Review: Hockey, wild weather and one nervous squirrel couldn’t douse Parker’s performance of Brahms concerto

Jon Kimura Parker played Brahms second piano concerto on Thursday night.

Sometimes, classical concerts unfold in a protective cocoon of perfect calm and order. Wednesday evening’s NACO performance was not one of those times.

Game 7 of the Sens vs the Penguins — which the NAC thoughtfully had up on a big screen in the lobby — contributed to the febrile, jittery atmosphere. So did the wild weather and the power outage on Elgin Street. There was even a panicky squirrel running around backstage (perhaps it thought the orchestra was playing Beethoven’s Sixth, not Schubert’s). It’s amazing how much racket one small rodent can make in a concert hall.

But the minute the first notes of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande floated up from the stage, all distractions were forgotten. Not to be confused with Debussy’s famous opera of the same name and vintage, Fauré’s work was written as incidental music to Maeterlink’s original play.

The esteemed American conductor David Zinman generated a core of trembling emotion beneath the score’s enamel of Belle-Époque sophistication. The Prélude was heady, dreamy, with watercolour textures from the woodwinds. The Fileuse (“spinning wheel”) movement swirled and buzzed with the iridescence of a swarm of dragonflies. Gossamer playing by harpist Manon Le Compte and flutist Joanna G’froerer elevated the Sicilienne, and there was an almost tactile pleasure to the orchestra’s languid sound in the Death of Mélisande.

I’ve always thought Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 to be one of the dullest things ever written. Zinman squeezed all he could out of the music — there were some nice ping-ponging effects as the themes bounced around the different sections. But despite Schubert’s genius for melody it remains a repetitive, pedestrian, stupefying work.

The second half was taken up entirely with Brahms’ towering Second Piano Concerto. Jon Kimura Parker is one of Canada’s most sympathetic musicians, with a warm, relaxed presence. Parker has athleticism to spare; his sound is burly and thick, but not always beautiful. All the runs and octaves were fast and clean, but lacked actual shaping or sweep, and Parker phrasing in general felt a little square-cornered and uninspired. However, in the slow third movement he seemed to find a different emotional gear, weaving threads of sustained, expectant feeling through the notes. The section where the piano plays alone except for two reverent clarinets achieved a kind of restrained, inward rapture.

Zinman was a model of efficiency, but he favoured a palette that was sombre to the point of murkiness. Limpidity and clarity were often sacrificed to gravitas and weight, and too often the result was a sound like an overstuffed couch. But there were luscious solos, notably by principal French horn Larry Vine in the opening theme, and newly appointed principal cellist Rachel Mercer in the Andante.

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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.