Featuring the Chopin-specialist Janina Fialkowska and one of Japan’s leading conductors, Heiichiro Ohyama, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (KWS) produced a dynamically-rich program to welcome in the month of April at Kitchener’s Centre in the Square. Given the incredibly wintry conditions April 2nd, some heated, emotional, and fiery music couldn’t have better suited the evening.
The program was threefold, not just in terms of the number of pieces, but in the distinctly different flavours of music being put forth; Chopin, Dvorak, and the program opener, a modern piece by Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence Jocelyn Morlock. Titled Solace, this piece made use only of strings, yet the wide variety of tonal colours and emotions that Morlock drew from the instruments was astonishing. Perhaps the best word for it would be ethereal, but frankly that still can’t capture exactly what this piece possesses.
The foundation of Solace was grounded in string harmonics; the violins and violas in particular were employing incredibly high, shrill notes, yet they created what I would describe as a very gentle, warming sensation. Others may find it tense, but given the way the layers of almost microtonal harmony were working against each other, it created a gentle, cushiony feel to the piece. Couple this cloud-like foundation with both violin and cello solos as the piece progressed, and you end up with a very naturalist, almost pastoral-like atmosphere.
The aforementioned solos were of particular note, not just for their perfect, emotive delivery, but for the timbral and character differences in the composition of each. The violin solo, expertly played by Bénédicte Lauzière, had a very birdsong-like quality, chirping and ever-changing. Very quick notes hit and died just as quickly, almost staccato, yet they retained the sense of a longer, more lyrical phrase. The cello solo, on the other hand, pulled a much more emotional, darker timbre to the fore, as though channeling the darkness of an impending storm. Placed together as they were, the contrast became more obvious, and certainly gave another dimension to the piece.
The only other thing that I will mention about this piece, and I could certainly go on about the incredible compositional innovation channeled by Morlock, is that the piece makes striking use of single instruments. The stage was set up quite peculiarly, with Lauzière and principal cellist John Helmers flanking the conductor, violins to the right, violas scattered centre-left with another cello further back centre right, a single bass centred at the back of the ensemble, and the rest of the violins stage left. This made little sense as I entered the theatre, but the stereo-like spacing of the textural single-instrument lines made full use of this unusual setup. It was as if Morlock was channeling some of Webern’s solo-textural elements in the composition of this work, and I, for one, loved it.
After a very efficient stage changeover, including a fascinating angled conductor podium position, Janina Fialkowska began her journey through Frédérick Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 in F minor. To be quite honest, Chopin has never drawn my musical passions; he often fails to captivate emotionally what with all the fireworks and piano runs. This particular performance, however, posed two distinctly captivating aspects. The first is, of course, Fialkowska’s playing. Her incredibly effective use of rubato throughout the interpretation of Chopin’s score was very impressive, but what perhaps stood out more than this was the ability of the KWS to keep up with her use of the technique and be together with her downbeats nearly every time. This is hard to do! There were moments where the chemistry between the orchestra and Fialkowska was so tight you could tell that they were operating on the same wavelength, and that magic, the magic of perfection in live performance, is infectious.
The second element of this concerto that captivated me was a very specific, wrenching minor melody that presented itself near the middle of the first movement. It appeared, and then quickly disappeared in the piano, a sixteenth-note run that happens twice overtop an emotionally-brilliant chord progression that, had any 18th or 21st century composer got hold of that first, might have been a motif in and of itself for the genesis of an entire piece. It made that first movement for me, and finally got me emotionally engaged with Chopin.
Principal bassoonist Ian Hopkin deserves enormous credit for his incredible solo work in movement II. Tight, together, and emotionally-phrased, his playing and his ability to track where Fialkowska was heading simply wowed me. Hopkin has always impressed me with his bassoon chops, but to hold so tight to the rubato that Fialkowska was pulling was astonishing. Though he did not get one, he certainly deserved the privilege of being called out for solo applause by Maestro Ohyama.
The third movement was a surprisingly energetic movement, albeit with incredibly fast runs that after a while, I will admit, had me yearning for a change of pace, hard as that is to fathom. It is a fine balance to strike in the composition of piano sonatas that allows the pianist freedom to push their abilities, and yet doesn’t spill over into monotony. There certainly was an energy and a perfection in the playing that is incredibly rare in Chopin interpretation. Then again, this performance is coming from a performer that Arthur Rubinstein called a “born-Chopin interpreter”, a comment that launched Fialkowska’s performance career. The triple-meter momentum of this movement propelled any such monotonous moments ahead with a fury. Interestingly, Chopin scored certain elements of this movement as ‘col legno’, asking the strings to play with the wood of the bow in tight, percussive patterns; just the change of pace I yearned for. It was truly a tour-de-force of a performance that brought the crowd to their feet.
The finale, and truly the highlight of the evening, was an impassioned performance of Dvorak’s Symphony 7 in D Minor. This symphony is full of nationalistic Czech pride, struggle, and victory, and the energy the KWS put into this performance was bloody incredible. The symphony began in a triple-meter, not the most common of opening-movement meters, but immediately captured the tension of the Czech national struggles against oppression. The cellos opened the piece with a yearning minor melody, incredibly quiet, clearly communicating the broiling passions of the Czech people. This quickly built to a large forte with full orchestra. As the movement progresses, this tension is broken in places by beautiful french horn melodies and an almost waltz-like second theme. The richness of the definitive Czech nationalism that Dvorak brings forth in this opening movement, everything from the struggles to the beauty, is really quite stunning.
Zipping past the second movement’s understatedly beautiful Adagio melodies, in which gorgeous clarinet and flute solos soared above the orchestral foundations, the third movement simply captured the evening. Its triple-meter lilt, its singable melodies, and its passioned restraint (at least for some of the movement!) was the most incredible moment of the night. I mention singable melodies, something that is arguably more of a classical trait, but Dvorak’s use of four-bar phrases, building upon them until the tension and passion boil over, is something that is distinctly romantic. You would never expect this sort of passion, broadness, or scale from a Haydn melody.
The one thing the KWS did so well with this movement is communicate the utter restraint of the opening few bars. I could tell they were eager to escalate the passion and the dynamics, but they held it, a slow boil that was just ready to explode with full force. And explode it did – interspersed with a gorgeous trio section, the first theme recurred with a vengeance, boiling to what can one be described as the most visceral ending I have experienced this season. It was so involving, pulling tension and emotion out my entire body. The escalation of the triplet ending, the crescendo, it was so furious and so right.
The fourth movement, then, picked up where the third left… wait, was that a gentle, pastoral-esque melody?! Yes, Dvorak breaks the pent-up tension of the third movement with a relatively relaxed melody that, if I may put it bluntly, made me cringe. Until the strings, brass and timpani took hold of the movement about a minute in, I was thinking that Dvorak would have done better to have just cut the symphony at three movements, such was the perfection of the third’s ending. Luckily, he presents a stunning, ardent melody scored as pairs of sixteenth- and eighth-notes (have a listen to the Berlin Philharmonic recording of this movement and you will know what I am talking about here) that brings back the passion and scale that I feared was gone.
Yet another principal player, this time clarinetist Ross Edwards, deserves commendation on the incredible triplet runs he performed flawlessly – believe me when I tell you that to cover over an octave range with fast triplets, maintaining articulation and coherence all the way, is not at all easy to do! Not that any of the other players were any less convincing on this particular melody; the figure recurs with other instrumental groups as well, and was played incredibly every time. It is these little things that demonstrate how purely world-class this symphony truly is, not just in their individual virtuosity, but in their ability to coherently mesh together every time.
With the ending of the fourth movement, I see exactly why Dvorak didn’t leave it at three. The piece goes from a furious full-orchestra recurrence of the incredible melody to this huge, drawn-out coda with trombones cracking their bells overtop of screaming strings and horns. It was such a tense ending, one that Ohyama milked all he could. Every seat in the house was emptied after the reverb of the last chord died, thunderous applause the result of such a moving performance. And me? I was frozen to my seat for a good thirty seconds after the crowd erupted, pulling myself back to reality after the sheer transcendence of what I just witnessed. I too eventually got to my feet, around the same moment as Ohyama began calling forth the brilliant performances of each of the soloists and their respective sections. This has to be one of the most exciting endings to a KWS concert this season, and I think the patrons beside me said it best when they remarked that they would have to take some deep breaths before driving home. I cannot express the emotion of the evening with a better word than visceral, so this is where I shall leave it; do yourself a favour, find a brilliant high-resolution recording of each of these pieces, and experience their viscerality for yourself.