The Vancouver Symphony
Reviewer: J. H. Stape
Symphonic programming simply doesn't get better. From the noble-sounding strains of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg overture to the red-hot beat of late twentieth-century percussion, to the celebration of life of Brahms's most smiling symphony, this Vancouver Symphony Masterworks Series concert offered razzle-dazzle music-making. The evening featured brilliantly instructive connections, setting off the self-confident and ambitious late-nineteenth century tonal landscape with modern eclecticism. But that said, the night belonged to the deaf drum soloist Evelyn Glennie whose virtuoso playing was of white-heat brilliance.
Wagner's Overture to De Meistersinger von Nuremburg received a thoroughly theatrical reading, with some particularly polished playing by the brass section. Although the opening strains suffered a slight loss of detail, Maestro Tovey's characteristically thoughtful performance revelled in lovingly shaded particulars, achieving an appropriately ringing and grandiose overall effect . If one did not quite champ at the bit to hear the whole of Wagner's very, very long opera after this mouthful-sized tidbit, seeing Maestro Tovey in the opera pit would be an assured pleasure.
The choice of Wagner was a deliberate one for Rousse's De gerette Alberich, written for Evelyn Glennie, takes up where Wagner left off, tracing the psychology of the dwarf whose rejection of love for gold opens The Ring cycle. With knowing winks and nudges throughout to Wagner's music, this extraordinarily vivid and complex work, though not strictly programmatic, gains infinitely from knowing Alberich's story--not, alas, provided in the evening's programme notes. Whether playing the washboard (Alberich transformed into a toad?) or the steel drum or the snare drum, Glennie was a consummate percussion artist, living the music, and convincing more than one sceptic that the time for the drum as a solo classical instrument has arrived indeed.
Rousse's demanding score captures the alienation and frustration at the core of Alberich's deformed personality, reaching at moments towards almost unbearable tension as the whole orchestra becomes a percussion instrument aggressively confronting the individual's perplexity and struggle before a bewildering, hostile world. Drawing on Wagner both in its system of leitmotifs and as a structuring device, the piece was an exciting revelation of introspection, bursts of rage, and outpourings of anguish and insists on the continuities and divergences between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century musical palettes. The performance was thrilling, like the collaborative demands made on the conductor, soloist, and orchestra.
By contrast, Askel Masson's no less demanding Snare Drum Concerto was often merely showy and lacking in depth. The "shazzam" effect of its long, long cadenzas blurred conveying neurotic obsessiveness and endless anxiety, ending up instead in a merely technical tour de force. Glennie on the snare drum was, however, never less than compelling, but qua music this was, whatever its surface impressiveness, rather like too much whip cream, tasty at first but cloying in the end.
Brahms's second symphony returned the audience to a more familiar and soothing tonal landscape, one that seemed overly tame by comparison with the tumult and chaos of what had gone before. The pastoral character of the symphony's opening was convincingly etched, and the movement's dramatic tensions slowly and carefully built. The Adagio non troppo of the second movement was perhaps a shade too troppo, with charm prevailing in the third. A headlong burst of energy rushed the listener to the architecturally constructed climax. Maestro Tovey's rendition of this war-horse was not only tasteful and stylish but also tastefully restrained, and the string section shone with a silvery tone.
© 2002, J. H. Stape