and fire, maintaining concentration, and bringing a very distinguished weight, shape and sophistication to the VSO’s sound profile.  In fact, there was little letdown at all as we moved through the various dances, the strings full of frisson, woodwind and brass expressive and clear.  I was thoroughly captivated by the time we reached the strong closing “Dance of the Prisoners” and “Negro Dance” which, in turn, were executed with real power and spontaneity, sometimes hinting at a noble grandeur.

The intensity was maintained as pianist Kirill Gerstein came on stage for the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto.  By general consent, this work is one of the composer’s most buoyant and unburdened compositions, having been written simply as a present for his son Maxim’s 19th birthday in 1957.  While many pianists from Dimitri Alexeev to Denis Matsuev have played both the first and last movements with unremitting point, drive and a certain steely brittleness, Gerstein sought a more rhapsodic posture, often starting with an explosive burst of energy, then moving expression quickly into a more lyrical vein.  Here there was more weaving in and out of the texture, and certainly more rubato and sharp accents than normally.  At first, I thought that the compulsive strength of the writing suffered a little -- but it turned out that it didn’t matter.  Gernon’s attentive and propulsive conducting provided all the energy and drive one could wish for, finding great detail, and bringing both movements home with strong purpose and flourish.  The Andante was also less Rachmaninoff-like in Gerstein’s hands, seeking intimacy and a reverie-like stasis, but again the conductor coaxed such a radiant, refined projection and sheen from the strings that it all came together in a lovely way.

This first half was one of the really fine experiences of the season, but I suppose that all good things must come to an end, and the closing Sibelius Fifth Symphony was not executed nearly as well.  The strings in the opening movement did not appear to be as fluent and natural as before, yet Gernon did find an interesting primeval feeling in the quiet bassoon passages in the middle, and brought the movement home with considerable gusto.  It was the deliberate pace and romantic over-expression in the Andante – always a dangerous strategy with this movement -- that started to slow the conductor down and weaken his concentration.   In turn, I found the Scherzo went for little, and then the brass started to go astray, with a number of unsure entries and a noticeable over-balancing of the horns as we began the slow tread home.  Things recovered adequately by the end -- though the timing in Sibelius’ trick ending was not perfect – but, for my taste, the whole finale was rather too fulsome and bloated in character.  One needs a leaner, sharper projection and greater frisson; this is not Tchaikovsky.  I can see nothing but the very brightest conducting future for Ben Gernon.  At his best, he can bring amazing things out of an orchestra; on this showing, he just needs to work on his Sibelius a little more.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015