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‘Bach to Basics’ satisfying end to symphony season in Duncan

It featured the brilliant piano playing of Angela Hewitt
Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, one of the world’s premier concert artists, performs in London in 2016. She featured in a March 4 concert of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra in Duncan. (Keith Saunders photo)

By Michel D. Mills

The concert brought to us on Saturday, March 4 by the Cowichan Symphony Society was a complete contrast to the February concert. It featured the brilliant piano playing of Angela Hewitt and the string players of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra led by Terence Tam but conducted by Miss Hewitt from the keyboard.

The evening consisted of four Concerti for Piano and Orchestra and one Trio Concerto for Violin, Piano and Flute all by J.S Bach. As a result, this was an evening of Baroque music which is one of the many skills of Hewitt. Like Baroque architecture, Baroque music is flamboyant but with a more subtle way of adding the frills and maybe even excesses of the Baroque style.

The five concerti all in three movements featuring a fast-slow-fast sequence had often had the slow movement in the form of a dance which would have been familiar to audiences in the time of Bach. The big difference for us today is that the harpsichord for which Bach wrote them has been replaced by the more versatile piano. This allowed Hewitt to display all her virtuosity. The Fazioli piano which had been supplied by Showcase pianos from Vancouver was very familiar to Hewitt and she really made it sing.

The first piece played was ‘Keyboard Concerto No. 4’ which kicked the concert off to a good start with the piano soaring above the strings in a performance in the first and third movements which highlighted the skills of the pianist. The slow Larghetto second movement was like the lull between two storms and was heartbreakingly beautiful.

Next came ‘Concerto No. 2’ which followed much the same pattern as the 4th we had just heard. At all times there could be no doubt that the piano was there to bring true Baroque glitter to the piece. This time the slow second movement was a stately Siciliano or pastoral dance which allowed the strings of the orchestra to shine through.

Then we heard ‘Concerto No. 5’ which varied from the first two by having the second movement played in pizzicato by the strings. This was the only time I felt that the balance between the piano and the strings was out of line because I could hardly hear the strings for the dominance of the piano.

After the intermission the concert continued with the triple concerto for piano, violin and flute. The soloist on the violin was Terence Tam, the concert master of the VSO and a long-time favourite of the Duncan audience. The flute soloist was the VSO’s principle flutist Arin Sarkissian. Born in Toronto, Sarkissian has played with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and is the winner of several competitions for young musicians. While he is clearly a talented musician and I look forward to getting to know him I found that he was overpowered by the piano and the strings and I could hardly hear him. This was another occasion when I think Hewitt should have directed the strings to play more softly.

The last concerto was ‘No. 7’ and it followed much the same pattern as the first three concerti we had just heard. The first and third movements were fast the second movement a lyrical andante. In fact the third movement was marked “allegro assai” or “fast enough”; in fact it was almost as fast as possible as Hewitt’s fingers positively flew over the keyboard. Then the audience leapt to their feet and demanded an encore. Hewitt obliged by replaying the adagio from ‘Concerto No. 5.’

I was amazed by the fact that Hewitt not only played all five concerti with great brilliance but without music. She has a phenomenal memory, as several people commented as I was leaving the theatre. Of course, in her long career Hewitt has developed a strong association with the music of Bach and won several prizes playing it. Possibly this is helped by the fact that most of the music we heard as concerti that night has been heard in other Bach pieces, from which he borrowed. He borrowed even from Telemann, a composer that he admired.

No matter where Bach borrowed the music from, this was a satisfyingly classical concert to end the season. I look forward to the 2023/24 season of four concerts, three of which will be held in the gem of a theatre in Brentwood College School, as the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre is not available on the dates that the Victoria Symphony is able to come to Duncan. More details about the concerts will be published later in the spring.

Michel D. Mills is a director with the Cowichan Symphony Society.