THE VSO100 CLOSING CONCERTS AFFIRM A SPECIAL LEGACY
James Ehnes, Lucy Wang and Nicolas Wright (violin); Peter Wispelwey and Tate Zawadiuk (cello); Ben Heppner (narrator), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/ Otto Tausk (conductor): Music of Van Der AA, R. Strauss, Schipizky, Coulthard, Bernstein, Morlock, Tchaikovsky and others, Orpheum, June 8 and 11, 2019.
After celebrations at the beginning of the season and even bigger events including the VSO’s ‘Day of Music’ in January 2019, the closing two concerts of the VSO’s centenary year are upon us. The events also marked the successful completion of Music Director Otto Tausk’s initial season with the orchestra. His influence on programming was apparent in the first of these concerts, featuring the North American premiere of Dutch composer Michel van der AA’s akin for solo violin, solo cello and orchestra, as coupled with Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. The second event was perhaps more important: a splendid ‘gala’ that showcased the orchestra’s history in music and visuals (narrated by the celebrated tenor Ben Heppner), with James Ehnes contributing a scintillating Tchaikovsky concerto at the end.
THE CLOSING CONCERT OF THE SEASON
This concert opened with a nicely spirited and idiomatic reading of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Overture – actually the very first work performed by the orchestra in January 1919. Van der AA’s composition followed directly. Over the past decade, this young Dutch composer has established a strong presence in musical theatre and has been both adventurous and successful in multimedia productions utilizing film and electronics. The current composition nonetheless reverted to basics: a thoroughly accessible piece of neo-romantic music built on the weaving of micro and macro structural and rhythmic components. It was given its world premiere only a few weeks ago in Cologne by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Peter Eötvös, with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Sol Gabetta as the soloists. The soloists here were the VSO’s concertmaster Nicolas Wright and the esteemed Dutch cellist Peter Wispelwey (replacing Harriet Krijgh).
The opening with harp and neo-Mahlerian textures might have struck one as a bit too familiar, but the entrance of the soloists affirmed a poignant spirit, one that appeared selectively throughout the work and gave the piece a distinctive resonance. There is plenty of insistent interaction and motion within the ‘micro’ fabric (soloists and strings): these elements often play rhythmic tag with each other, sometimes chasing each other, other times reinforcing each other, but always maintaining a degree of intimacy and human feeling. Hence, the work’s title akin. As with the designs of composers like Dutilleux, these micro features interact with the ‘macro’ components of the full orchestra, especially the brass, which exhibit a more grandiose and public demeanour and often pursue their own rhythmic objectives, sometimes bluff and emphatic. The work evolves with considerable motion and intensity, full of rhythmic juxtaposition, sometimes verging on the cinematic. Perhaps the larger orchestral gestures seemed more generic than the defining micro responses, and I am tempted to think the work’s ingenuity might stand out better with less fulsome dramatic gestures. Very enjoyable all the same, with a particularly attentive contribution from the soloists, strings and brass.
The Also Sprach Zarathustra was likely designed to showcase how far the orchestra has come in Maestro Tausk’s first year. It certainly came ready to play, and one could hardly cavil with its spirited address or unanimity. However, the conductor’s interpretation was quite unusual: this was possibly the quickest and most positive Zarathustra I have ever heard, almost completely free of Nietzschean complication or struggle. Perhaps this was intentional: philosophical meandering is hardly a redeeming input into a centenary celebration. In fact, the only reference to the work’s equivocal underbelly occurred towards the end of the work’s first half – where the quiet double basses struggle to find their defining C-G-C chord – but this seemed more calculated than a genuine outgrowth of the musical argument. The initial passage of uncertainty and doubt immediately after ‘Sunrise’ – with quietly stabbing double basses and burdened strings attempting to break the constraints of Nature – didn’t register at all. The transition was taken so swiftly and straightforwardly that all one ultimately registered was the entry of the bold, confident cello lines of mankind in full flourish.
Overall, the performance lay outside the traditional template for the work: it had a pleasing efficiency but the internal conflicts at play were incompletely registered. One was reminded variously of the zest of Aus Italien and the sentimentality of the Sextet from Capriccio – cultivated, sweet, with tinges of bourgeois adornment. And these confident, coaxing lines continued through to the later sections of the work, each evolving as a type of vignette. The sweetness achieved in the waltz sequence was perhaps the crowning glory of this progression – no macabre waltz here! Expectedly, the famous ‘riddle’ Strauss placed in his ambiguous ending (exploiting the tonal conflict between C major and B major) was left hanging. It seemed only like a grand party had finished, where the last patrons were leaving, and the lights were dimming. All the same, after the many galactic and elemental treatments of this work since Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ appeared in 1968, it was a refreshing experiment to hear the work as a gentler and less demonstrative study in musical caprice.
The second ‘gala’ concert was intriguing in its list of invitees, mixing the orchestra’s current personnel and supporting institutions with so many past founders, executive members and retired VSO musicians. It was a wonderful intergenerational tribute. Locally-born and internationally-heralded Ben Heppner narrated the concert and did a fine job in setting down a brief history of the orchestra’s evolution, as documented fully in David Gordon Duke’s VSO 100: A Century of Memorable Moments. The in-concert narrative was understandably pretty elliptical and sometimes I found the accompanying (collage-like) visuals a little too fast paced to really register. I also found the attempt to mix historical photos and film with marketing images for the VSO’s mission in the 21st century a little confounding, worthy as the intentions obviously were.
I’m sure many of the attendees had their own personal remembrances of the VSO’s history, which might usefully be shared somewhere. From my own recollections, I recall being taken to VSO concerts by my parents at the old Georgia Auditorium (a converted hockey arena) in the late 1950s; nostalgic, yes, but also firm testimony to the fact that the orchestra lacked a worthy concert home throughout its early history. The arrival of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in 1959 was an important breakthrough but, unfortunately, its acoustics were opaque and remote, and the venue had to be shared with others; the eventual refurbishment of the Orpheum Theatre as the symphony’s home in 1977 was the defining development.
It was the concerts with the greatest conductors that left the deepest impression on me in my youth. Bruno Walter’s appearance in the 1958 Vancouver International Festival was remarkable, commentators noting that it was the first time the VSO ever played Brahms with the lyricism and tonal beauty of the Vienna Philharmonic. Sir Thomas Beecham’s concert a year or two later brought the greatest anticipation, not least since we were all waiting a long time for him to come on stage. 15 minutes elapsed, a half-hour elapsed, but the aging Beecham did not appear. Finally, after 35 minutes, he strutted on stage, declaring in his customary brazen tone, ‘Don’t worry. I’m not dead yet!’ and launched into superlative performances of Mozart and Haydn. Leonard Bernstein’s appearance playing Mahler created unrivalled excitement as well, but his style was not regarded as preferable to Bruno Walter’s. The Bernstein legacy has lived on with the orchestra as Bramwell Tovey actually deputized for him in the Bernstein Festival in London in 1986.
In retrospect, one finds considerable variability in the VSO’s music directors over the past half century. Meredith Davies (1964–1970) brought exploratory spirit and insight to the English repertoire (recall that he premiered Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in 1962) but tended to be plain in more standard repertoire. He formed part of an era that saw a number of musicians from London’s top orchestras come to the VSO. Kazuyoshi Akiyama (1972–1985) – still Conductor Laureate – brought a greater degree of precision to the orchestra which paid off in bigger showpieces but he still seemed short-winded in more classical fare. Akiyama arrived at a most fortunate time for classical music in the city: the VSO allegedly had the largest subscription base of any orchestra in North America for some of these years. The rough times occurred in the mid-80s, coincident with the orchestra’s appointment of their most celebrated music director thus far, Rudolf Barshai (1985-1988). Unfortunately, Barshai’s uncompromising devotion to Russian specialties plus a general heaviness and severity in conducting style were not the recipe for combating declining ticket sales, and the orchestra effectively declared bankruptcy in 1988. After its restructuring, Sergiu Comissiona (1991–2000) took the helm and, for many, succeeded in securing the most consistent interpretative profile from the orchestra in its history.
The appointment of Bramwell Tovey (with President Jeff Alexander) defined the VSO tradition in its contemporary form. Faced again with financial difficulties at the millennium (as did many orchestras), the combination of Tovey’s leadership, charisma and programming skills with Alexander’s financial acumen provided the greatest stability and success the orchestra had ever achieved. It also branched out in new organizational directions, such as in the creation of the VSO School of Music and the Whistler Institute while giving a more prominent role to New Music and the orchestra’s Composer-In-Residence position. Kelly Tweeddale has strengthened initiatives even further since taking over as President in 2015 although, as luck would have it, she is about to depart for the San Francisco Ballet. Tovey’s string of contract renewals added up to an unprecedented 18 years (2000-2018); Otto Tausk now inherits the mantle.
There were many fond memories from this gala event, but one I might mention occurred just as I arrived and was going to my seat. A gentleman who I was standing beside (and who I vaguely recalled) happened to ask me what was going to be performed. He commented, ‘I actually conducted the VSO during the strike’. It turned out to be Peter McCoppin, and the season he was referring to was 1988-89. In retrospect, that season was critical for the orchestra’s survival, since the VSO actually achieved a surplus for the first time in years.
THE GALA CONCERT
The first half of this concert consisted of smaller pieces of significance to the orchestra’s history and initiatives. Frederick Schipizky’s Aurora Fanfare (1992) started things off, a well written and upbeat ceremonial piece. Schipizky originally joined the orchestra in 1977 as a double bassist and his commissioned orchestral compositions have served Canadian music well. Then there were three widely contrasted pieces drawn from Jean Coulthard’s Canada Mosaic. The first ‘Lullaby for a snowy night’ might have been slight but who could doubt the composer’s masterly control of Delius-like colour and texture. Coulthard (1908-2000) is now recognized as the great pioneer she was, and the VSO have honoured her recently with the ‘Jean Coulthard Readings’, a series in which emerging local composers can try out their new compositions with the orchestra.
Next, there were the estimable alumni artists of the VSO School of Music, who had debuted in the orchestra’s summer concerts when they were younger. Here James Ehnes came on stage to perform duos with violinist Lucy Wang (in Bach) and cellist Tate Zawadiuk (in Dvorak-Morawetz), with admirable results. Both artists are now 21 and play in the Viano String Quartet, which took third prize in the 2018 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition. Two pieces from Grieg’s Peer Gynt and the energetic Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s On the Town padded out the offerings, though it seemed that Maestro Tausk settled more for precision than colour and frisson here.
If the first half had a bit of the feel of a relaxed summer picnic, more tangible excitement was felt after the intermission. Jocelyn Morlock, who has had her own festival of world premieres over her five-year stint as the VSO’s Composer-In-Residence (culminating in a 2018 Juno Award) added another one here with Strange Loop – and what a winner it was. It literally flies of the page, having a zest and sparkle akin to Bernstein’s Candide Overture, and some of its rhythmic syncopation too. A perfect opening overture at 5 minutes in length, and I am sure many orchestras will be attracted to it.
Finally, it was time for what everyone was waiting for: the James Ehnes show, featuring the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. As an iconic Canadian artist, Ehnes plays so many special concerts throughout the world these days, but it was nice to see him so involved and committed for this event. This is perhaps not surprising: he first met Bramwell Tovey when he was 11, has played with the VSO since 1995, and his award-winning concerto recording with the orchestra in 2006 marked a major turning point in his career. Ehnes’s beauty in the concerto lies in his coaxing, refined lyrical lines and superlative detailing, even if the feeling is not particularly Russian. But his passion and full-out virtuosity at the end of both the first and last movements was an absolute showstopper; his fast fiddling had to be seen to be believed. The violinist’s tender, elegant lines in the Canzonetto were clearly less ostentatious but no less effective, catching superbly the sweet fragility of Tchaikovsky’s musings.
This performance was remarkable in generating the right type of euphoria to wave goodbye to the orchestra’s 100th season in style. Everyone moved on to the after-parties in a most congenial and glowing spirit.
© Geoffrey Newman 2019
Photo Credits: Matthew Baird, Ian Lindsay, Victory Photography