Renée Fleming (soprano), Lucas and Arthur Jussen (piano duo), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/ Otto Tausk: Works by Ravel, Strauss, Tosti, Puccini, Verdi, Bernstein, Top, Poulenc, Stravinsky, plus favorites from Broadway, Orpheum, September 20 and 21, 2018.

Photos by Matthew Baird

Photos by Matthew Baird

Starting off a centenary season with a brand-new music director is both an exciting and slightly forbidding prospect. Yet the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra came through the test well, giving the orchestra’s many patrons a glimpse of some of the joys to look forward to with newly-appointed Dutch maestro Otto Tausk. The first concert was a celebrity concert with Renée Fleming, not digging too deep, but certainly illustrating the singer’s new-found love of Broadway. She brought ample charm to popular favourites, following these with her characteristic stream of encores. The second concert – the official VSO 100 opening – featured the captivating young Lucas and Arthur Jussen in the Poulenc Two-Piano Concerto. This may have been slightly less scintillating than it might be but served as wonderful spectacle all the same. Overall, Tausk’s conducting always exhibited the virtues of patience, conscientiousness and textural clarity but, perhaps understandably, sometimes erred on the side of caution. Fortunately, he brought distinctive feeling and concentration to the complete Stravinsky Firebird that closed the festivities, bringing the orchestra to a fine display of corporate synergy and cohesion.

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Many may have looked forward to hearing Fleming’s famous rendering of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, but it was the Broadway pieces that seemed to bring the singer the greatest involvement and joy. Fleming has performed on Broadway over the last year and has just released a new Decca CD – aptly entitled Broadway – this month. Fleming inhabits this more popular idiom with a greater sureness of style and more vocal freedom than previously, and her confidence and energy are contagious. When she performed comparable fare here in March 2012, I remarked that ‘she often seemed too emotionally controlled and careful about articulation to really bend into the swing of these pieces … her superb technical training is almost a liability.’  In any case, that is behind her, and this journey through Rogers and Hammerstein, Kander/Ebb, Sting and Sondheim at the end of the concert was spirited and convincing.  The encores followed: Lerner and Lowe’s ‘I could have danced all night’, then a deeply-felt ‘Danny Boy’ (recently sung at Sen. John McCain’s funeral), finally returning home with Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’.

By comparison, the Four Last Songs seemed more aloof. No one can ever question Fleming’s Straussian credentials, or her ability to find the delicious legato line and silky consuming flow that these pieces call for. Nonetheless, the result turned out rather breezy, more cerebral than sensual, and not probing all the melancholy, and indeed mystery and wonder, that underlies these lovely farewell statements. ‘Fruhling’ was very fleet indeed and failed to allow much interpretative space or sense of deliberation: throughout, tempos seemed faster than on her two recordings with Christoph Eschenbach and Christian Thielemann respectively. ‘Biem Schlafengehen’ likely fared the best of the four, quite ravishing in its way, though even here more inward tenderness might have been wanted. Tausk coaxed appropriate warmth and detail from the orchestra but, with few glowing embers in the lower strings or a true Straussian surge in the violins, engulfing vistas did not fully open up. The result was always pretty and tasteful, but slightly pale. The brief Tosti ‘La Serenata’ and Puccini ‘Signore asconti’ (from Turandot) served as additional reminders of Fleming’s consummate art.

Tausk’s explorations on his own revealed his admirable quest to secure both balance and precision in his new orchestra’s response, and one could not help but welcome this. Nonetheless, his Verdi’s La Forza del Destino overture needed more fire and less calculation, while his reading of Bernstein’s (often neglected) Divertimento called out for more rhythmic bend and extroversion to place alongside its structural accuracy. In the latter, I thought the whim and humour in the brass and winds came off more European in feeling (akin to Hindemith) than anything quintessentially American. The most interesting adventure was Ravel’s La Valse, which was taken at a very deliberate pace with real doses of French colour and sensuality but few macabre elements. The climaxes actually built more like Daphnis and Chloe and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales – with glimpses of exultant joy – rather than as a menacing, sarcastic statement of cataclysmic destruction.  An insightful alternative, but I am not sure the composer intended it.

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The conductor and orchestra appeared more settled and familiar on the second night. The programme started with the world premiere of Dutch composer Edward Top’s Helix (yes, there was a Dutch theme throughout), a VSO commission doubtlessly stemming from Top’s previous position as a Composer-In-Residence with the orchestra. As evidenced in his recent Fugue States for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, and Pots and Pans are Falling, the composer typically offers very tightly-knit structures which feature insistently-repeated notes passed around the ensemble to create ‘echo effects’. More appropriate for an opening night celebration, this time Top placed his germinal motive and its ‘echo’ within a film-score lyricism, to soften its rigour and the give the proceedings more flow. This was quite successful overall, and the orchestra gave the piece a nice glow.

The Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos (1932) is always a fun work to hear, a transitional piece that links to the Ravel G-major Concerto and Mozart’s composition in the same genre, while incorporating newly-acquired influences from Balinese gamelan. There could be few more adorable young pianists than the blonde Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen, aged 25 and 22 respectively, and the innocent confidence and virtuosity they exude is probably enough to convince an audience no matter what they do. They have just released a recording of this concerto with Stéphane Denève and the Royal Concertgebouw, adding to their healthy stream of Deutsche Grammophon releases since 2010.

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On this showing, the Jussen brothers are fully dazzling and, discounting a smudge at the opening of the work, they displayed both formidable technical address and the ability to play together like one mind. For all that, parts of the current reading were not as frothy and effervescent as they might be. Perhaps the tempo for the first movement was slightly too measured, but there was sometimes a hint of squareness in the articulation of both the pianos and orchestra, and the latter did not jump into the fray with enough split-second anticipation to send things off like a firecracker. The performance seemed more determined than full of zeal or playfulness. The lovely tranquil reveries of the opening movement and subsequent Larghetto were also beautifully played by the Jussens, but one still might have wanted marginally greater intimacy and piquant charm. The treatment of the last movement was estimable, though not the last word in Gallic ease and caprice. All told, seeing this piano duo remained a pretty memorable experience – and quite a novelty – and it will be interesting to see how far Lucas and Arthur Jussen go.

It is quite rare for an orchestra to program the full Firebird ballet rather than the 1919 suite and I cannot recall when it was last played here. Nonetheless, it is indeed a coincidence that the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas also performed this complete score on the same day and at exactly the same time in Davies Hall. Perhaps one is now beginning to understand the subtle influence of the ‘wildfires’ that hit both areas of the West Coast so dramatically this summer! In any event, I think this work inspired Maestro Tausk and the VSO to their best performance of the two nights.

The start of the Firebird did seem on the careful side, with a relatively spartan sonic palette and some insecurities in the string and wind phrasing, but eventually everyone got into the natural flow of the piece. The expression got fuller and warmer, and by the series of theatrical outbursts in the middle, the line of the piece was more clearly defined. Winds were more communicative, the strings had better sheen and dynamic control and the brass was more alert and pungent. The difficult horn passages found extra lyrical shape. From that point on, I think we saw Tausk and the orchestra suspended in the piece: the colour was right, the pacing had inexorability and concentration, and the wonderful descending tremolos leading to the close set up the work’s final majesty and joy with exactly the right sense of resolution. 

It was interesting talking to the grand statesman of the VSO, oboist Roger Cole, at the reception after the concert. He felt much the same thing about the Firebird – that conductor and orchestra increasingly came together to achieve something special by the end. He also remarked how much the orchestra enjoyed playing under their new maestro. So, it seems all is very promising as the VSO ventures into its next 100 years.



© Geoffrey Newman 2018

Photo by J. J. Gill

Photo by J. J. Gill