Karen Gomyo, violin; VSO/ Jun Markl, Works by Prokofiev, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss, Chan Centre, May 30, 2015

When the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs in the 1300-seat Chan Centre rather than its larger home, the Orpheum Theatre, I have always hoped for orchestral programmes that mesh well with the acoustic of this smaller venue.  This concert with 33-year old Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo and conductor Jun Markl fit the bill almost perfectly, featuring lighter works by Prokofiev and Richard Strauss, coupled with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.  Born in Tokyo but growing up in Montreal and New York, Gomyo was one of the last students of Dorothy DeLay and a recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2008.  Markl has built up a strong reputation through his performances and recordings in Europe.  Both have made appearances with the symphony before.

It may be standard to play down Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony as a beginner’s piece but, frankly, I have not seen it performed in years.  And it was as delightful as ever!  Markl also did something I also had not seen in years: he split the first and second violins, though he reverted to standard format for the Strauss after the intermission.  This was a very conscientious performance, taking great care over with balance and detailing, but tending in the first and third movements to be somewhat mammoth in size and emphatic in its accents.  Nonetheless, even at its deliberate pace, there was colour, warmth and considerable cunning, and the Finale certainly exhibited the type of effervescence and delight that the work must have.

Karen Gomyo has a remarkable stage presence, tremendous life and intensity in her tone, and a feisty side too -- and this pretty well carried the Mendelssohn concerto. The violinist’s clean articulation, individual phrasing and her bravura – always simmering just beneath the surface – gave the work a fresh feeling overall.  But, while great to watch, not all of this was entirely happy, for the ease and lyrical flow of the work did not fully materialize.  In the opening movement, Gomyo’s dramatic emphases and frequent stabbing hairpins doubtlessly yielded insights but at the same time they often undercut the music’s natural motion.  Combined with Markl’s bold and methodical conducting, I felt that the movement ended up rather laboured, not free or radiant enough.  

There was sweetness aplenty in Gomyo’s treatment of the lovely Andante, but here her youth showed: it was not as deeply felt or tender as it might be.  Her occasional retreat to a soft, whispering tone seemed distracting: self-conscious and slightly sentimental.  I felt that she was trying almost too hard to be emotional.  The buoyant feelings of the Finale certainly came out, and this may have been the best movement.  For all the clipped staccato phrasing, pushes and pulls, and almost demonic attack that sometimes came forth, this still added up to quite an experience: absolutely riveting in some ways, but also revealing that the artist is still ‘young’.

Perhaps the highlight of the night was Richard Strauss’ Le Bourgeois gentilhomme Suite (1911/17). Championed by both Clemens Krauss and Fritz Reiner, it is infrequently heard in the concert hall these days.  Markl gave a devoted performance, keenly aware of the composer’s characteristic string textures and the work’s Baroque roots in Lully. The orchestra played very well, establishing a convincing Straussian feeling, with concertmaster Dale Barltrop finding just the right type of expressive sweetness in his many violin solos. Perhaps the opening Overture and Menuet were a touch on the careful side – lacking caprice -- but the work built more and more strongly as it progressed, finding some ravishing moments indeed.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015

the concert experience