Review: Stasevska, Chooi shine in evening of Russian classics

Guest conductor Dalia Stasevska made an strong impression in NAC debut.

For Halloween week, NACO put together a program with ample treats and a sly trick for the audience.

The “trick” came in the form of the rarely heard original version of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Those expecting to hear Rimsky-Korsakov’s familiar, standard orchestration would have been surprised by the thumping, clanging percussion and noticeably different themes in Mussorgsky’s first attempt. The score’s raw energy evokes the chaos of a demonic gathering, wilder and, dare I say it, spookier than later, slicker revisions.

Guest conductor Dalia Stasevska made an immediately favourable impression with her precise, intense, full-body-contact approach. Another self-assured young star coming out of Finland’s remarkable conducting factory, she brings together passionate, authentic emotion and forceful intellectual clarity in one compact package.

Stasevska’s abundant talents delivered one of the best performances of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony I’ve heard: fresh, clear, urgent, completely faithful to the score and the composer’s intent. Tempi were bracing and balletic. The 5/4 second movement glided through the hall with ballroom grace and she kept driving the impulsion forward throughout the sobbing finale, where so many conductors tend to drag their feet.

There was tragedy in Stasevska’s interpretation, but also some sense of a composer who was still fighting against a black tide of despair (Tchaikovsky died of cholera just nine days after the symphony’s premiere; myths still circulate that it was a suicide).

The orchestra seemed inspired by Stasevska’s charismatic communication and played magnificently, particularly the woodwinds, horn section, and double basses.

Timothy Chooi. Photo: Den Sweeney

Before the intermission, 25-year-old Canadian violin sensation Timothy Chooi gave an enchanting, eloquent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Beyond sheer technical facility, Chooi produces an exceptionally beautiful, singing sound on his Canada Council Strad, achieving exquisite, floating pianissimi in the first movement cadenza. His phrasing and musicality are sensitive but never sentimental; and he seems to have a healthy allergy to excessive use of portamento and rubato. In fact, there were one or two places where I wished he would have lingered and luxuriated in the music a little more.

I almost never comment on what artists, especially women, are wearing, but instead of the usual black suit or tux jacket Stasevska wore a stunning, Paul Poiret-meets-Turandot silk robe, sumptuously embroidered on the back with vines of flowers and a phoenix. The effect was so elegant that I wouldn’t mind if it became the uniform for all conductors, regardless of gender.

This concert repeats Halloween 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.