A shiny black Steinway leading an entire orchestra is quite irresistible to me, so whenever I see a piano + orchestra show, I leap at the opportunity to put on a pretty dress and soak in the music. Last night was no exception. I headed to the National Arts Centre for “Emanuel Ax & Mozart” but ended up being swept away by another master entirely.
Emanuel Ax performed Richard Strauss’ “Burleske in D minor for Piano and Orchestra”, conducted Jayce Ogren and it was pure magic. The combination of strength, passion, gentleness, and charm was irresistible.
There were stunningly Liszt-like virtuosic sections – sparkling champagne bubbles trilling off the keys. These incredible piano flourishes were were underscored by strength and rootedness so it did not float off into the atmosphere, which was a testament to Ax’ mastery. Never excessively flashy, his fingers hardly left the keys, just easily gliding across the keys without scrambling. Every note was placed perfectly, brilliantly.
Then there were thunderous, passionate sections, showcasing the power of the orchestra, and then, almost without notice, you would be swept into the most beguilingly sweet lyrical section that flowed seamlessly from the thunderous passion. These moments of gentle emotion stole my breath away.
And if that were not enough, there were patches of whimsy sprinkled throughout. Extended pizzicato sections in the strings, or times when the timpani were carrying the melody and would throw it over to the low brass for a note or two before taking it back, then lobbing the theme back to the piano. There were dainty, wispy themes that danced just long enough to spread sparkles of light in my heart and tiny smiles to my face. This playfulness was so charming and affecting.
I think part of the reasons for why this piece was so striking was that it reflected and validated my emotional state in the most elegant way. It seamlessly merged joy, passion, fun, sadness, melancholy, longing, and strength into a beautiful, coherent work. In contrast to many orchestral works, which segregate each dominant emotion into a theme – an upbeat allegro, followed by a slow, emotional adagio or largo, followed by a lilting, playful scherzo, and culminating in a thunderous, vivacious rondo, Strauss constantly shifted between emotions in a way that was elegant without being volatile, jarring, or shocking. It beautifully illustrated that myriad emotions coexist in every moment of time and the gentle waves of thought can draw one or another to the surface. And it is all OK. Each emotion has its place because they are all allowed to exist.
All this and more in 19 minutes. Bravo and bravi!