Cheng, David navigate the greats

Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra kicks off new season

Published on September 30, 2013
Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO) conductor Marc David and pianist Angela Cheng helped make the opening night of the NSO’s season a huge success on Friday night. — Photo by Jean Snook/Special to The Telegram

On Friday’s Opening Night, the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO) had students from three schools present in the audience.

That is an excellent strategy, and one that is sure to leave lifelong impressions. Ideally, the students would be told something factual about the music, with short examples, e.g. the third movement of the piano concerto is a Rondo, you will hear this theme three times. And ideally, someone knowledgeable about the composers would speak of them with respect.

If a sponsor is going to indulge in prurient speculation, he should probably not be handed the microphone.

The first piece was by a composer with a Newfoundland connection: Kati Agócs (born in 1975) began her teaching career in Memorial University’s School of Music in 2006-2008. She is now on faculty at the New England Conservatory in Boston, but maintains a permanent work studio here in Flatrock.

Her short, four-minute piece, entitled “Shenanigan,” was first performed in 2011. It begins with loud dissonance, but soon works in a simple tune based on the interval of a fourth that captures the essence of Atlantic Canada’s reels.

Driven along by the strings, it is a showpiece for solo flute and for percussion: drums, wood blocks, tambourines, cymbals, and maracas. “Shenanigan” whirls with the energy, struggle, and humour of the people of our region.

The NSO has an expanded string section this year, with more violins and cellos, and this made for a wonderfully rich orchestral sound in their performance of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 120, in D minor. Schumann (1810-1856) was a brilliant man of mercurial temperament, a writer as well as a composer, who presented opposing viewpoints under the pen names Eusebius and Florestan.

Much of his work, as was later discovered by British cryptographer Eric Sams, is cleverly encoded, containing motifs for his wife’s name Clara, for his own name and for the names of others.

Richard Wigmore’s excellent liner notes to the 1973 recording of this symphony by the Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, call this symphony “intense and unsettling,” and explain that it has “a symphonic design of revolutionary originality, in which virtually all the material grows from the motifs announced in the slow introduction.”

 The NSO’s four French horns made a glorious sound, as did the three trombones and two trumpets, and there was more solo work for principal flute Grace Dunsmore, whose playing consistently meets a high standard.

Marc David conducted the Schumann symphony by heart.

The pièce de résistance, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, in D minor, with guest soloist Angela Cheng, was the entire second part of the program.

It was a superb performance. To understand just how good it was, one needs to have done some comparative listening.

Performances and recordings by other soloists and orchestras reveal this as an exceedingly difficult concerto to hold together. It can sag and bag, slip and slide.

Strange things have been tried with it. Some recordings are barely recognizable as the music of Brahms, who lived from 1833 to 1897.

To me, the recording that remains unexcelled is the Deutsche Grammophon 1972 recording of Eugen Jochum conducting the Berlin Philharmonic with Emil Gilels at the piano, a recording that Jochum, at the end of his career, considered his best.

Yet the Friday night performance, with David conducting the NSO and Cheng at the piano, trumped the Jochum/Gilels recording.

Jochum makes the orchestra’s opening measures sound like the theme for a horror movie; one has to ask why. David, by way of contrast, remained true to the composer’s musical direction, “Maestoso,” with majesty or dignity, thereby allowing the piano’s beautiful expansive theme to enter as part of the ongoing discussion rather than as a dissenting voice.

I have seldom seen a soloist so well prepared, so integrated into a concerto as Cheng. She knew all the parts, where her lead-in was coming from, and to which players she was passing it on. It was charming to see her nod graciously at the first desk first violins, or incline her head back to the horns.

With very sparing use of the pedal, Cheng made every note sing out to the back of the hall. Her website from Oberlin College states that “Angela Cheng is a Steinway Artist.” Moreover, she made the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 look easy, as she effortlessly and accurately played chordal passages at high speed.

With no extraneous motion, she always managed to be poised directly over the required section of the keyboard.

Both Cheng and the orchestra, under David’s direction, gave great definition to the work, shaping each phrase, lending it colour, taking their time with the cadences.

After the majestic first movement, David and Cheng again set exactly the right mood for the slow second movement, marked Adagio.

There was, however, an additional marking in the manuscript. According to the Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Brahms wrote “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” under the opening melody: Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord.

This refers back to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s unfinished novel “Lebensansichten des Kater Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern” (1819 and 1821) in which the words Brahms quotes are inscribed over the entrance to the monastery where the musician Kreisler finds peace.

The audience found peace in Friday evening’s performance of the Adagio. Tranquility pervaded the hall. And congratulations are in order to the horns in D for their smooth playing.

This is a long concerto. By the end of the second movement, Cheng had already been playing for more than 35 minutes. Yet she launched into the final movement, the Rondo, at a speed faster than most pianists take it, showing irrepressible vigor and enthusiasm, bouncing up and down on the piano bench, having her fun with the music.

The orchestra was with her all the way, and negotiated the perilous accelerando at the end with precision and passion.

The Arts and Culture Centre is now scent-free, as it should be, but I did feel something was missing at the end. Allow me to figuratively present Angela Cheng and the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra with a magnificent bouquet of flowers.