THE BEST MUSICAL EVENTS OF 2014
Since most concert seasons run between years, a full review of the year 2014 events gives one a splendid opportunity to acknowledge the power of more immediate experiences this fall and to sift through those that still resonate from the past spring and summer. Vancouver’s concert seasons are pretty dense, and there is a lot of splendor to choose from in our over sixty postings for the year. All the individual reviews are easily accessible on the right hand side of our home page, along with relevant interviews.
We begin with festivals. The two sponsored by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the New Music Festival in January and the Russian Festival in March/April, were both remarkably involving experiences. The former featured five works by Australian composer Brett Dean that convinced me that he really deserves to be placed close to the echelon of greatest living composers. He played his Viola Concerto himself and, with his chilling “Water Music” and stunning extracts from his recent opera Bliss, this was bounty indeed. There were 16 works performed overall. The second festival, with pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk playing all Rachmaninoff’s four concertos and Paganini Rhapsody with conductor Bramwell Tovey was also a consistent delight, not least because of the pianist’s intelligence, imagination and bravura power. There was hardly a piano phrase that did not hold interest.
Early Music Vancouver’s Festival in the summer was again very successful, capped off by a magnificent performance of Handel’s first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann, featuring singing of the highest order from Amanda Forsythe, Krisztina Szabó, Reginald L. Mobley and Colin Balzer. Vancouver New Music’s “Sonic Topographies” festival (October) was also a triumph for those who like music on the cutting edge, featuring compositions by John Luther Adams and others, all on the theme of ‘sustainability’ and environment.
Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated and strongly attended concerts with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Tovey were the conductor’s Mahler’s Ninth, the Elgar Violin Concerto with celebrated Canadian James Ehnes (both in the late spring), and Britten’s War Requiem this November. All were quite compelling experiences, though for my taste, the conductor’s deeply-felt traversal of Vaughan Williams Fourth Symphony in October was possibly even finer. The opening concert this fall, featuring pianist Inon Barnatan with Maestro Tovey in the Brahms First Concerto, also had memorable poetic sensibility and lyrical flow.
A frequent visitor, pianist Joyce Yang, spun her magic again late last spring, giving us her celebrated interpretation of Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety with Conductor Laureate Kazuyoshi Akiyama. Also much more inspiring than might be otherwise thought was the Chinese New Year celebration, with cellist Jian Wang, violinist Wen Wei, and 13 year old pianist Serena Wang (playing a Mozart concerto), Long Yu directing with authority. Perhaps the surprise of the year was young conductor Perry So who deputized at very short notice for John Storgards, giving us a riveting Sibelius First Symphony. It is not clear that he had conducted the work before, and we got a very strong and illuminating Chopin First Piano Concerto from Louis Lortie on top of it.
Perry So and Joshua Weilerstein struck me as the best of the very young conductors we saw this year, notable for their intelligence, sensitivity and strong orchestral control, and preferable to two others that seemed to be cut more from Dudamel cloth, Diego Matheuz and Lahav Shani. We also recently enjoyed the imagination of violinist Phillipe Quint in Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto, combined with a somewhat different approach to Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony under the baton of James Gaffigan. We also saw the Canadian debut of violinist Tasmin Little, the Queen of the BBC Proms, playing the Korngold concerto, and celebrated this with an extended interview.
Many of the highlights of the year were in the area of vocal, instrumental, and chamber music. The Vancouver Recital Society seldom disappoints in this area and there could hardly be anything finer than two lieder concerts that they sponsored: Gerald Finley and Julius Drake in Schubert’s Die Wintereisse (February) and Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber in songs by Schubert and Wolfgang Rhim (November). Both were utterly suspending and memorable. Probably the finest overall string quartet performance that we have seen for while was by the Doric Quartet playing Haydn and Beethoven (December), totally fresh in inspiration. The Vertavo Quartet with pianist Paul Lewis also gave a very adventurous concert the week before, mixing Mozart, Dvorak and Bartok in illuminating fashion.
The Friends of Chamber Music brought us the remarkable Ebène Quartet in February and it fully lived up to its reputation, giving us a wonderfully-felt Mendelssohn and Bartok. This was preceded by the beautifully-toned Szymanowski Quartet in January, who gave us an engaging programme of Haydn, Dvorak and Szymanowski. Of the very young quartets, it was the Dover Quartet (September) who easily took the prize, as is seemingly the case everywhere it plays these days. For authentic groups, we were all very impressed with the London Haydn Quartet (January), although we also had a visit from the esteemed Quatuor Mosaiques as well (October). As well, we had our annual inspiring visits from the legendary Takacs (December) and the Emerson (October) Quartets, the latter showing even stronger cohesion this year with its new cellist, Paul Watkins.
The collaboration of the two above organizations in a Brahms Chamber Music Festival (March) with the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Inon Barnatan, violist Hsin-Yun Huang and clarinettist Sharon Kam was one of the most exciting ideas of 2014, and this festival has now been taken to New York. There were indeed many high spots in this and, while the musicians always displayed great artistry, my overall feeling is that the some performances were still in their formative stage.
Two duo recitals were notable for the long-standing comradery between the artists involved. The 2700-seat Orpheum sold out for the eagerly anticipated pairing of Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott. Old-world ease and illumination came through in every bar from Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman in the Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms violin sonatas, though questions about the performers’ attitude on or off stage did arise.
Perhaps the most distinguished solo recital of the year was from violinist Christian Tetzlaff (May), whose insight and fluency were simply disarming in traversing works from Bach to Kurtag. And, earlier in the year, Murray Perahia gave us much more white heat than usual in a concert that included a transfixing Beethoven “Appassionata” Sonata. We were also recently delighted by the 23 year old Russian pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov, an artist with a very individual voice already. I also enjoyed being taken back to the world of classic piano virtuosos in two concerts by the Vancouver Chopin Society. The first presented Russian Olga Kern in quite scintillating Chopin and Rachmaninoff; the second featured Brazilian Arnaldo Cohen in truly-concentrated Brahms and Chopin. 2014 also brought the two top mandolinists in the world presently, Avi Avital (January) and Chris Thile (September).
I would be remiss if I did not mention the splendid concert by the Portland Baroque Orchestra under Monica Huggett (April) and the inspiring recent appearance by Pacific MusicWorks, Seattle, performing Monteverdi under Stephen Stubbs (November). The Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra also arrived in May for relatively lighter fare, performing very well in characteristically Russian style, but their appearance did generate some political concerns.
Equally as important, Vancouver Opera’s year turned out as a genuine success. Excellent productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s Don Carlo, and Bizet’s Carmen were combined with a convincing new commission, Stickboy -- a chamber opera composed by Neil Weisensel with the libretto by Shane Koyczan on the hot topic of ‘bullying.’ Another very successful chamber opera premiere was Margaret Atwood’s Pauline – by the little opera company that could, City Opera Vancouver. A final heroic event that must be mentioned was Pacific Opera Victoria’s brave and wonderfully-successful Das Rheingold in October-- staged with smaller forces and only the second such Wagner staging ever in Canada.
Of course, in acknowledging all these events, we are not forgetting the wonderful season series of the Vancouver Chamber Choir under conductor Jon Washburn or by the award-winning Vancouver Cantata Singers. Chamber music consistently springs from the Music in the Morning series, and Vetta and West Coast Chamber Music. There have been all the enterprising presentations by Vancouver New Music, Turning Point Ensemble and Music on Main. And the West Coast Symphony, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra, Müzewest Concerts and the UBC Symphony all have provided adventurous seasons of their own, the latter only a part of the full range of offerings of the UBC School of Music.
© Geoffrey Newman 2014