Symphony Nova Scotia with Angela Cheng, Piano

Thursday, November 3, 2016, Rebecca Cohn Auditorium

Andreas Delfs made an unusual programing choice on last week’s SNS Masterworks concert. The guest conductor (and perhaps Music Director candidate) followed the first half familiar overture/piano concerto format with four movements from two different works: Schubert’s great “Unfinished” (movements one and two) and Schumann’s Scherzo and Finale from his op. 52 work (we heard the first movement Overture on the first half). That was a long time to remember the Overture, given that there was the “interruption” of a fabulously played Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 1 that had the audience buzzing at the break.

All eyes were on Delfs as he conducted the Schumann Overture from memory, the orchestra sounding crisp and clean. After Maestro Gueller’s unique concert dress, (created by our own local arts seamstress extraordinaire, Mary Hill), it seems the exception rather than the rule to see a conductor onstage at the Cohn who is dressed in tails as Delfs was. He was sprightly and cheerful and the orchestra responsive to his light and no nonsense direction.

Then the Cohn staff wheeled on the Yamaha CFH concert grand piano provided by Doctor Piano, and Angela Cheng gave us a beautiful rendition of Beethoven’s great Piano Concerto no. 1 in C Major. Even with additional strings, the orchestra sounded more reigned in, with some amazing pianissimos and lots of contrast in dynamics. There was a great balance with the piano, making for an elegant classical “music box” sound. Delfs stuck to Cheng like glue. It was well played and well presented and didn’t feel more “grand” than it actually is. All was in balance, even the wonderful cadenza, without any sense of overplaying or playing simply for dramatic effect. The second movement was lovely and calm, like watching an elegant ballerina who you know won’t fall off her pointe. The themes were soft and simply stated, and really made us listen; in fact I’ve never heard a quieter audience at an SNS concert – a good night for everyone to leave the coughing at home! (Perhaps a Cohn first: Delfs asked us not to applaud between the two contrasting symphonies in the second half, and, gasp, no-one-did!)

Maestro Delfs never let orchestra overpower soloist in the third movement, his gestures neat and efficient. He paid special attention to the inner voices (e.g. 2nd violins), really allowing us to hear melodies from the clarinet and flute; it was like being at a supper table where the kids are made to wait to talk until each has finished speaking. That’s not to say there wasn’t excitement in the playing, but it was all in proportion, with a gracious Delfs looking slightly amused throughout.

When he explained what he had in mind with the programming for the second half (with a very funny exchange of imagined “letters” between the two composers read by Delfs and Principal Bass, Max Kasper), we got a little glimpse of the man behind the music. If you weren’t there, I can tell you, he’s got the gift of the gab. He’s witty, he’s comfortable speaking to audiences, and perhaps it’s his cheerful and no nonsense tone, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the late comedian Danny Kaye as I listened to him explaining the reason he wanted to play these two works in succession. It was a rather bold for a Music Director candidate (if, that is in fact what he is), and in the Q&A that followed the concert, he spoke confidently and gave very straightforward responses to questions from the audience. He doesn’t appear to suffer fools lightly, and he seems very much his own man.

Again conducting from memory, Delfs danced on the podium more in the second half, as the gorgeousness of the Schubert unfolded. Of course, it’s impossible for some of us to hear SNS play the theme without thinking that the late great Georg Tintner is hovering in the hall.   I can still hear him singing to school kids, “This tune is beautiful, and very easy to remember.” Perhaps Delfs took it a bit faster than Tintner, but it was beautifully played, with big contrasts in the dramatic moments.   I liked his singing style – he embraced the piece without every letting go of his idea of it from beginning to end.

There was a lot of balancing going on in the Schumann too – more beautiful pianissimos allowed the clarinet and oboe to softly shimmer on top of the strings. Using all of the orchestra fully, Delfs really painted a portrait for us, and it felt like the orchestra liked it. No one was too loud (looking at you, brass players), and it was such an enjoyable evening. Not sure I fully appreciated his connection between these two unfinished works, but then the Schubert always leaves me so gob-smacked.

Following the concert there was a Q&A. Unfortunately much of the audience had left, so they missed learning more about the Maestro and Ms. Cheng (who said that her mother encouraged her as a child to do whatever she wanted, including playing the piano, and that she is not a “tiger mom”). Delfs likened the coming together of conductor and soloist to “speed dating,” and said that he and Angela Cheng would definitely be dating again. You can have a listen to some of the chat below.

So, we are in a season of guest conductors, any one of whom could be a potential new music director for our beloved band. Too soon to call it, (who will make any predictions again after the American election?!) But, I will say that a little bird told me that Delfs has “ears in the back of his head,” and that his rehearsal technique is very efficient.

But is he good for choirs? SNS CEO Chris Wilkinson confirmed that Delfs loves Mahler, so perhaps that bodes well.

Maybe we all need to come up with our Music Director wish list, so here’s the start of mine.

We don’t always get what we want, and thinking of Maestro Gueller leaving will be “painful for a long time” (to quote Hillary Clinton), but what the heck, one can dream, right?

SNS Music Director Wish List (No. 1):

  • Musical, great conducting, respectful to all musicians, interested in audience development;
  • Must love choral music and want to program lots of it;
  • Great communicator;
  • Likes to record and work with Canadian soloists;
  • Must be willing to spend a lot of time in Halifax, preferably living here;
  • Good people person who wants to get out and meet us, and connect with the artists and arts community of Nova Scotia.

Well, that actually sounds a lot like what we have right now.  Sigh.

Pianist Angela Cheng discusses Beethoven cadenzas following the SNS concert.

Guest conductor Andreas Delfs talks about programming and his “blind date” with soloist Angela Cheng.



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