Review: Conductor Chan handles Mendelssohn, Mozetich and Forsyth with starry simplicity

Amanda Forsyth. Photo: Cheryl Mazak

In 2014, at the age of 28, Elim Chan became the first woman to win the Donatella Flick London Symphony Orchestra conducting competition. Since then, the Hong Kong native was named the LSO’s assistant conductor, completed a Dudamel Fellowship at the L.A. Philharmonic, became principal conductor of the Norrlands Opera Symphony in Sweden, and this season started her contract as principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

On Wednesday, this rising young star made her NACO debut conducting a program of two composers but three contrasting moods: Mendelssohn’s sunny Italian Symphony, his gloomy Hebrides Overture, and the world premiere of a new cello concerto by Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich, written for former NACO principal cello Amanda Forsyth.

Mozetich’s new concerto is deceptively simple and unabashedly lyrical. With its cyclic, whirling scale patterns, it’s somewhat reminiscent of John Adams’ symphonic writing, but with softer more transparent textures. There are nods to Orientalism, particularly in the lush second movement, and, more discretely, to French Impressionism (the last movement is built around a fragment from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe).

Whereas some contemporary composers like to deploy an army of percussion, Mozetich goes minimal: just vibraphone, marimba and timpani, using them more for tonal colour than rhythmic impulsion. The soloist’s lines are tricky rather than showily virtuosic, with the emphasis on long, spare, singing lines and shimmering, shape-shifting patterns. Forsyth can be a somewhat theatrical performer, but here she grasped the work’s restraint and fluid elusiveness, playfully bringing out its subtle exoticism without falling into pastiche. Her tone was muscular and firm,  but intonation was at times an issue.

Mozetich’s new concerto won’t win any innovation awards, but it’s a mature, masterfully crafted, thoughtfully conceived work that also happens to be quite pleasant on the ears. An audience member approached me at intermission to share his opinion. “Usually when I see there’s a new commission, I think ‘Oh God.’ But this one I actually enjoyed.”

Chan’s conducting style is crisp, energetic, unfussy and crystal-clear. I felt the balance was sometimes weighted too heavily in the brass and lower strings, overpowering the soloist. But being able to precisely fine-tune a new-to-you orchestra in a foreign hall, especially with a contemporary premiere, is a skill that develops with experience.

In the more familiar Mendelssohn, Chan displayed a fine ear for detail  (the flute duet in the second movement of the Italian was exquisitely framed) along with an instinct for shaping lovely, natural phrasing. She favoured a richer, bulkier late-Romantic sound than, say, Alexander Shelley does for Mendelssohn. But this made for an especially stately Fingal’s Cave, while her vigorous, bold tempi in the symphony — the spicy tarantella last movement was especially daring — kept things aloft on warm Mediterranean breezes.

The concert 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.