Elim Chan and the RNSO Offer a Russian Valentine to Glasgow

19/02/2019

Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev: Lukáš Vondrâček (pianist), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Elim Chan (conductor), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 16.2.2019. (GT)

Elim Chan

TchaikovskyRomeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2

Prokofiev – Selected movements from Romeo and Juliet Suites I and II

Following her brilliant debut as Principal Guest Conductor last November the return of the youthful Chinese conductor Elim Chan was eagerly awaited, and this was reflected by a big audience. Later in 2019, she takes on the chief conductorship of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra and continuing to work with orchestras worldwide as she develops her musicianship and repertoire. Regardless of this busy schedule Chan continues to justify the hopes that she will become one of the finest young conductors in years to come. With Thomas Søndergård as music director here, this bodes well in the coming seasons for the musical public in Scotland. In the opening Tchaikovsky work, she sculpted the phrases carefully giving the woodwind their head and muting the violins deftly for the music to be fully heard and expressive. The tiny figure of Chan was dwarfed by many of the orchestra players but uncannily she achieved total support from the musicians. She handles dynamics brilliantly and amazingly can make the RSNO sound almost like a Russian orchestra.

Ms Chan told me that she was excited that two of her friends are booked to perform with her this season. The first of these is the Czech pianist Lukas Vondrâček who won first prize at the 2016 International Queen Elizabeth Piano Competition and has appeared regularly on the international concert circuit since Ashkenazy invited him to tour with the Czech Philharmonic to the US in 2003. Lukas Vondrâček looked like a bear beside Chan as they emerged for the Rachmaninov concerto and he certainly has a rather ungainly impression on the stage. Vondrâček’s crouching over the keyboard appeared inappropriate but his momentous heavy chords were thunderous and promised a darkly romantic performance! It soon became clear that his playing was all about power and romance without too much subtlety, which was a pity in such a great romantic concerto. In the opening movement, there was a bit of slackness from the first violins and the cellos, yet Chan sorted this out before the big slow movement; there was some beautiful playing from the clarinet of Timothy Orpen and flute of Michel Moragues. Regrettably it seemed the Czech soloist was playing most of the notes but with little sensitivity or feeling. In the finale, his thundering at the keyboard led to some erroneous notes, and the stamping on the pedals was distracting. Nevertheless, Vondrâček brought the concerto to a glorious conclusion at last in harmony with the orchestra. This pianist first played here in 2006 and hopefully on his next visit he will be in better form as his association with Chan can be an important collaboration in years to come.

This orchestra has recorded almost all of Prokofiev’s orchestral music and frequently reprises the most winning works during its seasons. This music is in their blood and sometimes I wonder why they bothered to turn the pages during the Romeo and Juliet Suites as they must know it by heart. Chan brilliantly directed the tremendous opening of ‘The Montagues and Capulets’ with spectacular playing from the brass and eliciting delightful mystery from the strings; special mention must be made of Michel Moragues’s flute and percussionists Simon Lowdon and Paul Philbert. Chan drew much colour in ‘Juliet and the Young Girl’, with chirpy strings and great woodwind; notably the clarinet of Orpen evoking memories of the composer’s most popular score – Peter and the Wolf. In the portrait of ‘Friar Laurence’, doleful woodwind and low strings created exactly the mood necessary. The following excerpt of ‘Masks’ was upbeat on the strings and percussion and it was clear Chan feels this music in how she moves – almost dancing – on the podium, as well as, in her facial expression, with her left hand constantly sculpting the music and the baton in her right giving the precise beat. In the drama-filled ‘Death of Tybalt’ on the low strings, she conjured up an exciting dance, with great precision in the repetitive chords heralding the greater tragedy awaiting. The marvellously evocative music-making continued with lyrical string playing; the flutes evoking glorious happiness and joy of ‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’. Throbbing strings harken the death scene in ‘Romeo and Juliet’s Tomb’, and ever so slowly after the suicide of Romeo, the death of his lover was enacted by the strings slowly dying away to bring a thrilling evening to a close.

At the beginning Chan apologised to the audience for the finale being so tragic because she had wanted this ‘Valentine’s Day’ concert to have a happy ending, however she promised her next concert will leave audiences in a better mood. She didn’t need to worry for they showed their appreciation for the magical music-making and her wonderful natural gifts at the podium. Next we will hear her in Elgar and Sibelius in May: one wants to see the young Chinese musician justifying all the hopes resting on her shoulders.

Gregor Tassie

For more about the RNSO click here.

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