By Hugh Fraser
HAMILTON - It happens from time to time although, come to think of it, not all that often.
It's that muffled roary whoosh at the end of a piece of music. It tells you that the audience has been holding its breath in awed amazement and can finally expel the pent up air. Soon, of course, it turns into shouts of Bravo, Brava or Bravi depending on circumstances. “Encore” is another favourite. Then a small clump rise while shouting and applauding, which draws another clump to its feet across the aisle and soon the whole lot of them are banging away and yelling to beat the band.
That's exactly what happened as the young (everything's young to me except water and dirt) Russian (Moldovian) pianist Alexei Gulenco brought a grand piano back to earth on the stage of Mohawk College's concert hall after a sparkling flight through Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto.
In the true Russian pianistic tradition Gulenco took absolutely no guff at all from what seemed, at first, a rather dull instrument and soon had it singing. Bits I had felt were tacked on for effect seemed apt and unified and it really was a very satisfying performance indeed.
And that orchestra! I kept having to count the strings to make sure it wasn't double the size, because what I was hearing was double the size. Brott proved, as he effortlessly does, that he is the complete accompanist.
Then Rachmaninoff's date, Tchaikovsky – the Festival billed the concert as Rocky 3 Meets Tchaikovsky -- showed up with his Fifth Symphony.
Brott split the work in half with his apprentice conductor Genevieve Leclair. Leclair took the first two movements, while Brott took the Valse and Finale. I must say it is a tribute to Brott's command of the podium that he voluntarily followed such a brilliant student.
Leclair drew an absolutely ravishing performance from the National Academy Orchestra and the Andante cantabile sang and danced like a choir of angels and cherubim. The electricity crackled when Brott took over and what a brass section! They could have called the cattle home from across the Pacific ocean let alone the Sands of Dee and yet it was all balanced.
That huge string sound - most startlingly from the lower strings - had my ears calling my eyes foolish. The woodwinds too were magnificent - clarinets, oboes, flutes and bassoons all played their parts to great avail, which is I suppose a little silly to mention, as it is as an orchestra - a very, very fine one - that the NAO excels and I am not going to omit the drums from my praise.
Apprentice conductor Samuel Tak-Ho Tam opened the concert with Jordan Pal's On The Double: Concert Overture for Orchestra. Pal, a composer for the concert hall and film, had a thesaurus of contemporary musical language for us to interpret and its fragments bustled about pushing each other out of the way before each had the space to really establish itself. There so much that was attractive and I would love to see him expand this work to let the contrapuntal, as well as the other "bits" develop into what they clearly could become.
Tam organized everything with brisk efficiency and sensitivity.