Parker's Ravel Reading Thrills
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
With pianist James Parker. Conducted by Tania Miller.
At the Centennial Theatre on Monday, February 23
Like their impressionist counterparts in the world of visual art, the French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel shattered preconceptions when they made their debuts toward the end of the 19th century. Using a lighter palette, more delicate brushstrokes, and a suppler sense of line than the Middle Europeans who had previously dominated serious music, the two friends limned previously unimaginable sonic landscapes and remain a primary influence on contemporary composers of all stripes. Radicals in their day, it seems they have become the flag-bearers for musical orthodoxy.
Or have they?
It's been a hundred years since Ravel or Debussy prompted violent discussion about their merits, but properly performed, their works still have the power to shock. That point was driven home at North Vancouver's Centennial Theatre on Monday night, when pianist James Parker, aided and abetted by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and conductor Tania Miller, launched into the opening movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. The velocity of their liftoff and the precision with which the musicians executed Ravel's mad music-box intro exerted a palpable pull on the sold-out house.
Parker was brilliant. Maybe too brilliant: it might be possible to perform this concerto in a more sensitive fashion, or display its beauties at a less frenetic pace. But it was thrilling, nonetheless, as the pianist lashed his hands across the keys to elicit great clouds of polytonal colour. Powerful though his performance was, Parker managed to balance his vivacity with a sense of centred calm.
This was a joyous, revelatory reading, and it sounded all the better for following a languid version of Debussy's Prélude íƒ l'apríƒ ¨s-midi d'un faune. It was clear from the start that this forest animal was no innocent Bambi, and it's worth remembering that the piece was originally created to accompany the legendarily alluring Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography: Miller clearly saw it as a seductive slow dance.
Perhaps it's inevitable that after these two French beauties, the second half of the program, devoted as it was to Anatoly Liadov's Baba-Yaga, Op. 56 and Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, would seem a little tame. The Liadov piece was beautifully played but unremarkable, while the Mussorgsky seemed a fraction slow. Perhaps it should have been programmed before the Ravel concerto, in which case it would have suffered less by comparison.
It's unlikely that anyone suffered during the evening's unanticipated bonus: VSO resident composer Jeffrey Ryan's ...And There Was..., a brief tribute to the minutes just before dawn. Opening with quiet percussion and a cicada hum from the strings, the piece built to what I can only describe as a hushed peak, as rising glissandi mirrored the ascendant sun. Like everything else I've heard from Ryan, this sliver of loveliness reflected the composer's careful hand, and a thorough knowledge of Ravel and Debussy's century-old innovations.