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Calgary Philharmonic: “Orchestra brings A-game to all-Russian program”

“It was slightly less than a year ago that conductor Justin Brown made his debut in Calgary in a program that I found impressive. And thus it was with anticipation that I attended the CPO’s Showcase Series concert at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Friday with Brown as the conductor, and with the highly regarded Konstantin Shamray as the solo pianist. It was nice not to be disappointed.

On this occasion it was an all-Russian program devoted to two principal works: the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Prokofiev, and the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky. A short orchestral piece called Story of an Impossible Love by the Russian-born Elena Langer fleshed out the attractively chosen program.

Shamray has played in Calgary before with the Calgary Youth Orchestra, but this was his first appearance with the CPO — and an impressive appearance it was. A pianist in the barn-storming Russian tradition, Shamray is also a pianist of sensitivity and refinement. And there is hardly a better piece to show off a pianist’s chops than the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2.

From the lyrical opening to the stupendously difficult solos in the middle of the concerto, Shamray had the full measure of this piece, his technique completely equal to the challenges of strength, agility, and projection, and also with a delicate poetry in the softer passages. He has a commanding, easy stage presence that inspires confidence. The listener only needs to settle back and enjoy: one is clearly in the presence of an artist who can deliver the goods.

The concerto also contains a complex orchestral part, and there are many challenges of ensemble. But Brown was able to guide the combined forces to a convincing, well-blended account of the orchestral element to produce a powerfully-conceived performance of this attractive, crowd-pleasing work.

However, from an audience point of view nothing beats the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 in its direct appeal. This is the work that the orchestra took on it European tour some years ago, and a piece fully in the repertoire of the players. The benefit of this was evident in one of the cleanest performances of the symphony I have heard live. All sections of the orchestra brought their A game to this performance, but none more than the brass, whose tight, focused sound and sheer brilliance were impressive.

Although it is not exactly a solo part, the trumpet is crucial here, and first trumpet Adam Zinatelli was like a steel girder through the texture — the source the symphony’s sonic backbone. The horns too were clean and strong in their famous opening and again in the final pages of the work.

While this was certainly a graphic account of the symphony, it was, overall, more marked by a certain lithe, sprung quality rather than the weighted sound one sometimes hears in Tchaikovsky symphonies. This was, I think, principally the concept of Brown, who favoured faster-than-usual tempos, especially in the second and third movements. With such a conception, the music came across as less sentimental than it sometimes does, the lyricism of the music clearly present, but without emotional self-indulgence.

If one can deliver the notes accurately, and at speed, the finale almost plays itself, and it was here that the virtuosity of the orchestra was on full display, from the brilliance of the runs in the strings, to the plangent sounds of the woodwinds, to the forceful brass. In short, it was terrific.

As mentioned, the program opened with Langer’s impressionist-sounding Story of an Impossible Love, a more-than-usually attractive work, with fine solos (and well played) for the violin and oboe. Langer clearly has an individual musical voice and the ability to write imaginatively for orchestra. I hope we will be able to hear more of her music in the future.”

Kenneth Delong, Calgary Herald, March 25, 2017

Calgary Philharmonic Debut, 2016

“The last few Classic Masterworks series of concerts by the CPO have been exceptionally fine, measured by any standard. And Friday night’s program, featuring Berlioz’s iconic Symphonie fantastique, continued the run.

Guest conductor Justin Brown, an English-born conductor now working in Germany, was on hand to lead the orchestra. Now in early mid-career, Brown has an enviable track record, and why this should be so was more than evident in his conducting of this very difficult program.

If one were to ask: How was his conducting of the Symphonie?, one would have to say—well, fantastique. There are a great many challenges to anyone conducting this piece: the tempos have to be flexible, yet have a certain backbone; the rhythm is complex; and the orchestration, brilliant almost to a fault, requires much care in matters of balance and refinement.

Brown was equal to all of these things and more, his expressive, yet clear, conducting guiding the orchestra to one of its finest achievements of the season. Brown presented a very clear conception of the work, one that ranged from in the inward complexities of the opening movement, to the dash of the famous waltz movement (played to death on the CBC) and most impressively in the pastoral-inflected slow movement and hellish finale.

As wonderful and impressive as the finale was, with some excellent witch-like cackle from Jocelyn Colquhoun’s E-flat clarinet and tight brass licks, it was the slow movement that was the most impressive on this occasion, the infinite variety of Berlioz’s orchestral colours shining iridescently.  And for those who enjoy the sound of the orchestra a grand noise-maker, there were moments of in-the-face orchestral testosterone-charged blasts, especially in the fourth and final movements.

At all times, the CPO gave of its best in a willing way, the orchestra responding to the conductor, the playing clean even in the most difficult passages, and the ensemble remarkably precise. It was a moment to savour great orchestral playing.

While the playing was less demonstrative in the Mozart Sinfonia concertante, it was no less refined and polished. On hand to perform the solo element were concertmistress Diana Cohen and first viola Laurent Grillet-Kim, both of whom played remarkably well. I haven’t heard Grillet-kim in a solo capacity before, and this was indeed a star turn, with his sound beautifully clear and the music excellent shaped. Cohen, too, was impressive, perhaps rather more than on previous occasions, especially in the projection of a rich, well-focused sound. Musically, she and her partner clearly shared similar ideas about how the music should go—all out of the top drawer as a performance.

The orchestral part was performed in subtle way and did not overwhelm. Again, Brown was at the centre of the proceedings, shaping the music with a sure, understanding hand.”

Kenneth Delong, Calgary Herald, April 30, 2016

Mainly Mozart Orchestra Debut

“Before conducting Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony on Saturday’s concluding Mainly Mozart Festival concert at the Balboa Theatre, conductor Justin Brown told the near-capacity audience the Beethoven Fourth was his favorite symphony. You couldn’t help thinking, what about 3, 9, 5, 6 and 7? For most concertgoers, the Fourth is their sixth favorite Beethoven Symphony, if they’ve even heard the Fourth Symphony. But after hearing Brown and the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra perform the Fourth, you had to wonder why the Fourth wasn’t everybody’s favorite Beethoven symphony.

In an impressive guest-conducting debut with Mainly Mozart, Brown prompted a life-affirming interpretation of the Fourth that was full of joy and high spirits. But more than that, under Brown’s baton it was also a model of nuance and precision. At times, he had the orchestra playing very softly, but without any loss of certainty or presence, and at other times, he opened things up. The Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra is essentially a chamber orchestra, but the full, rich sound they produced was larger than the sum of the individual players. Brown was equally convincing in Kodaly’s “Summer Evening” that opened the program and the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20, with pianist Shai Wosner, that followed.

Among the most telling aspects of Brown’s conducting is his command of musical styles. He brought an idiomatic approach to the Kodaly, which is nearly a study in Hungarian folk music. And in the Mozart concerto, he set clear parameters for the orchestra as regards Mozart’s style. As good as this year’s Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra performances have been, some conductors have found it hard to resist the temptation to play Mozart as if he’s Beethoven. But not Brown, and not Wosner, who was equally impressive in an elegant, polished performance of the concerto. This was not a case of Brown or Wosner accommodating each other. They were both on exactly the same page, as was the orchestra, as their shared commitment to clarity and transparency enlivened and energized the music. It was as if you could hear everything, whether some secondary viola line or a bassoon obbligato. Wosner’s playing sounded effortless (as did the orchestra’s), and his approach so convincing it seemed inevitable. Even in the first movement cadenza, which was written later by Beethoven, Wosner managed to stay in bounds.

Because the Mozart concerto sounded like Mozart, when the second half Beethoven symphony arrived, it was all the more compelling as the concerto had set it up, rather than competed with it. In the Beethoven, Brown’s gestures were larger, the orchestra’s sound bigger, the melodic lines longer and the musical narrative more dramatic, but Brown also had his limits. Even at the top dynamic level the ensemble reached in the Beethoven, there was no stridency, no bombast. The tone in the strings and also the winds, still had a rounded, rather than edgy, quality. In the fourth movement of the Beethoven, Brown all but ignored the “ma non troppo” (“not too much”) in the tempo marking “Allegro ma non troppo,” except in the movement’s more relaxed interludes. But Brown can be excused, given that Beethoven put a seemingly contradictory metronome indication on the fourth movement that at a half note equals 80 beats a minute, is also considerably faster than Allegro ma non troppo. The rhythmic verve, the dynamic contrasts, the interaction between the sections of the orchestra, and the ensemble cohesion that Brown, the orchestra and its concertmaster William Preucil brought to the Beethoven were thrilling, as was the music. In fact, it is my new favorite symphony.”

James Chute, U-T San Diego, 6.22.14

Columbus Symphony Orchestra Debut

“Tonight’s concert of the Columbus Symphony showcased exciting performances of compositions by Kurt Schwertsik and Mozart alongside Schumann’s Second Symphony, all under the collaborative leadership of British pianist and conductor Justin Brown… Conducting from the piano, Brown achieved the best of both worlds through his approach to Mozart’s music: an all-encompassing grasp of every artistic nuance within an overall aesthetic devoid of fussiness… In the first movement, Allegro, there was a nice lightness in the orchestra… In Brown’s hands, the opening solo piano melody of the second movement, Larghetto, was lovely in its simplicity and rich in subtlety. The orchestra followed suit in delicate accompaniment in the strings and lovely wind melodies. The third movement, Rondo, giggled along at a jaunty tempo and sparkled with Brown’s solo piano passagework. …Under Brown’s leadership the orchestra’s performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 veritably sizzled. The first movement, in an especially intense approach, was thrilling from beginning to end… In the finale, Brown led the orchestra … with masterful control in a spirit of freedom.”

– Jennifer Hambrick, The Columbus Dispatch, 3.1.14

On Brahms’ First Symphony: Grand Rapids Symphony Debut

“Brown’s podium performance was impressive, at times electrifying. Frequently he sifted through inner voices to find things worth exposing. Often he pushed the performance forward. Always he took a singer’s approach to leading the string section… Brown knows the Brahms [First Symphony] through and through. He conducted it from memory. Brown took his time, crafting slow buildups of tension in the first movement, allowing a plush sound to develop in the second, giving it a little more gas in the third. Even in the fourth movement, Brown gave understatement free reign for a while, plumbing the darker passages. After more than a half hour of stirring the cauldron, he cast the spell with a finale that inspired an immediate standing ovation.”
– Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, MLive/Grand Rapids Press, 1.11.14

On Bruckner: Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe

“The Badische Staatskapelle ended its concert season with a moving concert experience of the first order. World star violinist Gidon Kremer was the soloist in Alfred Schnittke’s 4th Violin Concerto, while Justin Brown offered an enthralling interpretation of the unfinished 9th Symphony of Anton Bruckner. In is Karlsruhe concert programs, not least this one, Brown lays more emphasis on the inner cohesion of the single evening than on cross-concert cycles. Nevertheless Bruckner’s Ninth here formed part of a three-part series encompassing the great ninth symphonies of the musical canon, for two years ago came Mahler’s Ninth, fortunately available on a live CD, and then last year the Ninth of Beethoven, part of the celebrations of the Orchestra’s 350th Jubilee. The present Bruckner interpretation was a fitting conclusion to the season, Justin Brown offered a highly dramatic Bruckner, full of energy and tension, its relatively flowing tempi freeing the tremendous symphonic eruptions from any danger of pseudo-religiosity. Brown conducted a penetrating and finely detailed rendition of the score, always allowing the crucial voices and structural pillars their full worth.”

– Karl Georg Berg, Die Rheinpfalz, 7.19.13

Colorado Symphony Orchestra Debut

“The Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Brown were sensational…it was so refreshing Friday evening to see and sense the feeling of mutual respect between Maestro Brown and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. …Brown is a remarkable conductor, and listening to the orchestra perform under him, and watching their reaction to him and his reaction to them, immediately made me sense that there was strong admiration exchanged. … It has been quite a while since I have heard and seen the CSO perform with… an absolute joy in what they were doing. This was absolutely a world-class performance.”

—Robin McNeil, Opus Colorado, 1-26-13

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Debut

“Leading the orchestra, Brown matched [Fliter’s] lightness of spirit and was a fine partner. It’s too bad that only a sparse crowd heard this performance, but those who came leaped to their feet in approval. The conductor is music director laureate of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and is currently the general music director of the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, Germany… Rachmaninoff’s lush and melodic Symphonic Dances offered a satisfying close to the program. Brown …led authoritatively and his expressive powers communicated to the listener…”

– Janelle Gelfend, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1-5-13

“Justin Brown conducted the Britten with gravitas and imagination, eliciting superb work from the CSO… Maestro Brown embraced the [Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances] with passion and magisterial command of its rhythmic and orchestral intricacies, bringing the evening to a rousing climax…”

– Rafael de Acha, Seen and Heard International, 1-5-13

“Standing before them was an exceptional conductor, English-born Justin Brown in his CSO debut… Brown… led with precision and depth, drawing every ounce of meaning from the score: the foreboding of the Lacrymosa, the horror of the Dies Irae and the gentle resignation of the Requiem Aeternam… As in the Britten, Brown’s interpretive and communicative skills were well represented [in the Rachmaninoff], manifest in eloquent use of his left hand and scrupulous attention to detail.”

– Mary Ellen Hutton, Music in Cincinnati, 1-5-13

On Schonberg’s ‘Gurrelieder’ with the Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe

“The Badische Staatskapelle under the direction of conductor Justin Brown surpassed itself… Brown did not merely indulge in coloristic virtuosity, but rather emphasized the monumental work’s proximity to opera. He repeatedly drove the music forward, building momentum in ever-increasing waves and thereby achieving a thrilling intensity… The Badische Staatskapelle gave its audience an extraordinary gift to be remembered.”

– Tobias Pfleger, Klassik.com, 12.16.12

“Justin Brown and his musicians gave a stunning performance… The Badische Staatskapelle lived up to their reputation as a top-notch orchestra.”

– Martin Roeber, Deutsche Presse Agentur, 12.17.12

“A delicate and airy sound texture, big lyrical arias, drama in the best Wagnerian tradition and monumentally escalating martial action: the performance developed overpowering traction that was both dazzling and convincing.

– Birgitta Schmid, BNN, 12.17.12

“What Justin Brown accomplished in terms of the culture and richness of sound, virtuosic playing technique and transformative power in sound and expression in Schönberg’s Gurrelieder was, in the truest sense of the word, the crowning event of the festival year… From the first note onward, Justin Brown made chamber music and let Schönberg’s Jugendstil opus blossom … Brown offered a universe of refined musical expressions and a moving performance of Schönberg’s powerful epic of love and death, night and light.”

—Karl Georg Berg, Die Rheinpfalz, 12.18.12

Carnegie Hall Debut

“Having heard the Alabama perform the Eroica in 2007, I was not surprised by the quality of their Beethoven Seventh, although perhaps others were. This was Justin Brown’s Carnegie Hall debut, and it was long overdue.”

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, 5.11.12

“On Thursday, the Alabama Symphony (under the direction of Justin Brown) opened their concert with a fascinating new piece by Avner Dorman called Astrolatry (I’m eager to see the score) and closed it with an incredibly insightful reading of a piece I thought I had heard enough times not to be surprised by, the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven.”

Frank J. Oteri, New Music Box, 5.14.12

“Mr. Brown and his players gave a lean, fleet and infectious account of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Mr. Brown will stay on in a laureate position while the orchestra searches for a music director. That directorship now looks like a good opportunity.”

Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 5.11.12

“The ASO exemplified ‘Dixie chuzpah’ in scheduling Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. And under their British Maestro, Justin Brown, it was a peppy… electrifying performance… The finale was as fine as anything I’ve heard here in a long time…. Mr. Brown knew how to achieve divine laughter with force, urgency and a compression of emotions.”

Harry Rolnick, ConcertoNet.com, 5.11.12

“To hear this finely honed ensemble in much different and larger surroundings reflected on its versatility and adaptability. They are attributes that Music Director Justin Brown has honed in the past six seasons, and that have contributed to its recognition as an adventurous orchestra. Of the six concerts on the 2012 Spring for Music festival…this was the only one to venture earlier than the 20th century. Nearly a century earlier, in fact, with Beethoven. It gave the festival needed depth. This is not, after all, a symposium of 20th and 21st century music. It is a showcase of the orchestras’ strengths. For ASO, that includes Beethoven as well as the moderns…. Brown’s ability to shape dynamics and bring out accents at just the right places is uncanny, but there were occasions where his arms fall to his side, attesting to the orchestra’s ability to carry this music on their own… Standing ovations have become all too commonplace, but the quickness and spontaneity of this one, not only from the home crowd but from the more than 1,700 in attendance, was especially momentous for ASO’s Carnegie Hall debut.”

Michael Huebner, The Birmingham News, 5.11.12

On Mahler Symphony No. 9 with the Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe

“Exactly two months after the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death, the Badische Staatskapelle and its General Music Director Justin Brown paid tribute to the composer in its Symphony Concert series. Both with regards to the interpretive profile and the orchestral direction… the performance of the Ninth Symphony was simply sensational… Justin Brown not only presented a reading that followed very closely the dictates of Mahler’s score : his entire interpretation got to the heart of this symphony in a profoundly compelling and touching manner. It was an unparalleled Mahler experience.”

Die Rheinpfalz, 7.22.2011, Karl Georg Berg

On the Seventh Symphony Concert of the Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe, 2011

“Justin Brown showed himself to be an exquisite conductor of Mozart who through fluent movement and subtle articulation gave dazzling form to the score, particularly in the Andante movement. This rendition was teeming with inner life and rhythmic tension, rich in dynamic nuances and spirited dialogues… Justin Brown’s Mozart is animated, in the fullest sense of the word, not by any academically interpreted historical performance practice; it is of today. He is also contemporary and stylistically confident in his deliberate departure from conventional romanticized stylistic devices. (…)With the Badische Staatskapelle, Justin Brown offered internally animated and tonally brilliant renditions of Hindemith’s rarely performed concert suite from the ballet Noblissima Visione, on the life of the holy St Francis of Assisi, and the Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber…. With the orchestra in good form in all departments, the conductor succeeded in realizing the compositionally masterful and artfully written music in a very sensual, yet also structurally transparent manner.”

Die Rheinpfalz, 6.25.2011, Karl Georg Berg

Alabama Symphony Orchestra, selected reviews 2006-2011

“Only weeks before Alabama Symphony Music Director Justin Brown tackled all nine Beethoven symphonies in a 10-day span, he accomplished an equally amazing feat in a different arena… he conducted Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’… as music director of Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, Germany. What happened in the Alys Stephens Center between May 13 and May 22 was remarkable, not only for Brown, but for the orchestra. Concentrated and compact, it played each symphony without pretense or affectation. Yet these musicians played with purpose — bristling with energy, savoring the lyrical moments, digging deep into its arsenal to strengthen its already firm grip on Beethoven.”

– Michael Huebner, The Birmingham News, 5.29.2011

“Close your eyes, and this could be one of Europe’s finest small orchestras. Every listener in the state owes it to themselves to hear what Brown has achieved in little more than one season.”

– Michael Huebner, The Birmingham News, 9.28.2007

“In less than a year, Brown has established the Alabama as one of the country’s most adventurous regional orchestras. At the same time, Brown…navigates the mainstream repertory with authority. His ‘Eroica’ had a gritty, slow-burning intensity that reminded me of Otto Klemperer’s monumental 1959 recording.”

– Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 6.25.2007

“Among the changes Justin Brown has brought to the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in his first two programs as music director are edgier, more adventurous repertoire and hands-on music-making. The brasses sound bolder and the strings have a dynamic sweep they have rarely displayed.”

– Michael Huebner, The Birmingham News, 9.30.2006

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, 2011

“Brown is currently making waves with the Alabama Symphony…. Under his leadership since 2006, the orchestra is expanding its offerings, commissioning new works, and performing a wide array of contemporary music. Leading soloists regularly visit. In 2010, Brown and the orchestra won an ASCAP award for adventurous programming. In 2012, they will perform in Carnegie Hall for the first time. Brown, who once served as an assistant to both Leonard Bernstein and Luciano Berio, showed a keen understanding of Mahler’s First. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about his performance of it was the richness and intensity of the quiet playing (and he seemed to discover more opportunity for it in this work than most conductors do). What’s more, there was never any reaching or emoting. The whole had such a natural ebb and flow – a sense of the beauty of the colors and the simple folksiness of the themes – that it unfurled with the inevitability of a poem. The climaxes were earned, thunderous and crisp. Brown’s thrilling account of Berlioz’s Le Corsaire started things off, lean and slashing and swashbuckling, an exercise in finesse with razor-sharp foil in hand. The Pacific Symphony players were exceptionally cooperative with each other all evening, the result being lucid textures, euphonious chords and fortissimos that crackled without harshness…”

– Timothy Mangan, The Orange County Register, 4.1.2011

Orchestre National du Capitole, Toulouse, France, 2005

“’What a conductor,’ exclaimed a subscriber after the standing ovation performance of Carmina Burana on Wednesday night at the Halle aux Grains…Applauded by the musicians of the Orchestre National du Capitole, Justin Brown rallied all the votes with an interpretation of Carl Orff’s cantata both technically and musically satisfying. Brown, who replaced his colleague conductor Arild Remmereit at short notice, exalted in the rhythmic essence of Carmina, effectively maintained the cohesion of two hundred performers, and gently underscored the continual changes of mood of this unusual score.”

– Anne-Marie Chouchan, La Depeche du Midi, 11.18.2005

English Chamber Orchestra, All-Beethoven Program, September 2001

“Those concerned about the next generation of conductors would do well to look out for Justin Brown: he is a talent to watch. With the ECO back on top form and a highly promising prize-winning pianist in addition, this was an event that exceeded all expectation.”

– Barry Millington, The Times (London)

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