Scintillating Tchaikovsky from Xian Zhang

CanadaCanada Chang, Mozart, Tchaikovsky: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Xian Zhang (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 2.11.2018. (GN)

Xian Zhang and the VSO © Matthew Baird
Xian Zhang and the VSO © Matthew Baird

ChangNorthern Star
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.17 in G major K453
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.2 in C minor Op.17 ‘Little Russian’

A number of estimable women conductors have visited Vancouver in recent years, but it has been quite a wait to see Xian Zhang, one of the earlier pioneers in this evolution. Zhang is currently Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of BBCNOW and has received considerable attention for her London ‘Proms’ appearances. Her rigorous and spirited conducting made for an impressive showing on this occasion, and her discipline brought unusual tonal integration and power from the orchestra. Her Tchaikovsky ‘Little Russian’ Symphony came off like a firecracker, full of Russian fervour and élan – and very exciting. Her orchestral control also brought strong dividends to Dorothy Chang’s finely appointed Northern Star. Then there was the celebrated Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, bringing his consummate artistry to bear on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17: a worthwhile performance though Zhang’s orchestral accompaniment tended to be on the serious and heavy side.

Dorothy Chang’s short piece, Northern Star, served as an inspirational opener, starting from the mists of uncertainty and regret and opening out to the vistas of the great star that leads humanity onwards. Recalling her Strange Air (performed here in 2014), one thing I have always liked is that she never overwrites or over-orchestrates her subject matter. The images are pure, telling and an interesting mix of the universal and the personal, always set within transparent structure and natural motion. It was evident at the beginning of this piece, where Asian constructional cells floated quietly in a somber underworld, following a descending bass sequence reminiscent of the opening of Stravinsky’s Firebird. The work elevates to wonder and suspension (with telling use of the oboe), building to an explosive outpouring where overarching bell-like percussion effects intriguingly produce a feeling that is both threatening and joyous. The work ends quietly. Maestro Zhang was excellent in exposing the structure of the piece, sitting with both its sense of space and gradations of colour, and bringing the full force of the orchestra to bear on its climax. My only caveat is that the work’s soft ending may have been too elliptical.  Dorothy Chang is Professor of Composition at the University of British Columbia.

One hears Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies infrequently, so it was redeeming that Zhang brought us the composer’s second (‘Little Russian’) to close the concert. She obviously loves the work and showed us how she operates at full throttle: full of dynamism and rhythmic thrust and fully in tune with the sweetness and flow of the composer’s lyrical lines. It’s interesting to observe Zhang’s conducting: she stands very straight and rigid when performing (a style that is also reminiscent of the China Philharmonic’s Yong Lu), with more discipline than expansive freedom in the arms, yet her vertical extension can range from an almost crouching position (for pianissimos) to tiptoe (for maximum power).

The symphony was superbly executed throughout and wonderfully fresh in feeling. From the strings through the brass, there was an overall attentiveness, cohesion and tonal richness in the orchestra that we don’t witness that often. The opening horn theme flowed beautifully, giving way to tightly-etched rhythms and lovely pliant strings, cultivating the passion and ardour that one typically finds in Russian performances. It was the quick tempos and consistent electric charge that immediately took me back to Evgeny Svetlanov’s early Melodiya recording (recall that Mravinsky never recorded it). The following march was on the quick side, but its piquant charm and underlying bittersweet melancholy were never in doubt. The rhythmic purpose of the Scherzo (with growling basses) was invigorating and the finale brought one of the most exciting displays we have seen in a while. It was overflowing with power and energy, the rosin flying from string sections attentively on their toes, the brass tight and strong, with the conductor demonstrably in love with the composer’s flowing melodies. The coda was scintillating, a true testament to Zhang’s deeply-felt conviction and the commitment of the orchestra.

The Mozart G major Concerto takes one to a different sensibility, and here Marc-André Hamelin delighted with his clean, ravishingly appointed pianism. Nonetheless, it became immediately apparent that Zhang’s strong and energetic conducting was a little ‘big’ to mesh with Hamelin’s pointillistic leanings. She used a full orchestra and her dramatic weight and romantic shaping tended to block the intimacy of the expression: the sense of skipping delight and innocence in the opening Allegro was absent, and orchestral volumes sometimes dominated the piano. The poignant Andante fared better and allowed the pianist to assume a stronger role. It featured pure pianism, with the minor key modulations of the cantabile theme enticingly articulated and fully felt, finishing with one of Hamelin’s ‘surprise’ cadenzas. I recall the modernist cadenzas Hamelin affixed to Mozart’s No.24 years ago; this time, he started with more somber Lisztian hues and ended with the fragile musings of Schubert’s final sonata. Very beautifully done, but I will let the experts decide how often one wants to do this.

The finale went well, with good energy and direction, but neither the fluidity and sparkle of Mozart’s writing nor the delightful interactions between winds and piano/strings were exposed. Hamelin marshalled convincing push and energy at the right moments, but his articulation was a little ‘square’ overall, not putting much lyrical pulse under his finely-chiseled lines. Nonetheless, the basic spirit of the movement came through. The pianist’s fineness of articulation would work better with a more scaled-down orchestra, and it would be nice if the maestro would modernize her Mozart slightly and smile more. Hamelin added a riveting Rachmaninoff Prelude as an encore.

I fully enjoyed this concert: Xian Zhang’s Tchaikovsky was of the highest class, as was her orchestral control, and one never tires of seeing Marc-André Hamelin’s pristine pianism. I will also not forget the economical beauty of Dorothy Chang’s little piece.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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