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Orientalism meets Hollywood

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
05/04/2016 -  & May 5*, 2016
Hector Berlioz: Béatrice et Bénédict: Overture
Camille Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103 “Egyptian”
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Nikolaj Znaider (conductor)

The National Arts Centre Orchestra’s guest conductor this week, Nikolaj Znaider, is yet another conductor who also is a respected solo violinist. With the Overture to Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict which initiated this week’s NACO subscription pair, Znaider got an impressively balanced sound from the players, usually rich and frothy though there were moments of ultra-quiet strings worthy of Alexander Shelley at his most meticulous. This fine dynamic continued through the entire evening.

French fare continued with Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, “Egyptian” with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Lyon born and now based in Paris and Los Angeles, as soloist. The Concerto’s title is a bit confusing. The work is “Egyptian” mainly in that Saint-Saëns was staying in Luxor during 1896 when he completed it, though the second movement briefly includes a melody based on a Nubian love song. But overall, this glittery, almost campy vision of Egypt is closer to Hollywood than North Africa and much of the music seems a conflated premonition of Sergei Prokofiev and Richard Addinsell, plus a Mahler-like stretch in the final movement. Thibeaudet sauntered on stage in one of his signature Vivienne Westwood outfits (including the black Nehru-shirt which continues making a comeback) and gave a fine, flashy performance which suited the music almost perfectly. The only problem was he seemed to be rushing, and conductor Znaider was obviously being challenged to keep up with him and frequently glancing at the soloist try to get a fix on things. The performance gained control and momentum with the final movement which starts with foreshadowing of the Precipitato from Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7.

This certainly was not a great performance, but it was entertaining and left listeners hoping to hear Thibaudet again in more worthy repertoire. When all is said and done, the “Egyptian” Concerto is probably more appropriate as pops concert fare.

Dvorák’s Symphony No. 6, following intermission, was without question the evening’s highlight. Again, Znaider went for a big Viennese sound which was perfect for this music. The first movement had a buoyant start and, eventually, a beautifully calibrated diminuendo leading to the closing chords. The second movement, Adagio, was consistently expressive and presented fine contrasts in mood and texture. Then came the wonderful Scherzo, a virtual Slavonic Dance in its own right thanks to playfully irregular rhythms which return after a more low-key middle section. The Finale: Allegro con spirito had a beautifully evolving start with different orchestra sections taking turns introducing the four primary subjects before eventually reaching a busy, but never congested conclusion.

Znaider is to be commended for a brilliant job in unifying the structural and populist elements in what is without question one of Dvorák’s best works, and for taking easy control of NACO’s players.

This was an excellent evening.

Charles Pope Jr.



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