Vancouver Symphony: May 2001

Brahms and Rachmaninoff

Venue: The Orpheum

Date(s): 26 and 28 May 2001

Reviewer: J. H. Stape

This concert brought together that tried-and-true winning combination: something new and something familiar. A world premiere commission from Vancouver composer, Paul Steenhuisen, jockeyed with two warhorses of the concert hall, and there was surely no stinting in an evening composed of cerebral meditation, soul-sweeping conceptions, and caressingly rendered large effects. Add a dash of postmodern challenge, several cups of traditional harmony, and lashings of thunderous and pulsating rhythms. There was enough "charm" here to stimulate, to daunt, or to move the "savage breast."

Charmingly introduced in a lightly bantering conversation between Maestro Tovey and the composer, Paul Steenhuisen's "your soul is a bottle of thirsting salt" was at turns evocative and haunting. While it makes numerous gestures to a panoply of modern and post-modern shibboleths, it boldly never committed itself to any of them. Highly individual, the musical palette was large, the writing for strings profoundly moving, and the determinedly cerebral and abstract qualities of the piece--a meditation on the nature of soul--compelled attention.

The slightly over extended development only proved that Mr Steenhuisen had much to say, the musical ideas pouring out generously and demanding no less spacious extension. The reliance on such large and varied forces to do so was, however, slightly showy, and a somewhat scaled down orchestra might have achieved even greater impact. The writing for the strings shimmered and glowed, and a thoughtful patron might ask Mr Steenhuisen to write a piece for string orchestra as his next commission.

The juxtaposition of Steenhuisen's piece with Brahms was almost too vivid a contrast, a miniature history lesson in musical and cultural sensibility. What a sea change from the postmodern to the late romantic! The sweeping grandeur of Brahms's opening Allegro con brio--confident, towering, majestic--presents a strain effectively banished from our own emotional and musical capacities. The sheer ambition and the unutterable largeness of conception elegantly put into perspective how much the late twentieth century has moved towards the modern baroque.

Bramwell Tovey offered an architecturally crafted reading, a shade overly quick in the first and last movements, while there was an occasional blurred effect in the second and third. His nonetheless thoroughly convincing view of the score brought out rich playing, particularly from the strings.

The Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto is always an occasion. The technical demands of this Everest of the piano concerto repertoire is simply a no-go zone for the garden variety pianist, and when the work is programmed virtuoso playing is virtually guaranteed.

Barry Douglas, Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medalist, offered this in spades in a dazzling performance shot through with poetry and intelligence. His playing in the Intermezzo was overwhelmingly intense, introspective, and brooding, a carefully poised moment before a finale that pulled out all the stops and dashed headlong and boldly to silence.

Alas, there was a very sour note to the evening: the near capacity audience could have done with some crowd control to hem in loutish behaviour. The Cell Phone Symphony went on no less than three times during the course of the evening. Watches beeped. The Coughers Chorus was frequently at work at piano moments, and the Applaud-Every-Movement boffins were out in force.

Perhaps along with its now traditional expression of gratitude to a sponsor before the beginning of a programme, the management could make an announcement about proper concert-going manners? Pity that these need pointed out, but too many Mr Louts and Ms Boors are attending musical events for lack of other ways to spend their time.

© 2001, J. H. Stape

top / back