every academic year at The Glenn Gould School, out of 125 students four are paired---via a concerto competition---with internationally acclaimed guest conductors the likes of richard bradshaw, peter oundjian and johannes debus. once the conductor and dean agrees on a program, the soloist undertakes a week-long intensive that culminates in a performance alongside the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. that process brought GGS graduate linda ruan and guest conductor andras keller to a packed Koerner Hall this past friday april 26, 2019.
the program began with ruan as she took on the challenge of shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a work as immense as it is intricate. the first movement begins in Allegro and right away it was apparent why ruan will be pursuing her masters at The Juilliard School, and ended with a roaring round of applause that set the tone for the rest of the evening. in the pre-show chat before the performance, james anagnoson, dean of GGS, was emphatic in his description of the feature that separates subpar student soloists from truly exceptional musicality like that of ruan: orchestral accompaniment as often as possible (if not in actuality, then in vivid imagination). practicing solely from piano reductions, anagnoson insists, puts the student at risk of being blindsided by unforeseen delays relating to their synchronicity with parts of the orchestra. “The wind section is always late!” he adds, and the test of the soloist is their ability to anticipate and incorporate the delays inherent in various factions of orchestral accompaniment. ruan, evidently, took that advice to heart and hand with an exhibition both of technical precision and boisterous play.
her performance in the slow movement, Andante, was her best: displaying an intuitive musicality which rigorous training can only inform rather than invent. instead of empty and memorized gestures, her sense of presence caressed the music and was in no rush to get to anything else except for what she was playing at the cusp of each moment. musicality of that sort is the answer to the tongue-in-cheek riddle once concocted by nietzsche in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra to demonstrate the grace of taking one’s time when it comes to music: “Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet: if a melody has not reached its end, it has not reached its goal. A parable.” the final movement in the piece, also Allegro, is a feast to behold---tafelmusik in every sense of the word---and ruan is ferocious on the piano.
next in the program was tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, a symphonic poem inspired by the character so-named from the fifth Canto of dante’s Inferno and suggested by keller in order to “add some romanticism”. it is a tremendous accomplishment by a composer itching to find musical expression of the impossible loves in his own life and imbued with seemingly combustible musical fragments. conductor keller manages to stay in front of the careening locomotive throughout the 25-minute-long performance.
chancellor michael koerner, in the acceptance speech of the ISPA Angel Award for his lifelong support of the arts, managed to mention everything from the number of seats filled in the recent jan lisiecki concert (‘1250 exactly’) to the (often exaggerated) tales of fisticuffs that broke out in the first premiere of Rites. he also gave a shout-out to principal bassoonist riley litts in anticipation of the first notes of the final item in the program: stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. camille saint-saens, who was present at the premiere of Rites on may 29 1913, sarcastically remarked after hearing the absurdly high opening notes on bassoon ‘What instrument is that?!’. and when keller eventually gave his down beat to begin the carnival of Rites, litts nailed her much awaited introduction. the orchestra responded to her eerie cue and all hell broke loose (a good thing when you’re playing Rites).
it was in this last performance that the precision of keller’s conduction was most evident. despite what sounds like chaos and a masterclass in dissonance, it’s surprisingly easy to notice screw-ups in this ballet suite. there were indeed instances of such screw-ups and the percussion section at times lacked a stimulating alacrity, but the bustling and anarchic spirit of this piece was intimately and intuitively felt by the entire ensemble, much to keller’s credit. principal timpanist zuri wells, who had been stellar and restrained through shostakovich and tchaikovsky, was unleashed by stravinsky. and in those deep and furious grunts characteristic of Rites, the violin section achieves both technical cleanliness and finely orchestrated bedlam.
i’m still new to all of this, and at times too easily impressed by performances that might otherwise be regarded as mediocre by a better trained ear. but energy, enthusiasm, ‘playing at the edge of your seat’ are qualities that my musical instincts are especially attuned to. in that sense do i believe that whatever gap exists between the RCO’s performance and a more ‘professional’ orchestra, are made up for by the enthusiasm of young musicians for whom the spirit of these composition is still a fascinating and tempting mystery.
(major shout-out to leslie ashworth, a GGS graduate and first violin in this program. she is also a fellow graduate of this year’s Emerging Arts Critic program and a contributor to this blog. all the best with your masters leslie!!).