Ben Gernon Starts Extremely Well But Lacks Finish

CanadaCanada Nielsen, Shostakovich and Sibelius: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Ben Gernon (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 24.1.2015 (GN)

Nielsen: Alladin, Op. 34: Suite
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82

Fresh off his appointment as a Dudamel fellow and an appearance at this year’s BBC Proms, British conductor Ben Gernon joins the continuing stream of young conductors making their VSO debuts in recent months. Gernon led the VSO in a performance of two works in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the births of Jan Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, and collaborated with pianist Kirill Gerstein on Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto.

Carl Nielsen’s Alladin (1919), the composer’s longest and most important work for the stage, runs over eighty minutes. Unfortunately, neither it, nor the twenty-minute “suite” derived from it and heard here, are often programmed in North American concert halls, let alone recorded. This is engaging and mature Nielsen, composed between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, and it offers a wide range of orchestral innovation and colour from a master at the peak of his powers. Ben Gernon took the music to heart, moving into the opening “Oriental March” with great strength and fire, maintaining concentration, and bringing a very distinguished weight, shape and sophistication to the VSO’s sound. In fact, there was little letdown at all as we moved through the various dances, the strings full of frisson, woodwind and brass expressive and clear. I was thoroughly captivated by the time we reached the closing “Dance of the Prisoners” and “Negro Dance,” which were executed with power and spontaneity, sometimes hinting at a noble grandeur.

This intensity was maintained when pianist Kirill Gerstein came on stage for Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. Written as a present for his son Maxim’s 19th birthday in 1957, it is one of the composer’s most buoyant and unburdened compositions. Pianists from Dimitri Alexeev to Denis Matsuev have played the first and last movements with drive and a certain steely brittleness, but Gerstein sought a more rhapsodic posture, often starting with an explosive burst and then moving quickly into a lyrical vein. There was more weaving in and out of the texture, and certainly more rubato and sharp accents than usual. At first, I thought that the compulsive strength of the writing suffered a little, but Gernon’s attentive conducting provided all the energy and drive one could wish for, finding great detail and bringing both movements home with strong purpose and flourish.  The Andante was less Rachmaninoff-like in Gerstein’s hands, seeking intimacy and a reverie-like stasis, but again the conductor coaxed such a refined projection and sheen from the strings that it all came together in a lovely way.

This first half of the concert was one of the finest experiences of the season, but I suppose that all good things must come to an end: the closing Sibelius Fifth Symphony was not executed nearly as well. The strings in the opening movement did not appear to be as fluent and natural as before, yet Gernon did find an interesting primeval feeling in the quiet bassoon passages in the middle, and brought the movement home with considerable gusto. It was the deliberate pace and romantic over-expression in the Andante – always a dangerous strategy with this movement – that started to slow the conductor down and weaken his concentration. I found the brass started to go astray, with a number of unsure entries and a noticeable over-balancing of the horns as we began the slow trek home.  Things recovered adequately – though the timing in Sibelius’ trick ending was not perfect – but, for my taste, the whole finale was rather too fulsome. One needs a leaner, sharper projection and greater frisson; this is not Tchaikovsky.

I see nothing but the very brightest conducting future for Ben Gernon.  At his best, he can bring amazing things out of an orchestra. But, based upon this showing, he just needs to work on his Sibelius a little more.

Geoffrey Newman


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