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Guest Conductor Leon Fleisher Photo credit: Chris Hartlove
Resident Conductor Joaquin Valdepeñas
Soprano Jocelyn Fralick
Royal Conservatory Orchestra: The Big Night!
Review by Paul Merkley, FRSC
Toronto ON February 17th 2018
This is a student orchestra of very high caliber; Friday night’s performance at Koerner Hall left no doubt of that. First on the main program was Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. Guest conductor Leon Fleisher, about to turn ninety years of age, directed the work with great nuance, including frequent, slight changes of tempo, of the kind for which he was (before he lost the full use of his right hand and turned to conducting) famous as arguably the best interpreter of Beethoven’s music on the piano, having studied with and succeeded Artur Schnabel, who studied with Leschetizky who studied with Czerny who studied with the composer himself. Fleisher once remarked of the frequent changes of metronome (measured tempo) markings in Schnabel’s edition of Beethoven that if one understands them as sometimes pushing the music forward a bit, and sometimes holding it back, the markings make sense, and indeed his nuances of pace in the overture made very good sense.
Resident conductor Joaquin Valdepeñas directed Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The orchestra collaborated precisely with the beautiful performance of soprano Jocelyn Fralick, whose strong (operatic) voice, clear diction, and sensitive expression conveyed the emotions of the music and the dark, melancholy poetry. The most striking of the songs was Abendrot (Sunset), in which the speaker, ready for sleep, ready for death, observes two larks ascending in the sky (depicted by a pair of flutes). The poem asks the question of whether this could be death, and the music gives the answer, as the flutes return at the end of the song, showing the flight heavenward of the souls of the departed. The composer might not have intended this song to be the last in the group (indeed a fifth song was left unfinished at his death), but it is easy to see why the publisher put this at the end.
Maestro Fleisher announced that deterioration of his eyesight had occasioned last-minute alterations in the program. He changed Beethoven overtures, and he substituted the nearly hour-long Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 op. 27 for a work by Sibelius. The performance of this piece of epic-length and scope was an unqualified success, and if the audience had not been so informed, we would not have known that the orchestra prepared this large work in only four days. The lush harmonies, soaring melodies, and vivid contrasts of orchestration and dynamics came through beautifully and convincingly. The cymbal crash in the acoustically well designed hall was memorable and striking from a great distance. The clarinet, oboe, English horn, and French horn solos were haunting.
After the concert I spoke briefly with concertmaster Alexis Meschter, whose beautiful solo sounded in counterpoint with the extraordinary voice of Ms. Fralick. I asked him how it was to execute the frequent tempo changes that Fleisher asked for in the Beethoven overture. He replied that it was an unusual experience, but Maestro Fleisher had warned them that it would be “different every time”. Was the renowned conductor more reliant on spoken explanations, or did he convey his requirements mainly through the baton? Apparently he spoke to them of the style of the pieces, and talked a bit concerning Rachmaninov’s score. For Fleisher, Meschter explained, the baton is secondary. What was it like to prepare the huge symphony in less than one week? I asked. Was it intensive? The concertmaster said that it is intensive every week at the school, but this was more intensive. The difference, as he saw it, was the commitment of the students to succeed in the performance of the works, however short the time to prepare. That commitment shone through the entire evening, and made it a night the audience will not soon forget.
Mention should be made of two excellent performances before the main part of the evening: the young violinist Astrid Nakamura’s execution of the first movement of Prokofiev’s concerto, and a suite of dances written by Carlos Salzedo played well and fluently by harpists Abigail Bachelor and Heather Cornelius. It was a big night!