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The VSO's Olympic Recelebration

Sara Davis Buechner, piano and Bramwell Tovey, conductor    

Works by Rachmaninoff and Dvorak, Orpheum, February 12, 2011 

     There were people playing hockey on the streets, the famous Canada-USA final was being projected on building walls at Robson Square; yes, Vancouver was celebrating its one year anniversary of the 2010 Olympics.  The nostalgic feeling of this occasion permeated the Orpheum too, where a buzzing, sold out house was also to witness two Olympian-size works of Dvorak and Rachmaninoff, composers themselves expert in national feeling and nostalgia, both ending up in the US but always missing their respective homelands of Bohemia and Russia.


     After the singing of the national anthem by all, and a little Tchaikovsky appetizer, Sara Davis Buechner, piano professor at UBC and a distinguished Koch recording artist, came on stage with conductor Bramwell Tovey to perform the wonderfully grand and rhapsodic Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2.  The spirit of the fast-paced hockey games outside must have rubbed off on the performers since, from the very opening of this work, it was like being thrown into ‘overtime’; everything very excitable and moving all over the place.  Superficially engaging, but no one seemingly scored; in fact, some of Rachmaninoff’s own compositional goals were challenged.

    So propelled was the first movement that the pianist could not settle into any sort of consistent line of development. Soft piano playing did not really project as the orchestra was often too loud, leaving just fragments of runs to surface here and there.  And the wonderfully-lingering pensive and rhapsodic moments could not register because there was simply no space to fit them in.    Thankfully, the expansive second movement gave us a respite but I think the pianist was already exhausted.   The last movement returned us to the fray, sort of battering through, but without the sweep and sentient glow that makes this work so memorable.  This may have been ‘power play’ Rachmaninoff, but I am certain a number of additional penalties should have been levied!

     Then, from the crowds and hockey celebrations to Bohemia’s woods and forests, in the restrained, rustic performance of Dvorak’s New World Symphony that followed.   Here there was ample quiet playing and no hurry at all.  Conductor Tovey’s opening movement was nonetheless controversial.  After the hushed opening, he built the main theme up strongly in the strings and brass but then seized upon transitional wind phrases to slow it down to almost a complete standstill, gently increasing the tempo again to reach the next dramatic climax, and so on.  Even fifty years ago, critics would have regarded any substantial slowing in this movement as unacceptable since Dvorak himself did not mark any speed changes.  Tovey’s slowing was likely more severe than anyone could have dreamed of and, predictably, the sweep and cumulative power of the movement just weren’t there.

     The following movement is one of the highlights of this work: it fuses Dvorak’s new-found love for American black ‘spirituals’ with his own simple nostalgia for his Czech homeland.  The use of the English horn for the initial ‘Swing low, sweet chariot” theme is quite unique.  This was played most delicately over very quiet strings.  It was only later in the movement that stylistic issues arose.  The strings somehow took on the sheen of Wagner’s Tristan, the brass, the epic quality of Parsifal, and the lovely string quartet interlude was projected as in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro.  All of this is too sophisticated for such simple, heartfelt music.

     The final two movements were not free of self-conscious touches from the winds and timpani, but were attractive enough to close this work reasonably well.  One point though: after the massed brass climax of the finale, the last note of this work should be dominated by winds that float magically upward into nothing.  This stroke of genius was completely spoiled here, because the brass remained dominant to the end.

     This concert naturally had the feeling of a ‘public celebration’, so nobody was going to be particularly fussy about the performances in any case.  But it was great to see a jam-packed Orpheum and so many flag-bearing, music lovers together.  It should be like this more often.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011