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The VSO's Season Opener

Jon Kimura Parker, piano  and Bramwell Tovey, conductor

Works by Reznicek, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky - Orpheum, September 24, 2011 

     There was a nice feeling to this opening concert: strong attendance, two grand Russian romantic works to hear, an orchestra eager to play for its enthusiastic conductor Bramwell Tovey, and long-time Vancouver ‘darling’ Jon Kimura Parker – an original graduate of the Vancouver Institute of Music — as the soloist in the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3.

Jon Kimura Parker, piano

Jon Kimura Parker, piano

     The soloist indeed gave a very conscientious reading of the Rachmaninoff concerto, a dedication matched by the conductor.  Parker’s playing was more objective and unaffected than one might be used to, very faithful to the score but without much of the flexibility of phrase and dramatic point that has often been found in this work since Vladimir Horowitz’s classic accounts.  Parker’s relative ‘squareness’ in articulation in fact ended up producing an attractive understatement in the first movement, leaving the conductor to supply additional romantic glow.  And that Bramwell Tovey did, being in a particularly expressive mood on this occasion, often daring the strings to soar to the most elevated heights and the orchestra to produce the warmest surges of sound.   In the final two movements, the pianist certainly showed ample power and command when required but, at points, one did sense that his austerity did not quite match the effusiveness of the orchestra.  As well, the conductor’s desire to push the final arching phrases of the last movement to the breaking point led to timing difficulties exactly at the point where they should not be any.  But overall, this was a worthwhile experience.

     The conductor’s expressive zeal carried through to the popular Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 that completed the program.  Here Maestro Tovey came ‘ready to play’, often attempting to get his orchestra to produce a most intense and volcanic output, if only by sheer will alone.  Whether one agrees with the slightly exaggerated swellings from the lower strings at the opening of the work, the use of string portamento to increase expressive power, or the underlining of obvious Slavic rhythms, there was no doubt that the first movement was developed with judgment and strength.  The slow movement with its wonderful horn solo was also successful in degree, though its opening was somewhat too strong and the horn phrasing was not quite free enough to generate the special atmosphere needed.

     The opening night ‘act of passion’ occurred in the last movement, where the conductor pulled out all his willpower (and ‘whips’) to produce one of the most self-consciously driven performances that I have ever heard.  Of course, superficially exciting, and a good exercise to showcase the skills of the orchestra playing at ‘white heat’— but what would have poor Tchaikovsky thought?  This is not the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Tovey’s performance of the Symphony No. 6 (‘Pathetique’) a year and one half ago was much less demonstrative but an altogether fresher and richer experience.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011