An Evening of Contrasts with Canada’s NACO under Alexander Shelley

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sokolović, Ravel, and Brahms: David DQ Lee (countertenor), Jan Lisiecki (piano), National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada / Alexander Shelley (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 14.5.2019. (CSa)

Alexander Shelley (c) Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography

Ana Sokolović – Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes

Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major

Brahms –Symphony No.2 in D major, Op. 73

As part of its fiftieth-anniversary tour ‘Crossings’, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra under its Music Director and Conductor Alexander Shelley made a welcome return to the UK. They brought an interesting and varied programme – a brightly coloured musical palette, – which reflected Canada’s rich European heritage.

The concert started with a seven-movement song cycle Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes, which the NAC Orchestra commissioned from Serbian-born but Montreal-based composer Ana Sokolović in 2015. It featured Canadian-Korean counter-tenor David DQ Lee, accompanied by the orchestra and a chorus drawn from the London Voices. Setting texts drawn from folk poetry in a variety of different European languages (including French, Italian, Serbian, German and Ladino), this nostalgic piece is structured, according to Sokolović, ‘like a travel diary describing different countries and different times…imaginary countries we visit most often (most likely) in our dreams and strongly influenced by the theme of childhood.’

The first and last poem in the cycle, À La Claire Fontaine is said to have been written as a symbol of resistance against the early British invasion of Quebec. It begins with a gently rustling snare drum and the solemn beat of timpani, revealing a mysterious other-worldly musical cosmos – a universal music of the spheres in which Lee’s rich, haunting voice cries out a lonely and inconsolable lament. The only poem in English – Golden Slumbers of the title – is based on the text of the sixteenth-century dramatist Thomas Dekker, in which the countertenor’s doleful lullaby is joined by a celestial chorus. Mie Mama Mata Mata, (My Crazy, Crazy Mam) sung in Venetian dialect, is a nursery romp in which the versatile Lee gleefully revelled in the childish banter. One endearing verse translates as Coo-roo, coo-roo, my crazy Mam/Stuffed me in the stewing pan/My fair sister, scamper, scamper/Packed me in the picnic hamper/Then my dada for his lunch/Wolfed me down in one big munch. Lurching from the ridiculous to the sublime, the last song, Dodole was particularly poignant. A prayer for rain to irrigate the fields, this Sephardic melody, accompanied by an ancient Judeo-Spanish text, conjured up a visit to one of Sokolović’s imaginary countries.

The concert’s central work was Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, completed in 1931. With its jazzy idioms and harmonies, it expresses Ravel’s interest in black American music, as well as his admiration for and friendship with George Gershwin. The supremely talented twenty-four-year old Canadian-Polish pianist Jan Lisiecki attacked the piece with youthful gusto and an mature command. The first movement, a richly melodic and bluesy Allegramente. unleashes the piano – a whip crack and snare drum roll acting as a starting pistol.  The young Lisiecki, his tall frame bent close over the keyboard, clearly relished the challenges. While Ravel’s complex syncopations were designed to put piano and orchestra on the wrong foot, Lisiecki and his colleagues never put a finger wrong.  The serenely flowing melody in the second movement Adagio assai was played with great tenderness, while the intense, Presto served to demonstrate Lisiecki’s crystal clear technique. Shelley retained tight but unobtrusive control throughout – always there when his orchestra and soloist needed him, but never when they did not.

The concert’s second half was devoted to Brahms’s mighty Second Symphony. The great Brahmsian conductor Felix Weingartner spoke of this work ‘taking hold like the claw of a lion’. Whether it was down to the acoustic challenges of the Cadogan Hall, or to Shelley’s reading, the NACO’s realisation of this work was less than gripping.

Clearly individualised and well-articulated contributions from the woodwind, brass and string sections are required to oxygenate an otherwise densely textured composition. Instead, we got a warm but indistinct blanket of sound. There was little in Shelley’s account of the pastoral opening Allegro non troppo to suggest dappled sunlight through the forest, as Brahms intended.  A vivacious account of the third movement Scherzo fared better, but the jubilance and electricity which characterises the final Allegro con spirito never materialiised.

Chris Sallon

For more about the NACO click here.

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