The Art of Fear (or Feher)

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I am becoming very fond of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra, and it’s not just because within the space of a little over a year they will have programmed half of the Shostakovich concerto repertoire (although that was what, of course, drew me to their concerts initially).  It’s something that I may have mentioned in an earlier discussion:  The sense of vitality, enthusiasm and immediacy that an ensemble comprised of professional musicians at the early stages of their careers generates.   The concert I attended last night added an additional dimension to this phenomenon:  The baton of a conductor only a few years older than the musicians.The RCO generally brings in guest conductors for its four yearly symphony concerts, and Andrei Feher was last night’s.  He was a revelation.

Feher is, from what I can determine, either 28 or 29 years old.  He already has begun to establish himself as a conductor to watch since joining the Orchestre de Paris as an assistant conductor at the seemingly-impossible age of 22, and now is the director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. Before the concert last night, he shared a few words about his background and the process of coming in to conduct the RCO.   He cut a striking figure–he’s incredibly slim and wiry, and (ahem) pretty damned gorgeous.  He was born in Romania and relocated to Canada with his parents in his youth, where he trained at the Montreal Conservatory as a violinist, discovering along the way that his true passion would be conducting.  He explained how important that grounding as a musician is to conductors–that conducting is something that generally isn’t studied until one has a performance degree–and that, in his opinion, string players have a real advantage given how huge the string section is in an orchestra.  But it was his youthful enthusiasm and sense of passion that really shone through in the pre-concert talk, with a sly dig at conductors in their 50s and 60s who “aren’t very good.” “Things have changed since the 60s and 70s,” he said, and it was clear that he really enjoyed working with an orchestra that was not yet set in its ways of doing things.

Feher didn’t say it directly, but he talked a little about the “choreography” of conducting–all of the preparation he does ahead of time to make sure the orchestra understands him, and it was clear that the parallels between dance and directing an orchestra were not lost on him.  And watching him in the concert itself, I was very much struck by the dance-like feel to his directing.  It wasn’t just his slim physique (cutting a dashing figure in his long black jacket), it was the expressiveness of his gestures.  “It’s not just giving the beat,” he had said, demonstrating the customary way of counting time with a baton, “that’s for the airport.”  One of the most fascinating parts of his style was to transfer his baton to his left hand from time to time, holding horizontally it at its balance point, widening the gesture.   He was among the most expressive conductors I’ve ever watched, fully engaged with the music, from the barely-audible to the unbelievably loud, from smooth and flowing to short and staccato, from sweet to sarcastic, from comic to tragic.  It did not hurt at all that the two pieces on the concert – the Shostakovich Cello Concerto #1 and the Mahler Symphony #1, both allowed his conducting to shine.

Shostakovich wrote both of his Cello Concertos for famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and as such, they’re challenging, not so much in the traditional vituostic way (runs of very fast notes, although there are some of those) but in the palette of techniques and emotions that must be conveyed.  There are some who would argue that his Cello Concerto #1 is pretty much the pinnacle of the repertoire; top three at the least, when looking at the work overall, and certainly the finest of the 20th century.  David Hurwitz calls it “quite possibly the most neurotic piece Shostakovich ever wrote, and that’s saying a lot.”  “The principal emotional characteristic of the outer movements is a twitchy, obsessive, nervous anxiety that as unforgettable as it is disturbing,” Hurwitz continues. “The music really gets under your skin, while never forgetting the need to display the virtuosity of the soloist in an effective and satisfying way.”  What this means in a practical sense is that for this piece to work, the orchestra needs to be on the same page as the soloist, particularly the woodwinds, the single brass instrument (a horn), and the percussion (tympani and celesta). The work is fairly sparsely orchestrated, almost completely lacking brass (except for the aforementioned single horn), and only involving the entire orchestra at a few key points, which helps it to not overwhelm the single soloist. It also helps that there is a real emphasis on the warm lower pitches of bassoons, a contrabassoon, and clarinets in their lower registers.   Even so, it requires the conductor to keep the balance under control–the orchestra can be loud at certain points, but in counterpoint with the soloist.  I think this is one of the reasons why the louder outer movements have that nervous anxiety–there is a lot of back and forth between soloist and orchestra.  Feher’s direction here meant that that balance was near perfect.  And the single, exposed horn performed admirably.  I’ve talked before how a horn solo can make or break the mood in a Shostakovich work.  Ryan Garbett made a couple of very minor flubs, but was for the most part a worthy foil for the soloist.

And what a soloist! Mansur Kadirov is a young Uzbek cellist, studying at the RCO on the graduate level for an ‘artist’s diploma’ (as he already has a masters’ degree, I believe this is meant to polish his performance chops), so he’s firmly in that transition state between student and full-time professional.  If his performance last night was any indication, he has incredible potential for a career as a soloist.   He started strong in the first movement with the jaunty four-note main theme and the secondary theme (which is almost all a single note) and always conveyed the sense of dialogue with the rest of the orchestra.  It was in the lyrical second movement where he really began to shine, with a warm, sweet (but not cloying) tone that gradually went higher and higher and higher until the famous passages towards the ethereal end of the movement that is all in harmonics, in dialogue with the celesta.  The soloist here is playing notes as high as a violin, and the bowing must walk that line between delicacy and enough force to make sure the notes are actually audible.  If it’s done right–as Kadirov did it–the listener will be rapt, leaning forward to catch the sound of twinkling stars.

This led into the cadenza, flowing out of the ether of near silence.  What struck me most, watching this live, was the left-hand pizzicato passages.  This technique is easily overlooked when listening to recordings of the work:  The soloist is both playing bowed notes and plucking the strings with his left (fingering) hand.  This is, to put it bluntly, an additional level of f*ckery that looks like it shouldn’t even be possible.  Kadirov made it look effortless.  This proceeds the section in which the cello more or less ignites itself with a ferocity that carries into the finale.  Here was the chance for Kadirov to blow the audience away with lots of fiery notes, and he did, taking the orchestra along for a ride through the explosive conclusion.  Kadirov was rewarded with an immediate standing ovation, and played a lovely encore accompanied by a few of the members of the cello section.

The other work on the program was Mahler’s Symphony #1.   Feher has already demonstrated in the Shostakovich his ability to bring precisely the correct balance out in the orchestra, so important in the concerto.  Performances of Mahler’s works also require the same kind of ability to bring out the intensity in quiet passages and to avoid simply overwhelming in the loud ones.  But there was no need to have a soloist heard this time, allowing the orchestra to simply let loose in those louder sections.  I’m not really a Mahler aficionado (although he’s definitely growing on me), so this was the first time I’d head this symphony all the way through–but at the first notes of the second movement, I realized I had been hearing this particular part of the symphony for years, and always really liked it.   The third movement (a slow funeral march to the tune of ‘Frere Jacques’ into which a klezmer band intrudes) was beautifully played and led into the spectacular crash at the beginning of the stormy fourth movement.  That crash was so sudden and so spectacular that it literally jolted a man two seats down from me out of his seat, perhaps the funniest thing I’ve ever seen happen at a concert.  The orchestra really opened up for this final movement, particularly the huge mass (seven!) of French horns towards the end in a beautiful chorale.  Once again, a standing ovation for Feher and the orchestra.  Much as in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring earlier in the year, the RCO had embued this work with energy and passion–but at the same time, incredible subtlety when called for– that overflowed the hall and engaged the audience.

A postscript:  Once again, the wonderful Koerner Hall deserves a mention in the credits.  This amazing performance space is a huge part of the equation that has made every single concert I’ve attended there memorable.

And I’ll be keeping an eye out on the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s concert schedule. I’d gladly see Andrei Feher conduct “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  He’s that good, and I suspect he’ll be going places rather quickly.

 

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