Review: Krisztina Szabó shimmers in new work by Gary Kulesha at NAC

Krisztina Szabó displayed stunning range, assured technique and penetrating tone, Natasha Gauthier says.

It must be something in the Baltic air: when it comes to churning out extraordinary conducting talent out of all proportion to its population, Estonia has become the new Finland.

Tallinn native Olari Elts is part of a generation of superb Estonian maestros that includes brothers Paavo and Kristjan Järvi, Anu Tali, the monkish choral specialist Jaan Eik Tulve, and, at the younger end of the curve, Risto Joost and Kristiina Poska. Elts made his Canadian debut Wednesday night with NACO, conducting an unexpected mix of Busoni, Sibelius, and a world premiere by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha.

NACO commissioned Kulesha’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf for Canadian mezzo Krisztina Szabó. Kulesha has set six excerpts from the fifth and final volume of Woolf’s diary: words as full of crushing, bitter despair as they are of arresting nature imagery and spiritual grace.

Kulesha evokes Woolf’s anguished, fragile mental and emotional state through frayed, deliberately out-of-focus orchestral textures. Scraping ponticello effects and slippery tuning create a hazy, anxiety-laden atmosphere, while burly brass lines move like shadowy predators under the thin surface layer of strings and woodwinds.

Kulesha tailored his composition to Szabó’s stunning range, assured technique and penetrating tone. This unbelievably consistent singer deftly navigated the violent mood swings in Woolf’s writing: her expression was at turns confidential, mocking and snobbish, serene, or almost wailing in pain, but there was never a snag or a sharp corner to her singing. However,  I did feel the piece could have done even more to show off her virtuosity. The composer’s almost unwavering one-syllable/one-note approach gave the vocal part a conversational quality, but it also became a little monotonous and predictable.

NACO has been making more frequent forays into heavy-duty Nordic repertoire lately, with impressive results. In Sibelius’ Second Symphony, the orchestra continued to punch well above its weight.

There’s an irresistible energy and joy in Elts’ conducting style; he leaps about the podium, sweeping his arms and hands in enthusiastic but exquisitely clear, focused gestures. His gift for revealing inner structures gave the symphony a fresh, living dimensionality. Elts took full advantage of NACO’s hybrid chamber/symphonic sound, working at close range to produce a magical balance between sternum-rattling power and painterly detail and transparency.

Busoni’s Lustspiel Overture–a collection of witty musical impressions worthy of Jimmy Fallon–was playfully whipped to meringue-like consistency.

The concert repeats Thursday evening in Southam Hall.


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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.