In the wake of St. Valentine's Day, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's latest Masterworks concert showcased one of the most romantic ballet scores ever penned, plus a real Canadian sweetheart.
Friday night's aptly titled concert Cheng Plays Mozart, led by Alexander Mickelthwate, featured guest pianist Angela Cheng performing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503. Notably, the internationally renowned artist last performed the gracious work with the WSO in 1994, under the baton of Bramwell Tovey.
The Hong Kong-born, Edmonton-raised pianist has garnered multiple awards for her virtuosic technique and luminous artistry, including the 1986 Gold Medal for the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition, and first prize at the Montreal International Music Competition in 1988. Cheng is also a founding member of ensemble Piano Six that brought classical music to remote/rural communities during the mid-1990s.
With Cheng's extensive repertoire spanning Albeniz to Turina, Mozart is arguably the composer closest to Cheng's heart. Indeed, her debut recording with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, led by Mario Bernardi, featured two of the Wunderkind's concerti. This is music to (mostly) express, not merely impress, and she has played it for a lifetime.
The opening Allegro maestoso immediately showcased Cheng's sparkling runs and rhythmic vitality. Her projected tone reached the very back of the hall, particularly during the militaristic, secondary theme that evokes the mighty Marseillaise. At times, her instrument had to fight the orchestra's tempi, creating some overall unevenness until her fiery solo cadenza in which we were provided with a real taste of her bravura.
Cheng spun her own lyrical thread of gold during the following Andante. However, more sweetness was needed. Ironically, the concerto's most tender moments -- and Mozart's music aches with them -- came not through the piano, but la WSO principals, oboist Bede Hanley and flutist Jan Kocman's solo passages during the Allegretto. Still, Cheng's clearly articulated playing, and strong conviction with every note tidily in place led to a standing ovation with two curtain calls.
Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev experienced his own tale of woe in getting his imaginative ballet score for Romeo and Juliet staged. Originally composed in 1935 for the fabled Kirov Ballet, it was deemed too modernistic at that time. "Plan B" -- namely, the legendary Bolshoi -- also shied away for similar reasons. Consequently, Prokofiev arranged the work's 52 excerpts into two concert suites, which received their Moscow debuts in 1936 and 1937, respectively, with Czechoslovakia's Brno Opera finally premiering the work as a ballet the following year.
The epic work that musically depicts the star-crossed lover's tale is its own study in contrasts. It also raises significant challenges in how to segue from one disparate section to the next. Some fared better, such as the boisterous Minuet: Arrival of the Guests, as well as Young Juliet that bristled with the energy of youth. However, Montagues and Capulets felt more pomp than circumstance, with its contrasting central section nearly dying of its own sluggish death.
The concert repeats tonight, 8 p.m., at the Centennial Concert Hall.
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Masterworks
Friday, Feb. 15
3 1/2 stars out of five