THE VSO ENDS A RECORD-SETTING SEASON WITH UPLIFTING BARBER AND SHOSTAKOVICH

Chad Hoopes, violin; VSO/ Bramwell Tovey: Works by Morlock, Barber and Shostakovich, Orpheum, June 11, 2016.

 Photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony.

Photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony.

For all the financial problems of symphony orchestras witnessed over the last decade, it is heartening news that ticket sales for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra set an all-time record this year.  Sellouts (or near sellouts) have been relatively frequent, and it is not easy to fill a concert hall that seats 2800 people. Having attended virtually all concerts, my most welcome observation is that the audience is now more diversified, with many new faces in the under-50 group.  This is not to say that the VSO has had serious financial difficulties in the recent past: the last deficit was in fact in 2002, and one can only give the greatest praise to Jeff Alexander (now at the Chicago Symphony) and new CEO Kelly Tweeddale for this run of success.

If one does not want to end a season with the most spectacular works, then it is not good to move too far in the other direction either.  The combination of the Barber Violin Concerto and the Shostakovich 5th Symphony, with a little ‘prelude’ to the latter by Jocelyn Morlock, VSO Composer-In-Residence, seemed to capture all the shadings that an audience might want – and very attractively so.  21-year-old violinist Chad Hoopes, junior prize winner in the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin Competition, was on hand for the Barber and, as is so often noted, gave a performance ‘far beyond his years’.  Hoopes made his recording debut with the Mendelssohn and Adams Violin Concertos for Naïve Records in 2014, and seemingly goes from strength to strength.  This was his third visit here.

When I heard Hoopes’ lovely warm tone at the opening of the Barber, I was reminded perhaps of Gil Shaham.  Yet this was not a performance soaked in luxuriant warmth and sentiment: the violinist’s playing very quickly sought a more inward depth, cultivating a clean, refined beauty and a lovely tenderness in the lyrical shaping.  There was no trace of extra adornment or contrivance: everything was direct, communicative and fully felt.  Again, it would be rare to find this combination of poise, knowing insight, and complete absence of ‘show’ from a violinist who was twice the age.  The natural motion and ease of Hoopes’ long phrases simply took one through the first two movements suspended, the violinist selectively moving out to enriched luster and ardour in the codas of both.  In the neoclassical finale, his violin was so lightly and cleanly feathered that it was disarming, making its virtuoso requirements look easy and also making this movement seem more integrated with its two neo-romantic predecessors. 

If the violinist was always in tune with the finely-shaded and searching qualities of the writing, then it was the orchestra who brought out the more demonstrative romantic feeling.  Maestro Tovey gave an attentive and fully committed contribution, and I enjoyed a reading with this type of balance – much less of a virtuoso showpiece.  The orchestra played with both strength and refinement and I should mention the sensitive oboe of Roger Cole that ushered in the Andante.  I think the Hoopes should eventually take this interpretation to the recording studio.  It is beautifully fashioned, has unique simplicity and feeling, and captures different things than, say, Hilary Hahn.

After last week’s relatively lean Mahler 6th, following on a contrastingly luxuriant Tchaikovsky ‘Pathetique’ the week before, it was really anyone’s guess what clothes the Shostakovich 5th would wear in Maestro Tovey’s hands.  What emerged was quite an individual performance, not one filled with the raw sharp edges or urgency of some traversals, but one that had a definite architectural strength, some individual touches of colour and a number of Mahlerian intimations too.  Tempos were on the deliberate side.  Finding Mahler in Shostakovich is well accepted, and one can find strong influences in the composer’s controversial 4th Symphony.  A credible view of the 5th is that the same influences are still there, but in a more tempered form, given the strongly negative response of Soviet officials to its predecessor. 

The opening chords of the Moderato were forthrightly stated, but the quiet high strings immediately retreated to more intimate, flexible expression, less icy than usual, and with less implicit separation between the held notes.  The emphasis was on underlying flow, and that meant that the move into the big artillery later on was smooth and powerful, rather than brazen, reinforcing the breadth and fluidity of the approach.  The movement’s quiet ending sought postures more tender than disembodied.  The thrusting rhythms of the Scherzo were strongly articulated but, again, rather than progressing with consistently sharp and disciplined textures, Maestro Tovey cultivated a much more sensual and eclectic response.  The winds often bubbled forth with the verve of Prokofiev, the pizzicato strings hinted at Stravinsky, while the solo violin had more than its normal flourish, with just a touch of Viennese caprice in it too.  This was all quite delightful in its way, but some might think it outside of the work’s style. Certainly, it made the movement softer in focus and more playful. The wonderful Largo was also softer, having more lyrical restraint and less steel than usual.  The strings sometimes conjured up the tender feelings of Mahler’s Adagietto more than the pungent, burning pain of the Russian soul, while the flute solo opened up a feeling of infinite spaces. Nonetheless, the interpretation built methodically to a strong climax, and ended with ravishingly-beautiful soft strings.  Perhaps this treatment was light on fiber, but it was not sentimental and one could never doubt its sincerity. 

These days, one thing is certain about the finale: no conductor treats it as an unqualified Soviet victory march.  Furthermore, there are many different possibilities open for conveying the composer’s underlying resentment towards the Soviet authorities.  Here Shostakovich’s opening march themes were propelled forward almost feverishly, dancing ominously with an out-of-control fervour that one can often find in Khachaturian.  There were doses of the latter’s colour too.  Indeed, an interesting start to set alongside along a closing (victory?) march which bludgeoned along very slowly as if it was almost held back by itself.  Rostropovich (who was as disenchanted with Soviet officials as the composer) always loved this slow tempo for the ending and, even if a little overbearing, it offers insight into the composer’s possible intent.  At this speed, the timpani also have the same imposing rhythmic effect as they do at the end of Mahler’s 3rd.  Overall, the performance surfaced as one of the more thoughtful type, trading a more intense theatricality for cumulative strength, colour and lyrical insight, and refreshing for exactly this reason. 

Jocelyn Morlock’s 5-minute piece Disquiet served as an admirable short opener and an effective prelude to the symphony. It was originally commissioned by CBC Radio for their Shostakovich Project and was premiered in 2006.  A dark struggle in the lower strings (reminiscent of the opening of the 10th Symphony) is registered from the opening, leading to ‘screaming’ upper strings whose lines inevitably descend downward.  Selective appearances of the xylophone and solo violin then set the stage for a mass welling-up in all the strings at the end.     

All the pieces on this final programme came together as an exceptionally rewarding package, and I am sure that everyone departed with a full warm glow of satisfaction – for the concert and, indeed, for the Vancouver Symphony’s success this year.  This was also the time for a sadder, but loving, farewell to three of the symphony’s very distinguished members, Associate Conductor Gordon Gerrard, Concertmaster Dale Barltrop and veteran violist, Ian Wenham, who retires after a full four decades with the orchestra.

 

© Geoffrey Newman 2016

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