Vancouver Symphony: June 2001

Modern French Music

Venue: The Orpheum

Dates: 12 and 14 May 2001

Reviewer: J. H. Stape

A programme of this kind challenges an orchestra and conductor to show off their interpretive and technical mettle. The soul of these pieces lies as much if not more in subtle colouring and shading as in their bravura effects, and Maestro Akiyama stinted not for a moment to caress out performances distinguished for intelligence, wit, and brio. That said, the evening's undoubted highlight was André Laplante's simply electrifying reading of Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, eliciting excited bravi from all quarters of the hall and standing ovations in much of it.

The Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is altogether of a different order: brooding, intense, technically demanding. Its glittering surface is gradually peeled back to reveal an inner core of anxiety and passion. Musical ideas are tossed off with effortless and breathtaking inventiveness. By comparison, Milhaud's bull is one in a china shop.

Laplante plumbed the work's emotional depths while probing its brilliant surface, playing with towering authority. The collaboration between orchestra, conductor, and pianist was impeccable (even if in one or two fortissimo passages Akiyama's exhuberance covered the sound of the piano). Laplante never flinched to take a risk, generously offering his abundant insights, carefully building a performance that was not only technically flawless but also, in turn, playful and poetic, flashy and sophisticated. This was, in a word, overwhelmingly successful music-making, a moment that lingers long in the memory.

Originally written for solo piano, Debussy's short La Cathédrale engloutie(1910), received its over-the-top orchestral adaptation by Leopold Stokowski, long at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The palette of colours is vivid and bold, and Akiyama energetically offered up this watery tit-bit.

A feisty attempt to rival Manet and Monet's Impressionist paintings, Debussy's La Mer (1905) has long had a secure niche in the international repertoire. Both real magic and sleight-of-hand, its appeal is undeniable and still fresh. Akiyama's focus on individual details -- an almost pointillist approach -- was thoroughly rewarding because the larger architectural framework remained so unwaveringly in his sight.

The various sections, coalesced, broke into individual elements, rejoined. The cellos played superbly, and the woodwinds merit special mention. The effect was indeed like the play of light on an Impressionist painting where details emerged and then disappeared into the whole, occasionally flickering again.

On the evidence of this successful and stimulating evening, the Vancouver Symphony could give that eminent French band in Montréal a very good run for its money in a repertoire that it has put its copyright on.

© 2001, J. H. Stape

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