Miriam Fried, violin, VSO/ Bramwell Tovey: Works by Berlioz, Beethoven, Vivian Fung and Richard Strauss, Orpheum, September 26, 2015.

Just days before this opening concert, the Vancouver Symphony announced the appointment of its new president, Kelly Tweeddale, coming from the Seattle Opera and earlier the Cleveland Orchestra, replacing Jeff Alexander, who has now taken up the same post with the Chicago Symphony.  With the new president on hand, the symphony was understandably eager to demonstrate their talents, and that they certainly did.  I have seldom seen as inspired playing in a concert that interestingly wedded old and new worlds.  The former came in the appearance of much revered violinist Miriam Fried (now almost 70) playing the Beethoven concerto; the latter came as the world premiere of Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s Biennale Snapshots.   

Miriam Fried has gathered an enviable reputation in America from her teaching, master classes and from her role as Artistic Director of the Ravinia Institute.  Her son is the celebrated young pianist Jonathan Biss.  Yet the violinist has a special place in my heart from earlier days.  My first major stay in London was in the 1970s, and I can safely say there were few more visible violinists performing in the UK at that time. After winning the Queen Elizabeth Competition in 1971, she became almost a fixture on BBC Music; you could hear live transcriptions of her concerts virtually every day, and she always seemed to be performing at the Proms.  I believe that she recorded the Beethoven concerto at that time and recall Trevor Harvey giving it a pretty glowing review in Gramophone.  I spent years trying to find the recording but never did.  So in fact this concert was my first experience of her Beethoven.

One would not expect all the energy, sparkle and insight of the violinist’s youthful performances to survive the passage of 40 years.  The cleanness of her articulation, her tone colour, and the insight are still there, but everything now is much more deliberate.  Right from the opening of the Beethoven, we were taken into a private, contemplative world, intensely lyrical and supremely knowing, almost where time stands still.  There was still great precision in the playing – each note was chiseled and meaningful -- but there was nothing explicitly dramatic; everything was subservient to an inexorable flow where drama is merely implied.

The long opening movement can take this degree of serenity and intimacy, and Bramwell Tovey and the orchestra were completely sympathetic: patient, unforced, everything in place at the deliberate pace.  There was a searching intensity in the Larghetto too, and it was only in its later stages that the leisurely tempo seemed to stretch the music too much.  But Fried’s judgement in the Finale was masterly, adding just a little more inflection and bite to her phrasing, subtly bring out the wit and joy in the writing.  This resulted in an enchanting buildup to the end, and ultimately a wonderful sense of release.  I could tell from the applause that the performance was genuinely affecting, even it was about as far from mainline as one could imagine. It would be very difficult to hear another performance like this anywhere today. 

Worlds changed dramatically in moving to the world premiere of Vivian Fung’s Biennale Snapshots, a work commissioned by the Vancouver Biennale, an enterprising organization committed to presenting ‘art in public spaces’.  The composition consisted of a sequence of five vignettes, each designed to capture the musical aura of an artwork installed in the Vancouver area.  Musical connections to public art are part of a long tradition, not least in the French and in composers like Respighi.  

Vivian Fung has released a recording of her piano and violin concerti under the title ‘Dreamscapes’ for Naxos. I also heard her String Quartet No. 3 (2013) last year -- played by the Dover Quartet -- and was very impressed with her control of texture and motion, and her relative economy of means.  I was equally impressed with this new work: it was built so cleanly and surely, yet always coming up with tonal textures that are striking and instrumental contrasts that  reveal something new.  Certainly, there are naturalistic ‘effects’ interspersed – the initial whispered vocal effects in Breath Song – but for the most part, it was the line and imagination in the dramatic development of each piece that kept me entranced.  As evidenced in Trees, Fung is particularly good at constructing distilled textures with sliding tonality and lyrical motion, expanding and contracting their density with great fluency. Overlaid is often a dramatic utterance that is contrastingly sharp, pointed and uncompromising.  Graffiti Mashup illustrated her sterling control over the full orchestra, a rumbustious, colourful piece with lots of riveting effects and Latino rhythms.  The concluding Grass was also a ‘big’ piece, full of energy and contrast, although one could argue that it ran a little wild with its eclecticism; among other things, Respighi’s insistently honking taxis seemingly made an appearance as did the dark opening textures of Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto.  But certainly very pleasurable; the composer tried for a lot in these five sketches and there were countless examples of ingenuity.  She is a composer that can clearly find both rarified, intimate feelings and powerful demonstrative statement.

I thought the orchestra played superlatively well under Maestro Tovey.  They had lots of life and mercurial passion in Berlioz’s opening Overture to Le Corsaire, the strings achieving the needed ‘fizz’ and the brass brazen and accurate.  The closing Suite from Der Rosenkavalier – though not my favourite abridgement by any means – featured a real luster and unanimity in the string tone and horns stronger and fuller than I have heard for quite some time.  This was a special evening.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015