Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Brahms Second Piano Concerto made glorious with Shaham and Vancouver Symphony

Orli Shaham and the Vancouver Symphony teamed up for a spirited performance of Brahms Second Piano Concerto on Saturday (January 21) at Skyview Concert Hall. Their playing was the highlight of a program that featured some staples of the repertoire: Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony and Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major. All of the pieces were led by guest conductor Marcello Lehninger, the music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The concert marked Shaham’s second appearance with the orchestra. In May of 2014, she performed the Mozart concerto for two pianos with Igal Kesselman. This time around, she tackled the Brahms Second, considered one of the greatest and most challenging piano concertos ever written. Using an electronic tablet placed just inside the piano, Shaham played impressively with intensity and verve. That didn’t mean that she was flawless. There were a few missed notes, but they did not affect the overall outcome, which was glorious.

Shaham’s cadenzas were especially appealing. Throughout the piece, she marvelously created moods that were majestic, dreamy, and playful. Her duets with the French horn in the first movement and with principal cellist Dieter Ratzlaf in the third were soulful and lovely. The orchestra, under the direction of Lehninger, supported Shahm well although the strings had some occasional intonation issues.

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony received a solid performance with some nicely honed dynamic shifts in terms of volume and tempo changes. Aside from some bobbled notes in the French horns, the ensemble as a whole played with distinction. Yet to make the music more engaging, there needed to be more articulation, more nuanced phrasing, and a faster, wilder finish. I’m not tying to harp needlessly or be nit-picky for the heck of it.I just want more.

Although Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major is a staple of period instrument orchestras, it’s good to hear a modern ensemble play it as well. The Vancouver Symphony, chiseled down to a chamber ensemble, gave it a fairly crisp performance. The fugato section in the Overture needed a little more definition so that it would contrast better with the stately theme. The Air was elegant and pleasantly soothing. It was followed by two sprightly and energetic Gavottes. The BourĂ©e seemed to sag a bit, but the final Gigue bounced along well enough to wrap it all up.

Lehninger’s debut with the orchestra went very well. He communicated with clear stickwork throughout. His Bach beat was sharply defined yet expressive. He urged the orchestra effectively in the Beethoven, and he kept everyone together in the Brahms. It would be great to see him return to the podium with the orchestra some day in the near future.

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