César Franck’s first and only symphony is an undeniably passionate piece, built on an intense interplay of thematic material. It was performed last weekend by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, alongside a seemingly similar work by Mendelssohn. However, the two pieces are almost opposite in temperament: where Franck contrasts between the melancholy and the brash, Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto is cheerful and civilized. Mendelssohn’s forays into drama – a brass fanfare or plunge into percussive lower register – are more like interludes for interest.
Ilya Yakushev handled Mendelssohn with an exquisite lightness. His demeanor reflected the style. He was sweet and a bit goofy, sending the occasional smile to the audience. The kind of furrowed-brow soloist the audience gets used to is not without its benefits, but would not have suited the piece. Instead Yakushev was delicate, playing with ease and yet with a carefulness that was most affecting in the second movement. Very soft, almost without orchestra, he made each gesture sound like the most natural thing, as though the piano were playing itself.
Franck’s symphony was a different kettle of fish. From the silence before the first sound, conductor Mei-Ann Chen girded the loins of the whole room. Mendelssohn had begun with a powerful flourish, then relaxed into playfulness. Franck did the opposite. Growing from nothing, steadily building in tension, the symphony felt like a fast-approaching explosion. Chen was dynamite. “Intensity, precision and a thorough knowledge of the score – Chen was a wonderful, full and delectable musical package to behold,” said Petar Dundjerski, conductor of Edmonton’s University Symphony Orchestra. She used the whole podium, wringing expression out of the symphony as she crouched and leapt. Her whole body seemed to be pushing the piece forward, from standing on her toes to her outstretched arms. Yet she was clear and precise. Her shoulders and elbows were loose, giving her great flexibility of motion. Somehow, she did not fall moderately between the spectrums of technique and expression, but rather conjoined them. She brought out a theme, then a countertheme, then wove them together again and again, as Franck’s elaborate composition demanded. In the folksy, guitar-like opening of the second movement, the strings and harp plucked with a brighter energy than the melancholy wind themes or the enormous climaxes, but nonetheless with great energy. The piece lacked nothing – exciting composition, vibrant orchestra, expressive solos, and most of all a brilliant conductor.