Just days away from its 8-concert Asia tour (October 10-20) the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra took to the Orpheum stage and presented most of its travelling repertoire (Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 will also be played) to an enthusiastic audience (if only the penchant of some fans to burst into applause whenever the music stops could be quashed, allowing the rest of the patrons the opportunity to quietly reflect on what just transpired and prepare for what remains to be heard).
Asian music lovers will likely savour the wide-ranging palette of Jeffrey Ryan’s The Linearity of Light. Music director Bramwell Tovey’s jerky, multi-digit baton style was ideal for many of the effects (notably the string “snaps,” col legno strokes and the battery of drums in the latter portion). The music moved along easily with the solo lines (Linda Lee Thomas’ piano being the standout) ringing true even as some of their punctuation lacked absolute precision. A few smiles are bound to light up for the Williams’ Star Wars/Holst’s “Mars” segment before the mighty tam-tams flood the hall and the music—quite literally—evaporates into the rafters.
For the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (featuring Hilary Hahn who will also accompany the orchestra to South Korea and China), Tovey seemed content to adopt the role of music supervisor rather than thrust (tuttis) and parry (solo lines) leader/accompanist. This approach left the “Allegro moderato” largely bloodless except when Hahn was left completely on her own. The VSO “engine” needs a drier bow stroke from the cellos and basses to prevent the flow from stagnating (tellingly, the same sections when rendering pizzicato bass lines had the ideal length and a unanimous consensus on pitch).
During the middle frame, Hahn dug deep into the string and soared through the well-loved lines in a deeply personal, emotional fashion. The tendency to favour the extra brilliance and projection by hovering close to the bridge is not really necessary when the acoustics are fine and the complement of players relatively modest (compared with such ensembles as the Berlin Philharmonic whose Asian-tour film has just been released—cross-reference below).
In the “Finale,” Hahn’s technique made light (seemingly—few others can “toss off” the formidable challenges with such ease) of the treacherous passagework, but with Tovey frequently reacting after the fact, the ensemble had some crackle but little snap or pop. Let’s hope that subsequent performances will work towards a more supportive collaboration.
For the richly-deserved encore, Hahn presented a Bach “Sarabande” that, if recorded, should be hidden away in a vault and dusted off in a decade or so to “see how you’ve grown.” With so many skills at her disposal, the thoughtful soloist now has the luxury of moving into the realm of the few who are musicians first, instrumentalists second. There’s an overly pristine character in her craft that, to be sure, is most certainly welcome in its own right. Yet, the greedy amongst us look forward to the day when the humanity behind the phrases leads the way to an even more enduring result.
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique revealed a violin section that is miles down the road from previous versions. Ably led by guest concertmaster Benjamin Bowman (with just a smattering of show bowings in the late innings), when it was their turn, the idée fixe positively glowed. English horn Beth Orson and oboe (Roger Cole) were also models of expressivity—lifting the “Scène aux champs” onto the highlight reel. Nicola Everton’s saucy E-flat clarinet combined in demonic fashion with Ahilya Ramharry’s piccolo, adding much to the purposeful mayhem of drug-induced reveries and unholy dreams—a slightly stronger piece of cane would have broadened Cris Inguanti’s tone and improved the blend with the reeds around him.
The trumpets shone but were not immune to the occasional blemish while the trombones put the fear of the devil into every seat in the house. The duelling tympanists were superb (boding well for the Shostakovich). The moment in the sun (“Un bal”) for the harps was maddeningly untogether—hopefully that will be remedied on tour.
Overall, Tovey was far more animated in this orchestral tour de force, yet too many attacks, chord and tempi shifts were merely good when great is required to fully demonstrate the composer’s genius and present the score as imagined. In a nutshell, the inability to breathe and bow with the players robs much of the music of unanimity on many levels. Like the concerto, the result had much to admire but little to absolutely savour.
Once more, the added bonbon revealed more about the current state of the VSO/Tovey art than the main course. Berlioz’s Rakoczy March was taken at a breakneck clip that would have had the troops falling all over each other, but Tovey was a new man: too fast or not, the beat was less rigid, the left hand shaped convincingly and the players relaxed and joined the fray with compelling enthusiasm and joy. Even the necessity (due to the tempo) to stamp the brake pedal to the floor for the big finish resonated convincingly. If this meeting of the collective minds could become the norm rather than the exception, then the coming musical expedition will be a triumph of immense proportions.
Bon voyage! JWR