Friday, January 22, 2010

To Russia with Love

On Jan. 22 Vancouver cellist Eugene Osadchy was back from his teaching job at Dallas's University of Northern Texas to play for Vetta, the music series he co-founded 20-odd years ago. It's still running and deserves to be with its fine programs of chamber music which mean that the people close to the Endowment Lands of UBC have less often to go downtown to take in a concert.
It was an all-Russian program with the series' artistic director and violinist Joan Blackman and the virtuosic young Russian pianist Anastasia Markina, and it was a beauty. I've never heard a better concert from Vetta.
Aside from Sergei Prokofiev's Cinq Melodies for piano and violin and Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Trio Elegiac, Osadchy and Markina played Dmitri Shostakovich's lone cello sonata, and this was the highlight for me in a program that was consistently played with passion and artistry. Even the long early Rachmaninov trio was beautiful, making me wonder why I've never particularly liked it. But then I'd never heard it scaled so perfectly. For the first time, it seemed to make perfect sense.
Once again I wondered what it is--aside from having, I suppose, a naturally dark predisposition--that makes me particularly receptive to Russian music. I don't mean I enjoy only Russian music. A tango or a rhythm from Latin America can make me think it was only an accident of birth that put me in this hemisphere, or a piece by Edvard Grieg or Einojuhani Rautavaara will make me powerfully nostalgic for those latitudes. This is the power of music as it ought to be. It can and should dislocate you and make you feel a stranger in your own part of the world.
But the music of Russia is the most consistent in exerting this tidal pull on my aesthetic emotions: Tchaikovsky's overwhelmingly beautiful and balletic music (scales, basically), the color and plains-like spatial sense of Alexander Borodin, the splendidly brooding music of Rachmaninov, the athletic and daring harmonic clashes of Prokofiev, the braininess of Igor Stravinsky, and the virtually autobiographical music of Shostakovich, a composer who was impossible to silence though he was the most harassed of all under the apparatchiks of Joseph Stalin ... these are only the most obvious of the names I love.
The Cello Sonata was written in the afterglow of Shostakovich's scandalous opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was famous—for a short while before getting the most frightening official review of the composer's life. The sonata is unforgettable. Primarily lyrical as it is, it's clear that there are thoughts going on.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Reality TV may be more than Satan's little time-killer, I almost thought one night recently as I watched two shows back to back, though I'm not proud of it.
The first was Hoarders which routinely documents the progress made by a team of removal professionals and clinical mental experts as they enter the homes of people who are clearly on the outer edges of sanity and try not to vomit as they survey scenes of chaos that can only be described as augean.
The owners of these homes, or what once must have been homes, seem outwardly normal though the mental wiring has very obviously become tangled. For the viewer, horror, pity and amusement become tangled as well, watching the poor helpless victims lead the stranger into (what once must have been) the living room and try to be casual about it ("Yes, well, this is my messy living room ..."), the word messy being pushed into a service well beyond euphemism, just as "clutter" doesn't begin to say it.
Things might well have kept going on as they obviously have been going for a very long time, had there not been a civic threat of eviction or possession of the children. That's how bad things have got. Though the process starts off well enough as the removers begin chucking mountains of debris and animal droppings into trucks, it usually doesn't take long to see the owners' defense systems begin to crack as they see their treasures crudely swept up and removed. They "need" these things, though they will never likely see them or even know what's there. Sometimes it doesn't work out. They're too far gone.
There seems a purpose beyond voyeurism to this documentary series on consumerism gone epically wrong. You may sense this feeling the next time you open your fridge and notice that it's only the shallow little bay of utility nearest the door that you seem to use anymore, and that it's been that way for quite some time now.
The other show seems even more moral, an animal rescue show run by what looks like a team of five bikers. They're all beefy and reticent and speak in rough accents of the outer boroughs of New York. That they really do love animals seems undeniable as, hearing rumors of a neglected rottweiler or pit bull terrier, they more or less badger their way into the house of the heartless owner and with a forceful tact, demand that things improve. Commonly they somehow manage to take the dog away for care and medical treatment. Then they return it with clear threats to follow up with as many unannounced commando checks as it will take.
It does work, apparently, or it can, to go by one case study of a hispanic who'd been mistreating his dog by ignoring him. By the time it had finished its therapy it was hard to say who'd got the better of it, the dog, or the owner in his now much spruced-up house. There suddenly seemed to be a genuine affection for a fellow sentient being.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Where were they?

Saturday night I went to the Vancouver Symphony at the Orpheum. Houses recently have been pretty good for the symphony but Saturday was dramatically different. I had to keep looking behind me because I couldn't believe how small the attendance was. The sides of the theatre were all but empty as were the acres of seats behind me, and I was in row 16 on the aisle. What must it have been like in the balcony?

Not once all night did I have to get to my feet to make way for someone else. In my row there was only one other person, down at the end.

It didn't take long to suppose that the usurious new parking rates must be behind it -- also the parking meters' now being in effect until 10 p.m. Stretching my legs, I gave thanks for the consideration and courtesy of Gregor Robertson and City Hall.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Steinbacher no-show

Arabella Steinbacher (pictured, right), who was scheduled to play the Dvorak Violin Concerto announced below, won't be playing with the Vancouver Symphony Jan. 16-18 because she suddenly became ill.

Instead, it'll be Jennifer Koh, a New York violinist who played in Vancouver about a year ago.

She's very good too, and known for taking a sort of post-modern approach to violin repertory. That is, she places music -- often very contemporary music -- in a context that typically goes back to J.S. Bach, the touchstone.

Koh will be playing the Dvorak concerto as well.

But don't overlook Steinbacher, who is an amazingly gifted young musician. I can't recommend her new CD strongly enough, on Pentatone Classics, where she plays the Dvorak, his F Minor Romance, and notably Karol Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto. This is a masterpiece all but unknown outside of Poland. Tremendously sensuous, with a free-form structure, and tremendously difficult to play. I haven't heard a more persuasive argument for it. It deserves to be a Western classic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tango Reunion

Tango is far from just an evening thing, though it was said that Music in the Morning's opening concert on Tuesday, Jan. 12, was the visiting Argentine harmonica player Franco Luciani's first morning ever, and he needed a cup of strong coffee.

Tango Reunion was just that. Two years ago at Festival Vancouver, pianist Linda Lee Thomas, bassist Miles Foxx Hill and Luciani were thrown together as a substitute when Ed Henderson, the guitarist of Thomas's trio Tangissimo, couldn't make it. It was a hit of the festival and the place erupted when they were finished.
It was the same thing on Tuesday.

An older crowd couldn't get enough of an hour of tango magic that passed so quickly it seemed like warp speed. They played tangos by Astor Piazzolla, Anibal Troilo, Julian Plaza and others. What might have grabbed you straight off was the amazing dexterity of the young Luciani, who, throwing his whole body into his reedy instrument, played with the fire and precision of a skilled bandoneonist, and the range of his color was incredible, from locomotive-like chuffs to impossibly high and exposed upper notes that were sounded with the most precise delicacy.

Thomas, invaluable as a charmingly witty commentator, took a back seat but not if you listened carefully. This woman is a national treasure. I can still hear her one piano solo, which combined Rachmaninov and Chopin into an expression that was pure Argentina. And ObliviĆ³n is still with me.

As Thomas said, "But then everybody in Argentina is depressed." Long live this kind of depression.

Music in the Morning website

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A phenomenal new violinist, Arabella Steinbacher, makes her first visit to the Vancouver Symphony January 16 through 18. This 27-year-old is incredibly gifted, a fact made clear by her new CD, sent by her New York publicity firm. It has the concerto she'll be playing here -- Dvorak's only one and conducted by Kazuyoshi Akiyama -- and Karol Szymanowski's first violin concerto. They both floored me but especially the Szymanowski, which is hardly ever played. This is a brave program since both concertos are dark horses. And it was her performance of the Dvorak that persuaded me it's a great one.

She's a protegee of Anne-Sophie Mutter. A friend of mine, the violinist Daniel Bae, studied with Steinbacher in Munich and raves about her playing. Daniel could have had an international career himself but got talked into taking over his parents' business: motel management.

2:39:00 PM
by Lloyd Dykk