Alexey Yemtsov, piano; VSO/ Anu Tali: Works by Santa Ana, Rachmaninoff and Sibelius, Orpheum, November 26, 2016.

The march of conductors vying for the Vancouver Symphony’s music directorship continues with the second female conductor of the fall, Estonian Anu Tali. The first was American Karina Canellakis. Trained by the likes of Ilya Musin and Jorma Panula, and currently music director of the Sarasota and Nordic Symphony orchestras, the firm grounding of Tali’s conducting expertise was everywhere apparent at this concert.  There is no quest for glamour here; everything is precise, well appointed, and above all meaningful. The Maestra also has a keen feel for texture, and can open the orchestra out with controlled strength and cohesion. Her results in Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto were fully creditable and musically satisfying without perhaps going the full distance.  One always witnessed enviable detail, architectural strength and romantic feeling, but there was sometimes an over-conscientiousness in her approach that blocked full spontaneity and motion. The collaboration with young pianist Alexey Yemtsov in Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto had scintillating moments but also some more tentative ones.

Vancouver composer Alfredo Santa Ana’s Ocaso opened the concert. It is unusual to refer to a work composed in 2015 as an ‘old friend’ but I happened to be present at its first performances with the National Youth Orchestra under Michael Francis in August of that year. It was a commission by NYO Canada.  I remarked then: ‘This is a well-written piece that does not outstay its welcome. It starts from string pizzicato alone, vaguely in the spirit of Britten’s Simple Symphony, eventually broadening out to allow a more cinematic theme on the brass. After a more relaxed interlude for winds, a neoclassical fervour takes over in the concluding section. The structural cogency of the work was distinctive.’ Under Maestra Tali and the VSO, the results were more austere and inward in feeling and more in keeping with the title’s translation: ‘dusk’, referring to the twilight years in one’s life. One witnessed additional refinement in the opening pizzicato, and greater textural and dynamic variety too. The later wind interlude exposed a more telling sadness, while the ending had a clearer sense of recalling the work’s opening motion in half-lights. One would naturally expect a more discerning reading from a professional ensemble, but I still recall the youthful ardour of the NYO Canada traversal with delight. Perhaps the piece can take both approaches. Tali’s orchestral control impressed throughout.

Rachmaninoff ‘s Third Concerto featured Alexey Yemtsov, a pianist who interestingly happens to have the identical Ukrainian/ Australian roots as Alexander Gavrylyuk.  The latter has been a recent ‘favourite’ here and gave a complete Rachmaninoff concerto cycle a couple of seasons ago. Both artists grew up in Australia and were helped along the way by an association with the Sydney Symphony and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Though Yemtsov possesses obvious virtuoso flourish, he is no Gavrylyuk yet: he displays less interpretative authority and has a more restricted poetic sense and tonal range. His Rachmaninoff was satisfying at some level but it rarely achieved a galvanizing flow or cathartic reach. Anu Tali set warm, carefully articulated contours for the pianist but they were slightly too smooth and rich to fit with a soloist who errs on the side of reticence in softer lyrical passages but then jumps fervently forward into bravura  demonstrations. This created little imbalances in the opening movement that were distracting, though the chief liability was the pianist’s relative shortness of line and failure to find an alluring rhapsodic push. Yemtsov seemed best in those moments when he could go ‘full out’, such as in the movement’s enormous cadenza where the pianist was in unbridled virtuoso form.  The Adagio started from particularly sensitive phrasing from the orchestra, occasionally matched by the soloist, but then again things tapered off into pianism that was fairly plain and short-winded, lacking lyrical suspension.  The triumphal last movement generated more intensity, and even though the conductor and soloist still seemed at odds at points, the pianist marshalled everything together and the orchestra’s strong outpouring of emotion at the end was distinctive.   The performance had its moments; it just left many things less than worked out.  Rachmaninoff’s flame often could only be imagined rather than felt.

The patience and rock-solid integrity in Maestra Tali’s conducting was in full evidence in her Sibelius Fifth, though it turned out somewhat differently than I expected.  Given her Nordic roots, and a Finnish interpretative tradition that extends all the way from Robert Kajanus to Osmo Vanska, one might have expected an icier and more withdrawn orchestral facade, with sharper and more quicksilver contrasts (especially in the opening movement). Tali was noticeably more padded and smooth, taking time to bring out fulsome colours and textures at relatively deliberate speeds, and seemingly following a template to bring out the organic unity of the work. Perhaps she was drawing a parallel with the composer’s inexorably-evolving Seventh Symphony. Yet the richness of the colours and fleeting allusions to Tchaikovskian textures seemed to go more in the other direction – back to his First Symphony or Second. Her awareness of detail was conspicuous. I liked how she unearthed the quiet murmurings of even the Fourth Symphony half way through the opening movement and brought unusual refinement and space to the opening of the Adagio. Yet, for all this, I still had a feeling that she wasn’t quite capturing either the natural motion or the ‘steel’ in this Fifth Symphony in particular.  Something seemed too conscientious about her aim to make every detail glow and, with the deliberate speeds, things seemed a little slow-going overall. The closing March was nicely contoured, but it still was more methodical than earth-shaking. The VSO’s sound was very focused throughout: the wind lines clean and luminescent, the brass precise and cutting, and the strings both accurate in dynamics and displaying a healthy sinew.

Anu Tali is a very fine exponent of conducting craft and interpretation.  I just wish she was a little less painstakingly conscientious and a little more spontaneous.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016