THE BEST MUSICAL EVENTS OF 2015

As most concert seasons run between years, a full review of the year 2015 events gives one an 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 splendour to choose from in VCM’s almost 100 postings for the year.  All the individual reviews are easily accessible on the right hand side of our home page, along with relevant interviews. 

Perhaps the one event that really stood out above the rest was the Borodin Quartet’s traversal of the complete Shostakovich quartets in May.  Sponsored by Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music, this ended up a magnificent unity, building over five nights, with the last quartet played in candlelight, as tradition dictates.  An in-depth interview was secured to mark the occasion.  It was not that we lacked for other great string quartet playing either: in recent months, both the Pavel Haas Quartet and the Arcanto Quartet gave us some of the finest playing one could ever imagine: sensitive, imaginative and absolutely riveting.  Vancouver New Music’s presentation of the remarkable Jack Quartet earlier in the year was an engrossing experience as well.  It was also a pleasure to see the young Dover Quartet back again, as they develop rapidly week by week.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra provided its customary quality and variety, featuring a New Music and a Mozart Festival which were successful, though not quite on the same exalted plane as the previous year’s efforts. This fall’s highlights were a transcendent Schumann concerto from pianist Stephen Hough and a stunning Paganini concerto from violinist Tianwa Yang. These followed on an inspired fall opener under Maestro Tovey that coupled legendary violinist Miriam Fried’s Beethoven concerto with the world premiere of Vivian Fung’s imaginative Biennale Snapshots. Just hours before the concert, Kelly Tweeddale was named as the new VSO President, succeeding Jeff Alexander. One other notable event of the fall was the world premiere of Poul Ruders’ Piano Concerto No. 3, played with buoyant energy by the work’s dedicatee, Anne-Marie McDermott.  Last spring, three concerts showcased particularly fine conducting from our Music Director: a beautifully negotiated Bruckner’s Fourth, an inspired Mendelssohn ‘Hymn of Praise’, and a zipping account of Bernstein’s Candide. The best conducting of the fall was probably in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, which brought out the very best in the orchestra’s principals. 

For somewhat lighter fare, I enjoyed the VSO ‘Chinese New Year’ celebration last spring with three fine soloists under the direction of Perry So. Some sparks were also flying from violinist Karen Gomyo and conductor Jun Markl, and it was a pleasure to hear pianist Angela Hewitt again.  Concertmaster Dale Barltrop’s traversal of Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 1 again showed what a fine soloist he can be. Of the young conductors, Pietari Inkinen, Alexandre Bloch and Ben Gernon all showed an ability to get a strong and distinctive response from the orchestra.  I should also remark on the continuing success of the VSO ‘New Music’ and VSO Chamber Players outings.

The Vancouver Recital Society again offered a stunning array of world-class performers, and the city was delighted when Musical America recently named Artistic Director Leila Getz at the top of the ‘Top 30 Influencers’, certainly an honour for any presenter.  Last spring almost outdid anything previously, with a wonderfully probing Beethoven Cello Sonata cycle from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin, a stimulating Andras Schiff recital featuring a remarkable Schubert C minor sonata, and both pianists Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne illuminating late Beethoven with distinction. 

Emanual Ax started the year off in fine fashion, while the outstanding lieder recital was tenor Ian Bostridge and local pianist Wenwen Du in Schubert’s Winterreise.  Very recently, we witnessed exalted artistry in Beethoven and Sibelius from pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, following on recitals by two very talented young artists, cellist Maximilian Hornung and violinist Caroline Goulding.  Couple this with the Chopin Society concerts that involved a very fine ‘Hammerklavier’ from Nelson Goerner, and thought-provoking appearances by Alexandre Tharaud and Jorge Luis Prats, and the year certainly did not lack for pianistic splendour.

Good piano trios are hardly thick on the ground, and I should mention how taken I was with the newly-formed Montrose Trio (pianist Jon Kimura Parker plus two members of the former Tokyo Quartet) and the Trio Shaham-Erez-Wallfisch that played for us in the fall.

Matthew White has recently set a fire under Early Music Vancouver, creating musical variety and a sense of occasion by implementing co-productions with other presenters.  Collaboration with VRS allowed fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout to appear and give a ravishing Mozart recital, while the visit by Juilliard415 and conductor Nicolas McGegan – co-sponsored with Music in the Morning -- allowed us to see just how staggering a triumph this student ‘authentic’ orchestra is.  Speaking of youth, I was also very impressed with the August concert of Canada’s National Youth Orchestra (NYO) under Michael Francis.

Alongside an inspired fall opening concert of Bach and Telemann with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann, the three ‘big’ productions for Early Music Vancouver involved various collaborations with the PBO, Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks and the Vancouver Chamber Choir in Handel’s Theodora, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and Monteverdi’s Vespers.  It was the Vespers under conductor Stephen Stubbs that perhaps gave me the greatest spiritual proceeds, a particularly devoted and ‘loving’ performance.  The Praetorius Christmas Vespers, directed by David Fallis with a superb hybrid of vocal and instrumental performers, was also quite splendid in a different way. Other vocal events that created some magic were appearances by tenors Charles Daniels and Jeffrey Thompson -- and who could forget Monica Huggett and the Portland Baroque’s ultra-authentic’ rendering of The Four Seasons!

It is all too well known that this will be Vancouver Opera’s final full-length season before moving to ‘festival’ mode next year. Perhaps the most delightful outing was the zippy Strauss Die Fledermaus last spring, with Christopher Gaze masterly as Frosh and Joyce El-Khoury fully beguiling as Rosalinde. Here there was no weak link.  Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s grueling, dark musical, Sweeney Todd, was also a genuine success, featuring strong, fluid direction throughout. Though constrained by a cold, bass Greer Grimsley put forth an heroic effort, combining with excellent singing and acting from his wife Luretta Byebee and just about everyone else.  There were possibly more qualifications about the directing in Verdi’s Rigoletto this fall, but the whole opera took off in Act III and turned out to be very exciting:  Simone Osborne’s riveting Gilda combined with fine singing from the cast.  From a musical and a dramatic standpoint, more likely to divide opinion was Nico Mulhy and Stephen Karam’s Dark Sisters, presented just a month ago. Vancouver Opera’s bold effort to stage new, socially relevant productions is to be admired; however, it is likely that last year’s Stickboy had greater dramatic force and resonance than Dark Sisters.

Pacific Opera Victoria also put on a commanding production of Verdi’s Otello, and we should note two chamber operas which gave us something to think about (and some controversy too): Stephen Chatman and Tara Wohlberg’s Choir Practice and Michael James Park’s Diagnosis: Diabetes.  We can never get enough of efforts of this kind.

It has been a pleasure for the staff at VCM to provide detailed reviewing of all these events.  At the same time, we are not forgetting the enterprising efforts by all the other music organizations that define Vancouver’s musical culture: the wonderful season series of the Vancouver Chamber Choir under conductor Jon Washburn, concerts by the Vancouver Cantata Singers and Chor Leoni, and chamber music from Music in the Morning and Vetta and West Coast Chamber Music.  Vancouver New Music, Turning Point Ensemble, Music on Main, Müzewest Concerts and the UBC Symphony have all have provided adventurous seasons of their own, the latter only a part of the full range of event offerings of the UBC School of Music.

 

© Geoffrey Newman 2015