THE Manitoba Chamber Orchestra saved the best for last as it closed its 2013-14 season with one of the world's top living pianists.
Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin wowed the crowd Wednesday night with his rendition of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, KV 453, a three-movement, graceful work perfectly suited to showcasing the Montreal-born musician's sublime artistry.
The acclaimed, multi-award-winning artist marked his debut with the orchestra in 1991, and last appeared in January 2013. He continues to tour extensively and add to his eclectic canon of recorded works.
After taking the stage and immediately being met with loud cheers and applause -- and genuinely appearing surprised -- Hamelin launched into the work's opening Allegro that provided the first taste of his luminous tone and carefully nuanced phrasing. He always appears at ease and in supreme control -- seated this night, unusually, on one of the orchestra's padded chairs rather than on a piano bench.
His clearly executed ornamentation included light trills and persuasive appoggiaturas, with his renowned colour palette of sound ranging from whisper-soft notes to more forceful interpolations of thematic material during the first cadenza.
The second movement Andante reveals the melancholic underbelly of this work composed in 1784. Hamelin's deeply felt playing seemed to suspend time, with his gorgeous voicing of chords also showing us the inner structures of Mozart's harmonies. Hamelin's own composed cadenza proved particularly noteworthy, as he wove a spell of rich sonorities that ushered us into his own private soundworld.
MCO conductor Anne Manson kept things moving, avoiding the risk -- or frankly, temptation -- of gilding the lily with maudlin sentimentality. This allowed the central movement its proper place within the greater, contextual whole.
Then it became time for the Allegretto, with its buoyant theme forever linked to Mozart's beloved pet starling, which he allegedly taught its folksy melody. After the orchestra's jaunty introduction, Hamelin proceeded to toss off quicksilver runs, light-as air Alberti bass figuration and rippling arpeggios during the subsequent, fetching set of variations that steadily grow in technical complexity before its final, brilliant coda.
As expected, the capacity crowd of 900 leapt to its feet with a roaring standing ovation. As an encore, Hamelin performed the final Presto movement -- all 45 seconds total of it -- of Hadyn's Piano Sonata in A major, Hob XVI:26.
The program also included the world première of Winnipeg-born composer Glenn Buhr's Nature Vectors, inspired by the energy of the natural world. The well-crafted piece opens with ear-pleasing swirls of sound in the strings' upper-most registers, which gradually spirals downwards to lower depths.
Its second, richly textured section reflects "stasis" juxtaposed glassy harmonics with low strings. The final movement, depicting the rush of seasons, included bursts of piccolo birdsong, romantic sweeps of violins against buzzing cellos before ending on widely spaced harmonies evoking the starkness of cold winter.
Béla Bartòk's Divertimento for Strings rounded out the program, composed in 1939 just prior to the Hungarian composer fleeing his homeland for America. Greatest clarity came during the third movement's driving fugato, with the entire orchestra digging in hard to ultimately propel the work to its vivacious close.