Few guest conductors have made as much of an impression on the National Arts Centre Orchestra and its audience as the Estonian Eri Klas.
Ever since the sensational account he led of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony two seasons ago, his return visits have been highlights of each year.
Thus it's surprising that there were hundreds of empty seats in Southam Hall on Wednesday night when Klas conducted a program that included the Barber Cello Concerto and Dvorak's New World Symphony.
Of course it also included a Canadian work, Denis Gougeon's 1994 Primus Tempus. Still, it's hard to believe that many listeners would avoid a concert on account of 11 minutes of Canadian content, particularly since Gougeon's lovely ode to spring is a fairly established piece.
Established or not, it's unlikely that it is part of Klas's permanent repertoire. Thus his obvious comfort with and knowledge of the score was most impressive.
The resulting performance was probably as good as the work has ever received.
Even the presence of cello superstar Lynn Harrell playing one of the more popular concertos didn't do the trick. Of course, the Barber concerto isn't as well known as those of Dvorak or Haydn, but it's an eminently satisfying piece.
Harrell, Klas and the orchestra fashioned an entirely persuasive account of it. No, make that a fantastic account.
The first movement was unflaggingly animated and lucid in texture and structure. The cadenza was a special pleasure, but there was scarcely a moment when the playing wasn't special all around.
The justly beloved slow movement was exquisite and the finale was as thrilling as you're ever likely to hear.
Klas hasn't recorded much, citing his belief that "music is reborn every time that it is played and the emotions of the time are primary to the performance."
His performances of major repertoire bear that out. One comes away from them with the impression of having heard the music more thoroughly than ever before.
That was certainly the case with the New World Symphony. Admittedly there were a handful of technical blemishes and Klas made a few interpretative decisions that seemed a little off, until you heard where he was going. But it was a thrilling performance with the most exquisite balances and attention to detail.
And there was more to the beloved slow movement than Francine Schutzman's haunting English horn solo. The whole movement was so finely wrought as to take your breath away.
(Used with the permission of the author. Appeared first in The Ottawa Citizen, published Friday, November 02, 2007)
Guest conductor has superb performance