RussiaFest - Pictures at an Exhibition

Conductor: Bramwell Tovey Featured Performer: Avan Yu

Date 21 February 2007, 8pm Venue The Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer John Jane

Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is a collection of ten pieces written as a tribute to his friend, architect Victor Hartmann. The music is Mussorgsky’s impressions of Hartmann’s paintings, interspaced with the recurring Promenade, “walking music” representing the composer’s passage from painting to painting.

Maurice Ravel’s expanded orchestration of “Pictures” has been performed by just about every major ensemble on the planet, including an unorthodox, flashy rendition by British musician, Keith Emerson on the Hammond organ.

While Ravel’s adaptation is better known, it was originally written for solo piano, and this is the version that was heard this evening.

Teenage pianist, Avan Yu’s posture initially appeared awkward and uncomfortable and he started with the first of the easily identifiable Promenades a little too cautiously. But then plodding rather malevolently into The Gnome, his exceptional articulation and precise time was instantly revealed. The second and third Promenades were a minor disappointment. Intended to be variations of a theme, there was no discernable contrast to the opening Promenade. However, his lighter touch with the introspective, melancholic, The Old Castle and the slower passages of Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle, exposed the young virtuoso’s unique expressive style.

For the concluding item, the dramatic The Great Gate of Kiev, I felt that Yu’s pace was just about perfect. Its powerful melody lines more than anything else in this suite paints a compelling image of pre-soviet Russia.

The small but enthusiastic audience really took the young Canadian pianist to their hearts with a spirited ovation, pressing the artist for an encore. He obliged with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor.

Many of us connect Igor Stravinsky with ballets like The Rite of Spring and Petrushka; and justifiably so, Stravinsky's ballet music is amongst the most enjoyable of the twentieth century. However, he also wrote some incredibly complex incidental scores that might be characterized in today’s terms as “soundtrack” music.

L'Histoire du Soldat (Soldier's Tale) could be considered such a work which tells a Faust-like story about an ill-fated soldier who makes a pact with the devil. This was the first time that I had seen this work performed on stage and I must say I was delighted with the entertainment value of a seven piece ensemble joined on stage by professional actors.

The use of the three actors certainly enhanced the performance and made it much easier for the audience to follow the story. Christopher Gaze brought his inimitable wit to the narration, Daryl King was lively and engaging as the (uniformed) soldier and Dean Paul Gibson gave a slick, tongue-in-cheek performance as the devil culminating in smashing the soldier's fiddle on the stage floor.

This work is hardly about lush sound or extravagant melody lines; its more about transparent textures and complex rhythms. Maestro Tovey’s impeccable beat and precise cuing was just right, giving the ensemble the confidence to enter this intricate intermittant music at the appropriate junctures.

This special concert was the second in the RussiaFest series honouring the Russian masters.

© 2007 John Jane