Katherine Chi, pianist: VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, Works by Sibelius, Prokofiev, and Bruckner, February 2, 2015. 

This concert featured two re-acquaintances: first, with the very accomplished pianist Katherine Chi, the first Canadian and first woman to ever win the Honens International Piano Competition (2000) and, second, with the great Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, who surprisingly has been absent from VSO programmes for a good number of years.  I cannot in fact recall any concert where Maestro Bramwell Tovey has conducted a Bruckner symphony.  The conductor opened with a touching reading of Sibelius’ Valse Triste, very slow and tender to begin -- with almost a scent of Elgarian wistfulness -- then flowering out with a lovely spring-like radiance.   

Ever since early recordings by Byron Janis and Martha Argerich, Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto has always attracted fairly cut and thrust, virtuoso readings, setting sharp contrast and buoyant energy against its fabric of bittersweet lyricism.  Nor are these approaches inappropriate: Prokofiev was always an uncompromising man of steel but he was clearly less of an “enfant terrible” in his 3rd concerto than he was in his first two.  I have always wanted to hear a really soft, warm approach to this work, one where the more thoughtful and somber elements have an extended role to play.

Photo: Baixue Wang

Photo: Baixue Wang

This current performance certainly chose deliberate speeds, allowing the first movement to open out new lyrical possibilities that consistently reaffirmed the feeling of the pensive opening andante.  Many of these suggested the shimmering and dreamy textures that one can find, say, in the composer’s First Violin Concerto.  Katherine Chi’s pianism was exact and conscientious, never pushing forward with excesses of mercurial zeal, or for that matter, with excessive drama or rubato. But everything was there: more neutral in some ways but also more beautiful in other ways.  I did not find that the balance particularly favoured the pianist.

The leisurely pace for the Theme and Variations maintained this approach but perhaps not as convincingly, becoming slightly diffuse, even though Chi’s playing was always exemplary.  With the padded textures and the firmness of the piano articulation, Prokofiev’s efforts sometimes tended to converge to the rapt wonder of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, with the extended and powerful variation at the end seeming both abrupt and slightly outsize.  The finale opened out additional mystery and flow but I think that its memorably-cheeky rhythms could have used more bite.  Sometimes I also wanted more push and daring in Chi’s articulation, at least a glimpse of the wild stallion in her.  But quite illuminating overall and I learned something from this approach. 

There were virtually no qualifications at all with the performance of Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony, which for me featured some of the finest conducting I have seen from Bramwell Tovey.  While this symphony is not one of the composer’s most difficult constructions, it cannot be negotiated simply by getting its powerful climaxes in place.  Tovey found the tempo giusto that allowed the work to unfold in a lovely unforced way, abounding with a rare eloquence and feeling in its lyrical line and building to cohesive and decisive climaxes.  The cellos and violas had a disarming expressive radiance, the violins tight and purposive, and the brass got through the work with conviction and indeed almost entirely error-free.  The dynamics were excellent too, finding a telling mystery and still in the softest passages.

I thought the concentration in the first two movements was quite remarkable, and while the natural pacing may have been slightly compromised in the Trio of the third and some early parts of the finale – pushed forward a little hastily – the symphony built inexorably to its magnificent and noble conclusion, finding significant feelings of joy along the way.  One could simply sit back and be transported.  Only one comment on the brass, and perhaps it is a purely personal preference: I wish I could have heard more of the remarkable horn line in the climaxes of the Scherzo in particular.  More generally, I felt the bias was slightly against the horns in the massed brass sequences. 

Photo: Yuliya Neverova

Photo: Yuliya Neverova

One other interesting dimension of this concert is that it was the VSO’s second attempt this season to engage general Arts students from the University of British Columbia under my supervision.  100 students were guests of the symphony this time, and they all were able to meet with the soloist, conductor, and concertmaster right after the event to ask questions.  The questions had surprising depth and range , and were answered eloquently and sincerely by the three artists.  In response to one student, Maestro Tovey provided a humorous anecdote about his experiences at his first Grammy-award presentation where he was accidentally introduced as ‘Brumwell Toffee.’

Since some students had never been to a classical concert before, it was interesting to find out which work they liked best.  I am committed to the idea that great music and performance always communicates readily to initiates and non-initiates alike.  As expected, a good number were fixated by the pianist, one student actually liked the Sibelius most, but the majority inclined towards the Bruckner.  I think this is an interesting result: the Bruckner is a very long work for any newcomer.  It may also mean that we have fledgling music critics in the making.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015