NACO review: Women power a sterling performance

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero performed Clara Schumann's piano concerto. Photo: Anders Brogaard

Say what you will about online call-out culture; it can be a catalyst for positive change. Take composer diversity. Over the past few years, a small but vocal group of journalists, musicologists, performers and other advocates have been taking orchestras, opera companies and festivals to task for all white, all male programming. 

While it’s hard in most cases to demonstrate cause and effect, it appears that the classical industry has started to listen. For example, the U.S. not-for-profit Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, which collects data on programming at the 21 American orchestras with the largest budgets, has tracked increases in the number of women composers and the number of works by women being performed in the 2019-20 seasons, compared with previous seasons.

A quick glance at previous programs shows that NACO is part of this upward trend, with more women composers and conductors represented this season than in former years. Wednesday night’s performance with Alexander Shelley featured works by two leading German Romantic women, and I confess it was one of my most anticipated concerts of the year. 

The evening opened with Emilie Mayer’s Faust Overture. Meyer, a contemporary of Liszt and Wagner, came to composing relatively late but was extremely prolific and enjoyed respect and a relative degree of fame during her life (she became the associate director of the Berlin Opera Theatre). This overture — actually more like a programmatic tone poem — presents her genius in capsule form. 

An ominous theme in the low strings and winds unfurls into a vivid musical depiction of the Faust story, richly expressive but never sentimental or cloying, with bold, surprising harmonies that look ahead to late Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Mayer’s grasp of dramatic narrative is especially exciting; for example, she repeatedly uses a paraphrase on a well-known Lutheran chorale (Geneva Psalm 42) to represent the idea of spiritual salvation as a thread throughout the work. Her music is a wonderful discovery and I want a Marvelous Mrs. Mayer festival immediately. 

Clara Schumann was not only the most famous woman musician in Europe of her time; she was one of the most famous musicians period, a virtuoso’s virtuoso.  Her husband Robert’s piano concerto, which she premiered, is part of the standard repertoire, but Clara had already composed her own concerto at the age of 14, which she played herself. It’s a flashy, knuckle-buster of a piece, about 10 times more difficult than Robert’s. Clara wrote it specifically so she could flex, and it offers a fascinating insight into her fabled pianism. 

NACO and Shelley will be recording the concerto for the Analekta label as part of their Schumann-Brahms cycle, with the extraordinary Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero. Montero’s Wednesday performance was her first time playing the work in public; were it not for her use of the score (on a tablet), you would never have known that she only learned the concerto recently.

The work is in three traditional fast-slow-fast sections, but played without a break. The flamboyant virtuosity suits Montero’s enormous technique and athleticism to a tee–it’s almost inconceivable that a 14 year old child played this music.  At this point in her life, Clara’s writing is closer to Chopin and Liszt than to her future husband Robert, with the former’s delicate, pearly fioritura passages and the latter’s massive, stretched chords, clustered trills and fiery cascades of double octaves. The last movement is even a flamboyant Polonaise

While the outer movements are all swagger and strut, the slow section is a gorgeous bel canto reverie for piano and cello, performed with expansive phrasing and lush, contralto tones by principal cellist Rachel Mercer. Here was a tantalizing glimpse of the more mature composer Clara would become later in life, contemplative and lyrical. 

Montero performed one of her legendary improvisations as an encore. Taking a theme suggested by the audience — the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — Montero started with a Beethoven sonata pastiche that evolved into French-flavoured romantic fireworks reminiscent of Saint-Saëns, before ending in an exuberant tango. 

Shelley and the orchestra are fresh off several recording sessions for Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony, so the performance felt particularly polished and comfortable. Shelley chose even more restive, driving tempi than the last time he conducted this work with the orchestra. NACO always sounds fantastic in the formation Shelley favours for the early Romantics — with divided first and second violins flanking the podium. The gleaming, echt-Germanic sound was anchored by an especially charismatic and confident horn section. 

The program repeats Thursday night.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.