Concert review: Guest conductor brings out best in Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Mei-Ann Chen
Edmonton Journal

By Mark Morris

Mei-Ann Chen led passionate performance at Winspear



Company: Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Oboe soloist: Lidia Khaner

Conductor: Mei-Ann Chen

When: Saturday night

Where: Winspear Centre


EDMONTON — Saturday was the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s 61st birthday, to the very day, and they celebrated by giving the packed Winspear a scintillating performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s much-loved tone-poem, Scheherazade.

Indeed, this seemed an orchestra transformed, transfused with the kind of passion and drive that has all too often been missing from their performances.

The magician behind this was the mercurial Taiwanese-American guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen. She is mesmerizing to watch, a puppeteer pulling on the strings to get every nuance of emotion from her players.

She is firmly in the tradition of Leonard Bernstein, another conductor who palpably (and visually) aimed at cajoling the most out of his players. Like Bernstein, most of the action is in her left hand, coaxing, encouraging, ordering, pointing, commanding, at every entry — and she conducted the work without a score.

Unlike Bernstein (whose baton almost always gave a strong and constant beat), her baton regularly ignored the detail of the beat in favour of transcribing a whole phrase, to add weight to its impact.

It certainly worked. The precision of the orchestra’s playing has not been in doubt. But here the musicians also showed that they are capable of a huge dynamic and expressive range. For the first time, I heard them play really softly, pizzicato, with a gorgeous crescendo and diminuendo in the middle.

The many solo moments were full of the idiomatic phrasing and that emotional colour that also has sometimes been missing. The new concertmaster, Robert Uchida, showed yet again what a fine soloist he is and clearly he, too, has had a big role in the new energy of the orchestra, especially the upper strings.

That was reflected in the orchestral body language as well as the playing, as energetic as their guest conductor, as determined to bring out all the emotional flavours of the piece. Only the brass seemed relatively immune to Chen’s magic. They played well enough, but not quite with the kind of response she was getting elsewhere.

This was indeed an exhilarating performance, though it didn’t really tell us how good an interpreter — as opposed to an inspirer of orchestras — Chen is. That’s because Scheherazade is not particularly demanding music, but rather a showpiece for orchestra.

Nor did the other main piece in the concert really enlighten us, as its unfamiliarity gave little against which to judge the performance.

Telluric Dances by the Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis (who was in attendance at the concert) is a three-movement oboe concerto built around various Eastern Mediterranean traditional dance forms, an effective piece of programming alongside Scheherazade.

The sound of the oboe, of course, is so redolent of traditional Middle Eastern reed instruments, and the work is all about heady atmosphere and effect. A battery of percussion (including a rainstick and a solo role for hand-drum) is matched by colourful orchestral gestures, and a solo line that essential binds this rhythmic and colour painting together.

At times I was reminded of an updated version of Rodrigo (of Concierto de Aranjuez fame) in the lovely opening of the central slow movement, haunting lines emerging over an orchestral heartbeat, and especially in the opening of the final movement.

Much of the writing is both arresting and atmospherically effective. Ultimately, though, all three movements outstayed their welcome, as if Christos didn’t want to stop. The thematic (and melodic) material is simply too thin to allow for extended development.

Some of the rhythms are quite complex, and here Chen’s fluid baton was perhaps a disadvantage. One wondered how easy it is actually to follow her beat, and that showed in some of the orchestral entries.

The solo oboe was lovingly played by the ESO’s principal oboist Lidia Khaner, even if one felt she was a little reserved at times. It was the kind of work one is glad to have heard once, and the audience clearly enjoyed it.

The concert had opened with Mendelssohn’s rarely heard The Fair Melusina Overture, a breath of northern climes alongside the Mediterranean heat, in a performance notable for the expressiveness of the strings.

But it was that Scheherazade that stole the show and, one hopes, gave us a hint of how Edmonton’s orchestra might continue to develop.