Gentleness Mixes with Energy in Kamio and Akiyama’s VSO Concert

CanadaCanada Various: Mayuko Kamio (violin), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Kazuyoshi Akiyama (conductor), Chan Centre, Vancouver, 17.5.2019. (GN)

Kazuyoshi Akiyama (conductor) & VSO © Matthew Baird

RespighiAncient Airs and Dances: Suite No.3

J. S. Bach – Violin Concerto No.2 in E major BWV1042

Mozart – Violin Concerto No.3 in G major K.216

Mendelssohn – Symphony No.4 in A major Op.90 ‘Italian’

There has been no lack of nostalgia as the VSO closes out its hundredth anniversary season. Maestro Bramwell Tovey returned for a visit only a few weeks ago, and now Kazuyoshi Akiyama, the orchestra’s Music Director from 1972-1985 and Conductor Laureate thereafter, takes the helm. There was clearly a Japanese theme – and many devoted Japanese patrons present – as his collaborator was violinist Mayuko Kamio, winner of the 1998 Yehudi Menuhin Competition and Gold Medalist in the 2007 Tchaikovsky Competition. Their collaboration in Bach and Mozart concertos yielded an abiding gentleness throughout, while Akiyama added dramatic profile and thrust in Respighi and Mendelssohn.

Now approaching 80, Akiyama has been quite successful in his occasional appearances with the orchestra; I remember in particular a finely-drawn and moving account of Bernstein’s ‘Age of Anxiety’ with pianist Joyce Yang a few seasons ago. Respighi often figured in the conductor’s original programmes of the 1970s, particularly the Ancient Airs and Dances and the Pines of Rome. It was nice to revisit the famous third suite of the former, which emerged here as less fleet than previously but rather considered and complete. Slower tempos allowed for refinement and a greater sense of dynamic contrast from the outset, with phrases nicely shaped and some impressive pianissimos. The rustic spirit of the music seemed more evident. The Siciliana and closing Passacaglia were impressive too: the latter had genuine conviction, structuring contrasts with inevitability and bringing home the work’s majesty with powerful accents.

Mayuko Kamio, now 32, received praise for her debut disc for RCA in Gramophone in 2009 and comparable acclaim for her subsequent recording of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev concertos. There is little doubt that she can coax silken lines from her 1727 Stradivarius (indeed, an instrument once owned by Joachim), and her technical bravura is considerable. Such attributes were certainly on display, as were her architectural sense and symmetry in phrasing, though her approach to the earlier classical works on this programme was more modest. Both Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3 were given unusually gentle and refined treatments, always exuding an air of pleasantness. Patience and finesse from the soloist held hands with less astringent orchestral textures, while speeds were relatively deliberate. But perhaps it was all a little too pleasant. The Bach concerto might have found additional rhythmic snap from the orchestra, and the soloist surely might have established more joy and delight at the top of her phrases and ‘bite’ elsewhere. For all its pristine beauty, Kamio’s playing did not convey much of a human face.

She approached Mozart with similar sobriety, offering beautifully poised and elegant playing throughout (especially in the opening movement cadenza), but not always responding to the fiber and dramatic shape of the music. The lovely Adagio was played very slowly at withdrawn volumes, taking the movement’s legato lines into a gentle serenade but foregoing deeper intimations: pretty in its way, but also slightly sentimental. The finale was negotiated particularly well yet, at points, she still seemed to sit outside the music rather than within it. This was an interesting adventure for the young violinist but not one that completely penetrated these two celebrated works. For all her estimable talents, my reading is that Kamio is still slightly too cerebral and calculated to get the spontaneous flow and narrative line she needs.

Akiyama’s closing, the Italian Symphony by Mendelssohn, brought the evening home in full colour. The opening Allegro might have been a little too bouncy and unventilated for some tastes, but the rest of the performance was excellent. The Andante showed plenty of sentient hues, while the third movement had flow and atmosphere, with some commanding statements from the brass later on. The finale saw the best conducting of the night, with string counterpoint etched tellingly, excellent synergy and balance over the orchestra, all building to a powerful and exciting close.

Geoffrey Newman

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