A Young Portuguese Conductor Shows His Mettle

PortugalPortugal Rachmaninov, Brahms: Pasquale Iannone (piano), Madeira Classical Orchestra / Dinis Sousa (conductor), Teatro Municipal Baltazar Dias, Funchal, Madeira, 24.11.2018. (JQ)

Pasquale Iannone
Pasquale Iannone

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor Op.18
Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor Op.68

I have visited Madeira for an annual late autumn break for the last few years and I’ve seen posters advertising concerts by the Madeira Classical Orchestra but I’ve not previously managed to attend one. This year the dates worked and they were presenting an attractive programme so I bought tickets for the concert. An added attraction was the guest conductor. The young Portuguese pianist and conductor, Dinis Sousa (b 1988), studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he was the Conducting Fellow. He is the founding artistic director of Orquestra XXI, comprised of young Portuguese musicians. Since 2013 Sousa has assisted Sir John Eliot Gardiner on a number of projects and just a few weeks ago he was named as the first-ever Assistant Conductor of the Monteverdi Choir and its two orchestras, the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

The Madeira Classical Orchestra, a professional ensemble, was founded in February 1964 as the Madeira Chamber Orchestra. I believe that the concerts they promote each season feature ensembles of varying sizes but tonight they were at full strength, including a string section of 26 (8/6/4/5/3). It’s relevant to mention the number of strings because, as we shall see, that had implications for the performances of both works. The concert celebrated the 25th anniversary of the association of the Friends of the Madeira Music Conservatory, a not-for-profit organisation which, from what I’ve read, appears to have done sterling work to promote concert life on the island and, crucially, to encourage young musicians, not least through the provision of financial bursaries. A pleasing aspect of this celebratory concert was that during the interval a sponsor invited the audience to enjoy a glass of excellent Madeira wine and a small piece of the island’s traditional cake.

The concert took place in the Teatro Municipal Baltazar Dias, a gracious building dating from 1888. The auditorium is in the form of a horseshoe, including three tiers of boxes – our seats were in a first-floor box. The auditorium is very pleasing and intimate; however, the theatre was not specifically designed for concerts. The orchestra was arranged on the stage and for the concerto the piano was placed, inevitably, at the front. The instrument was positioned in front of the proscenium arch and the orchestra were all seated behind the arch. Indeed, the 46-strong orchestra was somewhat cramped and I noticed, for instance, that the back desk players of the first violins were actually seated in the stage wings. All this had implications for the balance. Despite their very best efforts the string section – and the violins in particular – were not really sufficient in numbers to do full justice to Rachmaninov’s sweeping lyricism. Furthermore, some of the orchestral sound must have been swallowed up in the stage and with the piano positioned as it was the solo part was inevitably very much in the foreground. Those issues were not, however, the fault of the musicians and despite these difficulties I fond much to enjoy in the performance,

I had not previously encountered the Italian pianist Pasquale Iannone, a sometime pupil of Aldo Ciccolini. I liked what I saw and heard tonight. Mr Iannone has an excellent technique and his platform manner is blessedly free from any unwarranted histrionics: he simply sits at the piano and plays. Supported by Dinis Sousa, an alert and attentive accompanist, he gave an account of the first movement that was suitably expansive and also often poetic. It was clear that Sousa was shaping the orchestral accompaniment very well and with attention to detail so it was a pity – but not the fault of the performers – that the orchestral detail was often masked by the piano. The second movement is more delicately scored and I enjoyed the sensitive contributions of the MCO’s principal flautist and clarinettist. Ideally, I’d have liked more warmth in the performance as a whole but Iannone brought out the music’s poetry very well. Maddeningly, towards the end of one of his longest and most subdued solos the mobile phone belonging to a lady seated behind me went off and she compounded the disruption by leaving her seat, presumably to take the call.  For those of us seated in the vicinity this disturbance shattered the atmosphere at Mr Iannone had built up. What a discourtesy, both to the performers and to other audience members! We heard a spirited account of the finale. The orchestra played with precision and Iannone displayed impressive virtuosity.  The performance was deservedly well-received and I was mildly surprised that Mr Iannone didn’t feel encouraged to offer an encore.

For the Brahms symphony after the interval the orchestra had more space in the absence of the piano and so the first violins and the celli were placed in front of the proscenium arch. The orchestra as a whole could now be heard to much better advantage. In the concerto the fairly small size of the string section had been something of a disadvantage but in this Brahms performance it paid dividends because it allowed us to hear a performance by an orchestra of the size with which Brahms himself would have been familiar. I’ve heard and enjoyed CD performances on a similar scale conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and, most recently, by Robin Ticciati. Though I still love to hear Brahms played by a full-sized orchestra, the type of performance offered by smaller bands has proved revelatory, not least because the relatively small number of strings allows the woodwind parts to come through with particular clarity. I had not been aware of the size of the MCO at the time of booking the tickets so I didn’t realise in advance that this concert would be my first opportunity to experience “lean” Brahms in live performance.

I think Dinis Sousa perhaps missed a trick by not dividing his violins left and right for this performance. Had he done so we could have heard the two violin parts separately. However, the principal benefit would have been that he could have brought the small cello section to sit alongside the violas in the middle of the stage, thereby enhancing the depth of sound produced by the string choir.

Sousa conducted a taut, urgent account of the first movement including – hooray! – the exposition repeat. The Introduction was moved forward with purpose and the following Allegro was delivered with plenty of energy. The music-making was very dynamic and I liked the lean, lithe sound that orchestra produced. The textures were clear at all times and the MCO players responded very well to Sousa, not least in the matter of dynamic contrasts. Sousa shaped the Andante sostenuto movement with affection, ensuring that there was a pleasing flow at all times. The music was delivered with a light touch and I admired the nuanced phrasing. This was a songful account of the movement, although perhaps on another day I might have welcomed a bit more repose at times. In the closing pages the solo violin and solo horn distinguished themselves.

The third movement was light and fleet and here we could particularly enjoy the increased prominence given to the woodwind section. Most of the movement was animated but the ending was taken more slowly and was well judged. Sousa made the extended Introduction to the finale powerful and dramatic. The famous horn melody rang out confidently and expansively.  Sousa encouraged his strings to play the noble ‘Big Tune’ spaciously whilst maintaining momentum and when the main Allegro was reached the performance was taut and full of energy. This energetic style was maintained throughout what became a very exciting reading of the movement and Sousa and the MCO brought the symphony home in a blaze of colour.  The audience clearly revelled in the performance and their warm applause was rewarded by an encore in the shape of one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.

This was a most enjoyable concert. I was impressed by Dinis Sousa in both works. He has a good stick technique and his conducting was consistently clear. It’s evident that he has something to say about the music and he communicates this to his players. I should be most interested to experience him conducting in an acoustic that is better suited to his evident attention to detail. The Madeira Classical Orchestra gave a very good account of themselves throughout the evening and, on this evidence, they are doing a fine job for the cause of symphonic music on the island of Madeira.

John Quinn

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