Canada Chang, Chopin and Sibelius: Louis Lortie, piano, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Perry So, conductor, Orpheum Theater, Vancouver, 15.3.2014
Dorothy Chang: Strange Air
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
We were all waiting quite eagerly for this concert: Finnish conductor John Storgards was to conduct Sibelius — as a prelude to his complete cycle appearing on Chandos — and one of the most darling of all Canadian pianists, Louis Lortie, was to take on Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1. But it did not happen. Storgards was indisposed at the last moment, and a very young conductor named Perry So, born in Hong Kong in 1982, was forced to stand in.
So, who is Perry So? Very few of us had ever heard of this conductor before but he was one of the inaugural Dudamel Conducting Fellows at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, recently completing a two year stint as Associate Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He received first prize at the Fifth International Prokofiev Conducting Competition in 2008 and was Musical America’s New Artist of the Month for October 2009. He subsequently conducted throughout Asia, and recorded his first CD in 2012. Though it appears that the conductor had performed Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony a few years ago, there is no indication that he had ever conducted the Symphony No. 1 that we were to hear. And he certainly could not have known Dorothy Chang’s ‘Strange Air’, an interesting piece that opened the concert, composed by one of our professors at the University of British Columbia.
Dorothy Chang’s composition is really quite a beautifully balanced and compelling work, moving between dramatic force, a type of icy austerity and a restless unease. One might in fact identify some of this feeling and texture with Sibelius, say, his Fourth Symphony, not least because of the way the exposed winds operate over quiet, intense string textures, always shifting in meaning and projection. The solo passages for the string principals were innovative and emotionally telling, and the use of bells and chimes in leading us to an ending with ethereal high strings, followed by the quietest murmur on the lower ones, was both beautiful and gripping. Young Perry So certainly took this work to heart, controlling dynamics and textures most sensitively, and coaxing both clean lines and considerable intensity out of the orchestra. His ability to build climaxes with judgment and power was unerring and his ability to maintain concentration and feeling through to the quiet ending was notable.
So perhaps this bodes well for the Sibelius First Symphony? From the outset, let me say that this performance was not one where Finnish mists or the subtle mythological world of the Kalevala could be easily discerned. This was really very much Sibelius in the light of day, quick and tightly-structured, developed almost with the cogency of Beethoven’s Fifth. That this was so was immediately apparent in the strong and forthright treatment of the opening clarinet solo. The opening movement nonetheless surged forth with awareness and strong orchestral discipline, detail moving by with an almost whiplash intensity, and climaxes achieving majestic power. This ‘lean beef’ approach also worked very well in the following Andante, allowing its emotional projection to be more distilled than Tchaikovskian but with just enough feeling, flow and energy to make it telling. The scherzo, with its insistent timpani strokes, was again fast and decisive in its articulation, but the trio was given just the right degree of restraint. The last movement was really a triumph, having power and concentration, climaxes gradated and sustained with stunning weight and control, with just the right amount of expression in the movement’s big theme.
We did not get John Storgards here nor did we get something that was echt-Sibelian, but we certainly got an exciting and real performance. I think this was a conquest for this young conductor. His orchestral control is really stunning, and the sheer quickness of execution and massed power that he coaxed out of the orchestra is something we do not see that often.
Louis Lortie’s appearance only added to the bounty, giving us a most stimulating performance of the Chopin Concerto No. 1. Lortie is of course no stranger to Chopin, taking to disc a good portion of his solo piano music in the 1990’s, and recording Piano Concerto No. 2 as recently as 2010 (all on Chandos). If one remembers his Etudes in particular, one recalls just how sparkling and elegant this pianist can be, always using his immense virtuoso skills in the service of the music. This concerto performance was quite commanding; beautifully articulated, expressive and powerful, but always maintaining such a clean line and balance over its full structure. The opening movement was truly romantic but also decisive; the second flowed with great characterization and feeling throughout, and the finale offered an almost perfect fusion of motion and repose. If anything, the new element was the increase in the boldness and dramatic weight of Lortie’s playing, testifying to an even greater certainty of expression. I think it would be difficult to find Chopin playing much finer than this.
It must have been difficult for the conductor to prepare the orchestra for this adventure too but he successfully matched the spirit of the soloist, even if there were a few rough edges here and there. We must thank both artists for getting everything together so well. This was an inspired concert, and it so easily could have gone in the other direction. Welcome to Vancouver, Perry So!
© Geoffrey Newman 2014
Previously published in http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com