Monday, May 18, 2015

Mercadal brothers make strong case for more double clarinet concertos

Tolo Mercadal and Juanjo Mercadal
Concertos for two clarinets are rare in the orchestral repertoire, but Juanjo and Tolo Mercadal, two virtuoso clarinetists from Spain, made a strong case for more of them by delivering an enchanting performance of Franz Krommer’s “Concerto in E-flat major for Two Clarinets and Orchestra” (Opus 91) with the Vancouver Symphony on Sunday evening (May 17) at Skyview Concert Hall. The terrific tonal balance between the two soloists was one of the main strengths of their playing. If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t have been able to tell which one was playing at any given time. They also were exceptional when handing off phrases to each other. It was smooth as silk.

Perhaps some of the almost telepathic abilities of the soloists were due to the fact that they are brothers. Juanjo, the older brother, lives outside of Barcelona and is the soloist for the Symphony Orchestra of the Grand Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona’s opera house). Tolo lives on the island of Menorca (one of the Balearic Islands) and teaches clarinet at the music conservatory there. Juanjo and Tolo also happen to be the brothers-in-law of Salvador Brotons, music director of the VSO, giving this concert an ‘all in the family” moniker.

After receiving enthusiastic applause from all corners of the hall, the Mercadal brothers responded with an encore, Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” in an arrangement for two clarinets and orchestra. Through the Mercadal brothers ability to create a sultry mood and the image of two tango dancers entwined on the stage.

The infectious musicality of Brotons came to the fore with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in the second half of the program. This piece, with its emotional fluctuations, is one that plays to Brotons strengths. He used every inch of body language to coax huge dynamic contrasts from the orchestra, and the orchestra delivered them with panache. The cutoffs were crisp, runs from the violin section were almost always unified, the reoccurring fate motive had gravitas, the woodwinds created a sense of expansion and contraction that added color, and the fortes were electrifying. Even though the French horns had a blip or two that clouded things a bit, principal Allan Stromquist expertly conquered his solos in the second movement. Principal timpanist Florian Conzetti had a field day. His playing added tremendously to the overall effect of the piece.

It seemed that the musicians were very familiar with this work, and that allowed them to get out of their scores and respond to Brotons’s conducting. When that happens, wow, the music making climbs to a higher level and connects directly with the audience. In fact, in this concert, the audience started applauding right after the end of the first movement. Brotons had lit a fire, his hands were extended skyward, and listeners responded naturally. That’s a compliment for any orchestra.

Earlier in the concert program, Brotons conducted “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt.” This piece was the one that the audience selected from pieces that had been played earlier in the season. The gradual change in tempo was executed well, and the “prestissimo” finale whirled about wildly.

The concert actually began with a snappy rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” in an arrangement for orchestra. It was conducted by Kathy Grambsch, who won the chance at the orchestra’s gala fundraiser. Everyone seemed to be having fun with this piece, including stand-up opportunities for the piccolos, trumpets, and trombones.

Postscript: The Tchaikovsky was a late substitute for Richard Strauss's "Alpine Symphony." The orchestra couldn't afford the expense of the Strauss symphony, probably because it requires much larger forces. Hopefully, the Strauss will be done in the near future.

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