Monday, February 23, 2015

Terrific Liszt rendered by Cohen - Brotons’ Sixth Symphony receives searing performance by the Vancouver Symphony

It was Oscar night on TV, but that didn’t deter a sizeable audience from attending the Vancouver Symphony concert on Sunday evening (March 22nd) at Skyview Concert Hall. They were treated to outstanding performances by Arnaldo Cohen of Franz Liszt’s Piano Concertos No. 1 and No 2 and a spirited world premiere of the Sixth Symphony (“Concise”) of Salvador Brotons.

Cohen, a multi-talented pianist who maintains an active international performing career while teaching at a prestigious conservatory and leading Portland Piano International, is no stranger to Liszt, having made five recordings of his music, including the concertos on the VSO program. Yet despite the familiarity, Cohen’s playing was infused with energy and intelligence, and he electrified the audience with highly charged and impeccable interpretations. From the keyboard of the Steinway grand, he delivered thundering octaves, smooth arpeggios, terrific staccato lines, sudden sforzandos, and quiet, contemplative lines with nuanced phrasing. Cohen expressed the music wonderfully, without straying into any kind of excess.

On the whole, the orchestra accompanied him very well. A couple of times in the first concerto, Brotons did quite get the orchestra to cut off with Cohen at exactly the same time. Orchestral highlights included shimmering phrases from the violins and expressive solos by principal trombonist Greg Scholl, and principal oboist Karen Strand. In the second concerto, principal cellist Justin Kagan played several lovely solos, but one of them got a little covered up by the orchestra. The orchestra also overshadowed principal flutist Darren Cook’s solo a bit too much. Again, principal oboist Strand played her solos with distinction.

Thunderous applause followed Cohen’s performances, and he responded to the volleys of bravos with a solo, which he told the audience was “Liszt, only different.”

Brotons originally wrote his Sixth Symphony in 2011 as a work for symphonic band, and it has been recorded by the Barcelona Symphonic Band on the Naxos label. Over the past summer, he rearranged the work for orchestra, and the Vancouver Symphony gave its world premiere at this concert (and the previous afternoon’s concert).

“Concise” is an apt name for this symphony, because in five compact movements, the music covers a lot of ground. The first movement (“Frontal”) had a dramatic opening, featuring salvos from principal timpanist Florian Conzetti and the percussion battery, transitioned to a busy theme that had only the briefest of lulls before the orchestra (agitated by the double basses) took off to the races again. Another transition brought the ensemble into a floating, dreamy space before it was summoned with attacks from all sides and wrapped up by the percussion in a rat-tat-tat ,sharp, crisp ending.

The next movement (“Courtship”) started with a slow, steady beat, which gave way to a lighter segment with solos for trombone (Scholl), bassoon (Margaret McShea), and cello (Kagan). The wandering nature of the music segued to a majestic section that became ominous with an almost queasy brass sound, lots of tension and an unresolved finish.

The third movement (“Scherzo”) was light and bouncy, like a dance. Sporadic entrances and exits dotted the mood until it all suddenly ended. The fourth movement (“Passacaglia”) was quite solemn and serious, starting in the lower strings. The feeling of heaviness sprang forward via the flute (Cook) and gradually acquired an elegiac mood before breaking into a beautiful melody that was shared by the entire orchestra. The melody travelled to the brass and woodwinds, and then it slowed down to a dramatic ending that was filled with sonic blasts from the timpani and percussion, building loads of tension, which spilled into the fifth movement (“Finale”) where a lighter state of being took over. Surging melodies emerged and dynamic twists and turns took place until the big theme swelled to the top and all was crown with a bombastic conclusion.

Overall, the strong emotional content of the Sixth Symphony seemed to reflect Brotons’ personality. It had lots of highs and lows, more fortes perhaps than pianos, and always and unrelenting drive. I don’t know if the piece will be played a hundred years from now, but I hope so, because it is lively work that is fun to hear and reflective of the human experience.

The concert opened with the Overture to Dmitri Kabalevsky’s opera “Colas Breugnon.” The orchestra played it with gusto, and it struck a harmonious chord with the audience.

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