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Youthful Ardour and Inspired Conducting

Han-Na Chang, cello and Jesus Lopez-Cobez, conductor

Works by Elgar, Wagner, and Dvorak, Orpheum, October 2, 2010 

     It was an exciting idea for the VSO to pair the extraordinary 27-year old Korean cellist, Han-Na Chang with distinguished veteran conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos.   The latter has held posts all over the world and has recorded for more than 30 years: the cellist is now truly an established star, receiving the highest praise for her EMI Classics recordings ranging from Vivaldi to Shostakovich.  A child prodigy, she was only 13 when she made her debut recording.

 Han-Na Chang

Han-Na Chang

     Right from the opening chords of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, one noted the sheer strength and weight of Han-Na Chang’s tone, along with the suppleness of her bowing; a clear debt to the Mstislav Rostropovich, one of her early supporters and teachers.  The work however can pose hurdles for the performer because it is not a standard virtuoso cello concerto; much of it is really an intimate piece of (orchestral) chamber music.  For all her obvious agility and strength, I found Han-Na Chang somewhat cautious in entering Elgar’s expressive world.  Much of the phrasing seemed to lack true Elgarian eloquence and magic; sometimes over-projected and at other times too reserved.  Certainly in the beautiful slow movement, the failure to expand phrases fully, to push their intensity, and to vary tonal shadings left the emotional core of the work incompletely exposed.  Fortunately, she brought greater thrust and spontaneity to the closing pages of the work.  Overall, I think that what we saw here was a ‘work in progress’ for the artist.  I look forward to hearing the final product when she records it.

     This left the door open for conductor Lopez-Cobos to take center stage, and that he certainly did!

     From the opening work, Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, the conductor immediately impressed as a master craftsmen, expositing symphonic structure with transparency and unerring judgment.  Rhythms are rock-solid, nothing is hurried, everything is perfectly balanced, and excitement builds from beginning to end.

 Jesus Lopez-Cobos (Photo:  musicaglotz)

Jesus Lopez-Cobos (Photo: musicaglotz)

     The big challenge was what is often regarded as Dvorak’s greatest symphony, No. 7 in D minor, a work that combines high drama with Bohemian rustic warmth.  Again, the symphony received a most articulate and sculpted exposition but it was the sensual way in which the quieter, pastoral passages were brought out that cast new light on the work for me.  This tied the work’s feeling back to the lyrical Symphony No. 5 at many points.  Lopez-Cobez had this work flowing from beginning to end; there was not a passage or detail that seemed uninteresting or out of place.  The cumulative power of such intelligent music making was overwhelming at the final climax. Myself, and I think most of the audience, were almost stunned by what we had seen, particularly because everything was built with such consummate ease.  We will remember this concert.

     One must comment on the orchestra, which responded magnificently.  Frankly, I am so used to a fairly hard, thick sound from the VSO that I thought the resonant acoustics of the Orpheum were to blame.  Under Lopez-Cobez’s magical baton, the problem seemingly disappeared. The violins were smooth and flexible, the lower strings had a wonderful sensual bloom, the woodwinds floated in complete clarity above the orchestral texture, and the massed French horns had a glow and exactness that I had never heard before.  So a lesson for us all!

© Geoffrey Newman 2010