Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Sharman, Britten, Holst

Conductor: Kazuyoshi Akiyama. Soloist: Scott St. John, Violin. Featured Choirs: Chor Leoni Men's Choir and Elektra Women's Choir

Performed at The Orpheum Theatre, 20 January 2001

This evening of inspired programming provided a rich -- indeed almost overly rich -- retrospective survey of twentieth-century compositional techniques. These were perhaps all the more focussed because chronological programming was necessarily abandoned to accommodate the programme's main work, Gustav Holst's massive and perennially popular The Planets.

Rodney Sharman, the orchestra's composer-in-residence from 1997 to 2000, usefully and genially introduced his ‘Letters for the Future' (1999), given its second performance by the orchestra, last time with the Vancouver Bach Choir. Set to a text from Galileo's Dialogo dei massimi sistemi, about the communicative power of writing, the piece for male choir, string orchestra, and percussion, evoked the wonder of language with understated awe beautifully rendered by the hushed tones and carefully modulated delivery of the Chor Leoni Men's Choir.

With occasional nods towards Samuel Barber and Ligeti, Sharman's paean to human ingenuity was a prelude of things to be returned to with the evening relentlessly moving towards the wordless, haunting conclusion of The Planets, as Holst, in his ‘Neptune' movement, movingly evokes a space where human communication ceases in the non-being of endless void.

Benjamin' Britten's rarely heard Violin Concerto, Op. 15 (1939), given an intensely focussed and emotional reading by Canadian violinist Scott St. John, moved into a realm of concentrated sorrow and anguish of nearly unbearable intensity. Effortlessly rising to the piece's technical challenges, St. John's performance, offering great tonal beauty, exhibited a continuous sensitivity to the score's nuances and colours. His detailed playing fully explored the emotional depths of this heartbreakingly beautiful piece completed shortly after Britten's arrival in the United States for wartime exile.

A showpiece for any orchestra, Holst's The Planets (1917) offers ample opportunities for a showy display of technical mastery and emotional range. Maestro Akiyama certainly revelled in this justly popular piece, seizing every occasion to demonstrate the orchestra's considerable talents but never descending to mere showiness.

From the large sound and aggressively pulsating rhythms of the opening ‘Mars' movement to the dreamlike conclusion of ‘Neptune' (Pluto had not yet discovered), Akiyama controlled his huge forces with impeccable restraint and a baton of steel – or rather platinum since the touch was never heavy though always firm.

His careful control yielded a coherent reading of this immensely appealing and evocative work, one at turns grand and whimsical, bombastic and tragic. He was equally skilled at fashioning its large theatrical gestures as in caressing out its nuances. The brief offstage contribution of the Elektra Women's Choir brought an intensely emotional evening to a quiet close, the music continuing for a few poignant moments after all playing and singing on stage had ceased.

The concert was splendidly shaped, as much an advanced seminar in certain aspects of twentieth-century music and music-making as a showcase for the individual and collective talents brought together.--J.H. Stape