Adrianne Pieczonka Photo: Johannes Ifkovits

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
Season Opening Weekend: Mahler’s Titan

Dates and Venue 20 & 21 September, 2019, 8pm | Orpheum Theatre

Conductor Otto Tausk Featured performer Adrianne Pieczonka

Programme Bekah Simms’ Is it now? (World Première/VSO Commission); Schubert’s Orchestral Songs; Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Titan

Reviewer John Jane

Maestro Otto Tausk, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and special guest operatic soprano Adrianne Pieczonka got season 101 under way with a program that would include something for everyone.

Featuring the music of emerging composers has become a tradition with season openings, so it was with a first public performance of twenty-nine year old Newfoundlander Bekah Simms' oddly titled Is It Now? that kicked off this one hundred and first season. Inspired by the composer’s own anxieties of a potential tragedy that might befall, the work is her first composition for a full orchestra. The tone is certainly pessimistic and the structure abstract. I found the work interesting, though not especially pleasant.

With over 600 songs, Franz Peter Schubert could be considered one of the best songwriters of the nineteenth century. The VSO selected just six for this program that had been transcribed from the original piano accompaniment from various orchestrators – some as famous as Benjamin Britten and Hector Berlioz. All of them sung in German by the strikingly tall Adrianne Pieczonka who captured each emotion evoked in the songs with her precise interpretation. One of the more popular of these orchestral songs is Erlkönig which sets Goethe’s text to music. Those who understand German would have noted that the singer had to give voice to four different characters in her spirited rendition. Among those songs selected for this concert, I actually found the most enjoyment in the Der Wegweiser. Originally part of Schbert’s Winterreise song cycle for tenor and piano, but for this performance transposed to suit a soprano voice. Ms. Pieczonka draws out every melancholic note of Anton Webern’s masterful orchestration.

The second half of the evening’s concert was given entirely to a performance of Mahler’s Titan, officially Symphony No. 1 in D Major. The secondary title of Titan would appear to be in contradiction to Mahler’s expansive style. The first of four movements, Langsam, schleppend, begins almost like a pastoral tone poem, played ethereally by the strings, and ending with a fanfare. Maestro Tausk remarked during the introduction that he “would like to perform Mahler every week.” He certainly appeared to be enjoying himself on the podium.

The third movement Feierlich und gemessen begins with a single double bass, soon joined by woodwind and cellos, then plucking violins reshaping the inflection to a folk dance. If you catch the strains of the children's song Frère Jacques, it’s not your imagination. The fourth movement Stürmisch bewegt is arguably the most evocative. Its instructional title gives a clue of what is to come (stormy). The opening percussion passage and daunting strings create in the mind a sharp image of a storm of gothic proportions.

The orchestra showed no signs of languor following the summer break. Vancouver concert-goers can certainly look forward to another banner season of great music.

© 2019 John Jane