The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Tea & Trumpet Series: From Russia with Love

Date & Venue Thursday, November 17, 2016, 2pm | Orpheum Theatre

Conductor William Rowson Host Christopher Gaze

Programme Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila Overture; Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; Liadov's The Enchanted Lake; Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition; Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty; Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'or; Stravinsky’s Firebird

Reviewer John Jane

It’s fourteen years since Otto Lowy, the original host of this hugely popular matinee series with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra sadly passed away. I’m sure that Otto would be delighted to find that the ‘Tea and Trumpets Series’ is as successful as ever in the hands of current host Christopher Gaze and conductor William Rowson.

Mikhail Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla was an excellent choice as a curtain-raiser. Composed in just one evening, the work has a heroic exuberance that is distinctly Russian. Its robust melody lines give way to serene lyrical passages from the strings section, ultimately concluding in a rousing climax.

No Russian themed concert would be complete without serving up Tchaikovsky. What better example of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music than his operatic treatment of Alexander Pushkin's verse novel? Eugene Onegin: Polonaise is a vigorous dance done in the master's grand manner. Maestro Rowson’s conducting was fittingly imposing in the big moments.

Anatoly Liadov has been given short shrift by music historians. He is perhaps better known for not composing Firebird than for the elegant tone poems he has created. There is nothing wrong with knowing one’s own strengths and his orchestral miniature The Enchanted Lake is certainly one of Liadov's best works. As performed by the VSO the piece is evocatively pastoral and has, as mentioned in host Christopher Gaze’s introduction “fragments of a yearning melody.”

Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is a collection of ten pieces written as a tribute to his friend, architect Victor Hartmann. The music is Mussorgsky’s impressions of Hartmann’s paintings, interspaced with the recurring Promenade, (walking music) representing the composer’s passage from painting to painting. In the concluding item, the atmospheric The Great Gate of Kiev, William Rowson’s pace was just about perfect. Its powerful melody lines more than anything else in this suite paints a compelling image of pre-soviet Russia.

Next was the second selection from Tchaikovsky. This time, the orchestra switches from an operatic score to a ballet score with The Sleeping Beauty Suite, opus66a. Featuring Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on harp, the music simply bristles with marvellous notions and imaginative orchestration. Listening, my mind drifted to wondering how many young girls have danced to this music in their parent’s living room.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq D'or was the third piece in the afternoon repertoire to be transcribed from one of Pushkin's novels, but this story has its roots in political satire. The extract taken from the operatic score was The Wedding March. It was Rimsky-Korsakov’s final opera and arguably his most provocative. Initially, it was barred from production. By the time of its first public performance, the composer had regrettably passed away. Musically, this was an exhilarating and exotic treat.

Many of us connect Igor Stravinsky with ballets like The Rite of Spring and Petrushka; and justifiably so, Stravinsky's ballet music is amongst the most enjoyable of the twentieth century. However, his major breakthrough both with the public and with critics was with Firebird, a commission he inherited when Liadov was unable to get his act together. The Infernal Dance, Berceuse and Finale exploits every element of the modern orchestra including the marimba and harp. The piece's shifting rhythms and ‘rise and fall’ dynamics are precisely executed.

© 2016 John Jane