Dale Barltrop, solo violin and leader, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra: Works by Bartok, Mozart and Shostakovich, Orpheum, May 21, 2016.

Photos courtesy of VSO and Sherry Wang

Photos courtesy of VSO and Sherry Wang

This concert was intended to be as much a lovely ‘hello’ to violinist Nicola Benedetti as it was a sad ‘goodbye’ to the VSO’s personable and talented concertmaster, Dale Barltop. Barltrop now leaves to assume the same position with the Melbourne Symphony and to join the Australian String Quartet. True Scotsmen -- dressed in kilts -- awaited the charismatic violinist’s appearance but, unfortunately, the effects of a virus that Benedetti had fought through in the previous night’s concert were sufficiently debilitating by this afternoon that she had to withdraw.  A tricky situation indeed!  Dale Barltrop has never had much of an inclination towards conducting (interview), yet this special goodbye concert was designed to have him lead a chamber-sized version of the VSO from the first chair. Perhaps this was pressure enough, but what was to be done about Benedetti’s absence in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5? With only hours remaining before this concert, Barltrop was asked if he would deputize there too, and he kindly consented to do Mozart’s 3rd concerto instead.  So, a rather full plate for Barltrop – but he came through magnificently. I doubt that there could be a more cherishable departing memory for him.

The performance of the Mozart concerto was vastly more than might be expected.  It was beautifully scaled, with plenty of intimacy and innocent joy, and Barltrop’s intonation was impeccable.  I had never seen the violinist perform a classical concerto before -- he had concentrated on more modern rarities such as the Schumann, Britten, and Bartok’s First in recent years -- but the Mozart fit him to a tee.  The opening Allegro had a lovely clean refinement and sense of searching innocence, the Adagio had a natural involvement with very tender shadings, while the finale sprung forth with exactly the right mix of enthusiasm and lyrical repose.  Perhaps memories of Arthur Grumiaux or Iona Brown fleetingly came to mind in the tonal purity and natural fluency achieved.  The orchestra (of about 30 players) pulled strongly together with their leader, offering clear structural lines and well-sprung rhythms, evincing a remarkable display of teamwork overall.  I would have found this quite stunning even if it had been a regularly-scheduled appearance. A brief discussion with Barltrop after the concert revealed that this was rehearsed in one hour, but he stressed that “it was a very intense hour.”

The other highlight of the night was the ‘chamber symphony’ version of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3.  We have been particularly lucky with this work recently, since the Takacs Quartet gave a splendid rendering only a month or so ago. Barltrop first fell in love with the orchestral version when he performed it with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra a number of years back.  It is likely one of Rudolf Barshai’s richest efforts, giving a delightful role to the winds (including a cor anglais) and having a pristine balance of voices throughout.  Mention of Barshai also brings some nostalgia for locals, since he was the music director of the VSO for a brief span in the late 1980s.

I was very impressed with both the architecture and sensitivity of this interpretation.  The pacing was impeccable, the winds and strings both adept and flexible, and all the shades of brooding and contemplation in Shostakovich’s darker world were brought out.  The jaunty opening motive had a nice ease and flexibility, with a fine sheen on the strings, and was developed with a tight discipline as the going got rougher.  The winds were particularly expressive. The dynamics of the Moderato were well managed, achieving a quiet inexorability in its tread, and featuring a particularly distilled flute soliloquy from Christie Reside.  The following Allegro was appropriately savage, with a most impressive rhythmic discipline and bite.  The work then moves to even darker regions, mixing defiance and yearning with intense contemplation.  Whether one refers to the wonderfully poignant duet for cello and bassoon, the deeply-felt rendering of opening motive of the finale, the articulation of the more brazen pizzicatos and march-like episodes, or the fits of terror, everything was in place and fully suspending.  The descent to the end, over the very quiet ‘ground’, was just as it should be.  I am almost tempted to think that this should be recorded.  Strong performances of the chamber symphonies are not thick on the ground, and this was a most sensitive reading, uniquely aware of all the little vulnerabilities in the writing, and beautifully executed. 

The concert warmed up with a refreshing reading of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances.  Starting fairly deliberately, this gained considerable gusto as we moved to the two closing dances, unearthing many idiomatic Hungarian shadings along the way.  This was perhaps the first time I had ever noted the clear link to Kodaly’s Hary Janos.  Of course, both composers worked together in their quest to find Hungarian folk roots: whatever it was, I certainly noticed a tie.

The most intriguing feature throughout the entire concert was how Barltrop led the orchestra.  He made considerable use of eye contact, sometimes nodded to others on entries, but I recall only once where he ever set tempo or rhythm by actual conducting gestures.  Asking him about this after, he replied simply: “If a chamber orchestra is rehearsed properly, it should function just like a string quartet.” 

All in all, this concert was a delightfully challenging adventure and one that could not conceivably have turned out any better.  Bon voyage, Dale Barltrop!


© Geoffrey Newman 2016