Han-Na Chang and Javier Perianes: Mahler & Ravel

The Toronto Symphony played a mid-week concert tonight to a rapturous reception. The TSO are in a transition, awaiting their new music director while playing either with their interim Artistic director Andrew Davis, or with a series of guests.  There was a great deal of electricity tonight, perhaps a combination of the new face on the podium, the repertoire, and possibly the ensemble’s readiness to embrace someone new.

Han-Na Chang led two contrasting works tonight. Hers is a very physical style, a very clear beat. I was intrigued to hear her talk about her philosophy on youtube. And no wonder the TSO seemed to respond to her.

The two works are a study in contrast even though they’re not so many years apart, seeming to epitomize radically different eras. While the big work on the program after the interval was Mahler’s 5th Symphony, one of the last genuinely heroic compositions, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is from a post-heroic age.

Piano soloist Javier Perianes sparkled, teaming up nicely with Chang. Ravel’s piano is more a purveyor of comic rejoinders & witty ripostes, an engine of colour. The three movements each have their own mood, the first one sounding like the jazz age with bluesy phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gershwin rhapsody, the second opening with a mellow nocturne worthy of Chopin, and the last genuinely modernist, with repeating figures and splashes of colour.  Perianes played with transparency & fluidity, a complete delight.  Afterwards he rewarded us with a stunning encore, one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, exquisitely offered.

The Mahler 5 is a great test for any orchestra. Not only does it include challenging passages for every section as well as solos for trumpet, horn, timpani, (just to name a few), but to make it work the ensemble must respond to the leader. While the shortest movement is the most famous, there’s wonderful music in all five movements.

We began very deliberately in a first movement that felt epic and fearless, the drama unfolding gradually and on a massive scale. Although the tempo suggested an earlier generation of conductors, the pace was wonderfully flexible, amenable to instant organic changes. I read in her bio that Chang has led her own orchestra in Mahler symphonies, suggesting that she loves this music, and I’d present the performance as exhibit “A”, considering the intensity throughout. When we come to the third movement it’s as though we’ve suddenly burst through the clouds into bright sunlight, in pastoral evocations from the winds. But everything is bigger, a little more complex. The inner voices going back and forth were genuinely dialoguing, not so boisterous that anyone was drowned out or ignored.

We came to the famous Adagietto, the movement that sometimes gets turned into overwrought melodrama, sometimes played much too loudly: but not this time. It’s a kind of oasis, the eye in the storm if you will, surrounded by massive complexity & big powerful statements. In this soft movement, you gain nothing by bluster, other than to turn the piece into self-parody. Chang gave us a very understated reading, perhaps mindful of the movement’s purpose within the symphony, as opposed to its frequent function, as a favourite melody that provokes nods of recognition.

And then a finale to match the rest, the electricity still crackling almost an hour into the piece. Here is where you sink or swim, saved or damned by your leader. Chang clearly has a very strong picture of the movement, bringing out the important thematic statements, while getting the massive contrapuntal passages in the strings uttered with wonderful clarity. The tension built gradually to a climax matching the dignity & gravitas of the opening, every bit as noble.

The concert repeats Thursday October 4th at Roy Thomson Hall. Go hear it if at all possible, you won’t regret it.

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