Allure. This is the most fitting adjective I could possibly use to describe the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s (KWS) performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Partnered with Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the concert was programmatic, romantic, and ravishingly seductive. It is not often that a program speaks as completely as this one does, but Music Director Edwin Outwater hit an incredible triad; to not address each of the works chronologically would be a disservice. Let us begin…
The Tempest, a fantasy overture by one of the kings of program music, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is based upon William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Written to invoke both the fury of the storm and the incredible romantic fragility of the play’s characters, the overture begins in a strikingly gentle fashion. Its aural invocation of the rocking sea through the use of a broken chordal string pattern and rolling timpani grounded the introduction, and set the tone for what would become a crashing, energy-filled whirlwind of oceanic instrumentation. Strings built steadily in a Mannheim steamroller-type crescendo until vast, broad brass overtook them in swell of energy, like a wave breaking over a ship bow. After a moment of calm, crashes, bass drum, timpani, and incredible brass punctured the waves of strings, which by this point had become fast and aggressive, demonstrating the full power of a romantic symphony orchestra.
The energy of this first movement is completely countered by the emotional, evocative melody that is used to represent the love between Ferdinand and Miranda. Stated in the strings and echoed through the woodwinds and eventually the brass, this is perhaps the most romantic, beautiful melody in Tchaikovsky’s canon. Full of passion, harmonized with wonderful tension and release, and particularly in its framework within the piece as a whole, this is one incredible melody, and the KWS gave it all the justice it deserves. I was fully caught in the embrace of the orchestra, my emotions pulled and senses heightened as this piece wound its way through the top half of the program. What a start.
Just as my muscles began to relax from the dazzlingly emotional Tchaikovsky, who should Outwater bring to the stage but piano virtuoso Alon Goldstein. The list of credits under this performer’s proverbial belt is far too great a number to even attempt to list here; the program dedicates over an entire page to his biography, and it doesn’t cover nearly all of the acclaim he has received for his incredible performance skill. The piece on this particular evening, of course, is Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3, one of his most famous and most popular concertos, and indeed one of his most challenging.
The most striking thing about this performance was the fluidity and the allure that Goldstein possesses in his playing. His hands float, quite literally, over the keys, as if they have been filled with helium and are lighter than a normal human’s hands should be. So graceful is his movement that it appears, as one mesmerizingly watches him play, that he is not actually playing the keys at all, but merely gliding his hands back and forth over the ivory. Never in my concert-going life have I witnessed such a grace over a piano keyboard before.
This is, of course, not to neglect the power and precision behind Goldstein’s playing. When he dug in and went for big dynamics and power, he really committed. His whole body was invested in each note he played; post-concert he explained that he closes his eyes wherever possible while playing so that he is completely focused on the space between performer and audience, the magical place where music lives and breathes. That connection to the moment was certainly evident here, though this piece presented few opportunities for him to close his eyes, such is the technical demand Prokofiev places upon the players of this work! Soaring, incredibly fast runs, both in the piano and woodwinds, are littered throughout the opening, a traditionally-organized spectacle of a first movement that drew applause from the audience upon its completion.
Castanets and tambourine add a culturally diverse sonic palette to the concerto, something Prokofiev was quite interested in channelling. Written post-Rite of Spring, Prokofiev is certainly invoking the sophistications, the complexities, and the exoticism of new symphonic music, the music of a larger world, as it were. Even Goldstein’s playing techniques reflected a lack of convention; he invented a technique of superimposing both hands over one another to play the tightly orchestrated harmonic figures in the second movement. It was quite something to see performance expression and musical flamboyance come together in an unconscious and yet fully-complimentary fashion. A standing ovation well-deserved.
Post-intermission, the focus, and indeed the shining spectacle of the evening, commenced: Scheherazade, the programmatic, canonical, and grand-scale symphonic work organized in four symphonic suites. The work is, of course, based on the indian tale One Thousand and One Nights (or the Arabian Nights, as it is also known). At the risk of falling prey to cliche’d expression, I have to say I could have listened to this dazzling performance of the work for a thousand and one nights and still wanted more. This was a true ‘tour de force’ of orchestral glory, showcasing the depth and virtuosity in the ranks of the KWS players.
The piece begins, after a short statement by the full orchestra, with what is perhaps the most famous violin solo in all of romantic orchestral music. Played by newly-appointed concertmaster Bénédicte Lauziére, this sultry, seductive melody was given an incredible amount of sensuality. The pull of the tempo and the luscious vibrato that Lauziére gave the melody was simply incredible. She knew precisely how to work the phrase to communicate how alluring, how agonizingly suspenseful Scheherazade’s character is, communicated all through her connection not only with the incredible instrument on her shoulder, but the music itself, in each moment. It was clear from the first notes, and solidified through her incredible third movement bow-bouncing solo, that she truly is a special player; I have personally never heard a violin solo soar like this did.
The second movement, a particular favourite of mine, was given such drive, such pulse through the string section; the moments of aggression were performed particularly well, breaking through the established 3/8 melody and illustrating the instability of the relationship between Scheherazade and the murderous prince, a relationship built upon suspense. The trombone punctuations, and Larry Larson’s beautiful muted trumpet phrase over the top of piano tremolo violins, demonstrated just how proficient these players truly are; the double-tonguing involved, not just in this section but the entire piece, was pulled forth so cleanly, with such precision and such life. Every player gave the very technically-rich solos a soul amongst the complexity, from oboe and bassoon to clarinet and flute, shaping each to carry forth the arc of the musical journey. Every player was conscious of what each phrase was lending to the whole, and every note was used to further the work in its entirety.
I must give special mention to the percussionists in this show. Headed by Ron Brown on timpani and Lori West on, well, everything else, they were a cohesive and technically-adept group who carried forth sections which demanded nothing short of excellence. West’s snare drum work in the third movement is of considerable note; in amongst the plethora of other instruments, she carried forth the march-like pulse of the middle of the movement in a way that grounded everything else, percussion or otherwise. I was also incredibly impressed with the precision of both John Brownell’s cymbal and bass drum work throughout the piece, and Brennan Connolly’s triangle phrasing – yes, phrasing and triangle are together in a single sentence. Traditionally, these auxiliary instruments fail to get the attention they truly deserve – to play them well, and to make them musical, you must have incredible technique, and a real sense of musicality. And a killer thumb roll on a tambourine…! This section absolutely nailed it.
After painting on praise, I do have one reservation about this concert. I must make mention of my opposition to pianists playing short, throwaway encores after finishing an incredibly technically- and musically-demanding piece of music like the Prokofiev. It is, in my opinion, a complete disservice to come back out and play a five minute firecracker for audience satiation. I completely disagree with the effect it has on a piece and an audience not to leave the sound and amazement of what Goldstein accomplished in the Prokofiev ringing in the ears, not to mention the degradation it instills upon the piece played for the encore; if it wasn’t worthy of being on the program, of telling everyone what it is you are playing, I feel should not be played. That being said, it was a well-played Argentinian piano piece that certainly brought smiles and further applause from the audience, so it did serve its purpose!
This concert was one of the most awe-inspiring shows I have seen this season from the KWS thus far – I cannot express it any simpler than that. It was everything I hoped it would be and significantly more – the performance of Scheherazade was simply the best I have ever seen it, (and I myself have played it, understanding the challenges of getting it right – the KWS got it right!) and the partnered Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev worked so well as both a framework and a musical dialogue with each other. I saw the show twice, and frankly that says more than my prose ever could.