A Winning Combination

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Today’s performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was a revelation on several counts. On the menu: Jacques Hetu: Le Tombeau de Nelligan, Op. 52; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major and Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in f minor. On the podium: audience favorite Maestro Peter Oundjian; at the piano, Anton Kuerti (replacing the ailing Helene Grimaud).

The program began with the 12-minute tone poem Le Tombeau de Nelligan by French Canadian composer Jacques Hetu. As Maestro Oundjian explained to the audience, this work had

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been a scheduled part of the DSO’s season for quite some time. However, the composer’s untimely passing in February of this year makes this weekend’s performances of his work (described by the composer as “the most characteristic of my style”) serve as something of an unintended memorial.

The music of Hetu is not well-known in this country and recordings are relatively scarce in general. If the rest of his oeuvre is anything like Le Tombeau, that situation will hopefully change. It should be pointed out that the title he chose has no direct connection with Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel; rather, it is a meditation on the tragic life of Emile Nelligan (1871-1941), a French-Canadian symbolist poet who is now revered as a cultural icon.

This piece is quite approachable musically. Hetu writes within a tonal context while eschewing traditional scales. While developing and transforming a somewhat angular theme, Hetu makes use of the full sonic power of the orchestra in occasional dramatic outbursts. However, the work closes quietly, enshrouded in mystery. The DSO under Maestro Oundjian gave a masterful performance, their first of any of Hetu’s music. I have heard this piece twice now and I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing it again this weekend.

Next on the program was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with soloist Anton Kuerti at the keyboard. Mr. Kuerti has recently toured in Europe and featured this concerto on his programs, so it was a happy coincidence that he was available to replace Ms. Grimaud.

From the very opening bars (where the piano enters unaccompanied), it was evident that this would be a great performance. Kuerti’s tone was limpid and silvery; even in bravura passages it was never harsh or brittle. A master musician, he was completely in the service of the music, never calling attention to himself. Maestro Oundjian led the DSO in sensitive partnership to Mr. Kuerti’s artistry. The effect of this perfect partnership was evident, with the audience bringing the soloist back for no fewer than three curtain calls.

The last work on today’s program was one that is frequently (and deservingly) referred to as one of the musical masterpieces of the 20th Century: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 in f minor. Written in the early 1930′s, this piece is quite unlike anything Vaughan Williams wrote either before or after. While Vaughan Williams had established himself by this point in his compositional career as a “romantic nationalist”, this work shows a different and hitherto unknown side of his musical personality. Written in f minor (the same key as his delightful Tuba Concerto), this compact, 30-minute work is angular, taut and dramatic. Some have theorized that Vaughan Williams’ WW I experiences as an ambulance driver may have contributed to the feel of this work, but the composer’s wife Ursula maintains (in her biography of RVW) that he was simply inspired by a singular paragraph from The [London] Times newspaper.

Whatever the inspiration, this rarely performed work is an absolute must-hear. In brief, a bristling first movement gives way to a second movement which, while calmer, is not quite peaceful. The third movement scherzo is simply amazing. I was especially impressed here by the rapid-fire passage work in the brass and winds and also the agility required on the part of the timpanist. In the trio section of the scherzo, however, RVW requests trombones and tuba to play “in elephantine fashion,” making for a fascinating contrast to the preceeding material. The scherzo leads directly into the finale, where the opening theme of the first movement makes a reappearance and where the tension continues unabated right up to the sudden, dramatic ending.

In conversations with musicians earlier this week I learned of the enormous technical challenges presented by this piece (the scherzo in particular), yet Maestro Oundjian and the DSOians turned in so rock-solid a performance that no hint of difficulty was ever apparent.

You have only two more chances to experience this winning combination (I’m not referring just to the repertoire, but also to Maestro Oundjian in his last DSO performance this season and also to Anton Kuerti’s performance with the DSO): Saturday night (April 10) at 8:30 and Sunday afternoon (April 11) at 3:00. Most highly recommended.

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