Vancouver Symphony: June 2001

Modern Masterworks

Venue: The Orpheum

Dates: 16 and 18 June 2001

Reviewer: J. H. Stape

The closing concert of the Vancouver Symphony's 2000-01 season featured clever programming of a high order. Apparently determined to stretch Vancouver audiences out of their stubbornly anti-modernist bent, Maestro Tovey had the sparkling lure of Carmina Burana on the hook. Why not preface it by two ruthlessly modern soundscapes? The formula--ruse if you will--worked superbly, and those who came mainly for Orff's populist strains were, willy nilly, stimulated, irritated, or made thoughtful by the work of Charles Ives and Thomas Adès (pronounced Adesh).

This mixture of popular music and cerebral modernism was also a fitting tribute to the late composer and Burnaby resident Nicolai Korndorff, who passed away two weeks ago, the concert opening with the first movement of Bach's Piano Concerto in D minor played in Korndorff's memory with his youngest composition student, nine-year-old wunderkind Ian Wu, as soloist. How apt that this joyful performance promising continuity marked the passing of a life dedicated to music.

"General William Booth Enters into Heaven," a tribute to the Salvation Army's founder written in 1912 by American poet Vachel Lindsay and set by Charles Ives in 1914, was given an idiomatic rendition by baritone Brett Polegato. Aside from the frequently repeated line "Are you Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?" the text came across only in fits and starts, and it would have increased appreciation to have the poem in the programme, especially as we were given the complete text of Carmina Burana. Polegato's light baritone was pleasantly caressing, sensitively conveying the distinctly brash American idioms of this brief and dramatic composition whose urgency aptly suggested Booth's obsessive and fixated mission based on unwaveringly firm conviction.

Maestro Tovey put on a charm offensive for British composer Thomas Adès' more daunting 1997 composition "Asyla" (the plural of asylum), reminding listeners that an asylum was both a refuge and a place of incarceration. He also introduced and commented on the enormous and exotic forces required, including, in an augmented orchestra, a bass flute, a contrabass clarinet, a bass oboe, cowbells, paint tins, a plate of knives, and a water gong, no less than two upright pianos (one at honky tonky pitch), a grand piano, and a celeste, to say nothing of seven percussionists manipulating a variety of drums.

Filled to bursting point, the stage promised music of a loud, brassy, and flashy kind: the visual message was that size does count. But this was mere false advertising: the haunting four movement work offered an intensely etched portrait of a soul lost in its darkest corners, battling manic energy, neurotic obsession, and extreme lucidity in turn. Nervous and exhuberant, tranquil and lethargic, this is music that needs and deserves to be heard again and again, although the sheer size of the orchestra required ensures that this must be on compact disk rather than in the concert hall.

To move from Adès' broodingly intense score and the refuges of the spirit to Orff's joyously sensual celebration of wine, women, and song is to move from darkest night to brightest sunshine. True, the sunshine is overly bright at times, and the work's 1937 composition date partly explains why. It is, to use a 1950s word, quintessentially "life-affirming."

Maestro Tovey gave this full-bodied scorea dashing reading, and it would be churlish and pedantic to note the occasional ragged edge or hurried tempo. The Vancouver Bach Choir and Vancouver Youth Choir performed their hearts out. Soprano Tracy Dahl offered plangent beauty of tone to her role as Primavera incarnate, although her lovely voice is possibly too mature to convey the music's virginal freshness. All too briefly did we hear tenor Benoit Boutet, whose roasting swan was a delightful confection to the ear, delivered with a camp sense of humour. Brett Polegato sang intelligently, but at times his voice was too light for his role as the lusty masculine principle seducing spring into summer.

This was, in short, a gloriously full evening, at turns challenging and entertaining, charming and disturbing. What a triumphant finale to a fine season.

© 2001, J. H. Stape

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