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Mixed feelings

Maison symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts
09/28/2022 -  & September 29*, 2022
Unsuk Chin: Subito con forza
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 – Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Kaija Saariaho: Ciel d’hiver

Su Yeon Kim (Piano)
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Osmo Vänskä (Conductor)

S. Y. Kim (© Antoine Saito)

I had mixed feelings about the two iconic Beethoven works that Osmo Vänskä, currently musical director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and formerly of the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted this week with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. South Korean pianist Su Yeon Kim, first prize winner at the 2021 Concours musical international de Montréal, joined them in the first half for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. This is the first known piano concerto to open with the piano and Chin played the introductory chord (marked dolce) with assurance and authority, but the following measures lacked focus and cohesion which carried over to most (except for the second movement) of the concerto. At 19 minutes, the opening movement is longer than many concerti, and it felt so. The orchestra seemed unrehearsed and paid little attention to dynamics and the development of an architectural line. The second movement, however, was more successful. Vänskä produced a palpable tension from the first measure which never let up in the captivating dialogue between the piano and strings. I wished it could have gone on longer. But the Rondo brought me back wishing for a more informed, felicitous touch. The young Ms Kim has excellent technique and a solid command of the keyboard. Hopefully, she will find her voice and be able to master the works she comes to explore.

For the Fifth Symphony, I would have kept the smaller configuration used for the concerto (for example, four basses instead of six). Although Vänskä strove for a light, articulated performance (it came in at 33 minutes), it harked back to the heavy, over‑bearing sound of the 1970s and 80s before the early period instrument movement took hold. Nevertheless, in the first movement Vänskä maintained the tempo at a nice clip, respected dynamics and the horns were spot on. The second movement tended towards the lugubrious and the trumpets overdid it. Excitement returned with the scherzo, however, and Vänskä nicely moulded the bridge into the last movement with its appropriately mounting crescendos and blazing conclusion. Like the preceding concerto, this work also had its share of firsts—it being the first time the piccolo, trombones and contrabassoon were used in a symphony.

Preceding the symphony, the orchestra treated the audience with a mesmerizing performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky), an 11‑minute reorchestration from 2014 of the second movement of her Orion trilogy. Preoccupied with the phenomena of nature, mysteries and the world of night and dreams, Saariaho’s work depicts an atmosphere of chilling, cosmic coldness set in a realm of infinite space and time. A series of solos, led by the piccolo no less, and culminating with the contrabass, traverses this soundscape against a hypnotic background of various percussion instruments. Juxtaposed between the two Beethoven works, it seemed that an altogether, other‑worldly orchestra had come onto the scene with a crystalized, cutting sound that was nothing short of miraculous.

The evening opened with a disagreeable five‑minute homage to Beethoven by Unsuk Chin—Subito con forza (Suddenly and Forcefully [sic])—composed in 2020 to commemorate Beethoven’s 250th birthday. The work employs cacophonous clashes from the percussion and a great deal of noise, during which are sandwiched startling references to his Fifth Symphony and the Emperor Concerto.

Unlike last week when there were plenty of printed programs to satisfy an almost full house, an usher explained to me that none were being distributed this evening as not enough had been printed—the hall was approximately half full.

Earl Arthur Love



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