Vancouver Symphony


Conductor: Mstislav Rostopovich

Venue: The Orpheum Theatre
Date: 25 January 2003

Reviewer: Lois Carter

Slava! A political overture

Given the contrast in political climate between Russia and the US at the time this was written, I was intrigued by Bernstein's tribute to Rostropovich in the repertoire for tonight's concert.

Leonard Bernstein, a Jewish American composer, started out as a sophisticated "art" composer, but found fulfillment in a world at least allied to commercial theater. The evening's tribute based on his unsuccessful musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue bore all the hallmarks of a 'curtain raiser', including the use of a pre- recorded tape of political campaign rhetoric.

Rostropovich drew an immediate response from both audience and orchestra as soon as he walked to the rostrum. There was a sense of celebration as the players responded to the rhythms and cross rhythms The dynamic extended percussion section, glorious trumpets and bright string sound, the final shout of SLAVA (Rostropovich's nickname meaning glory) created a rousing start. By the end of the overture it was in part apparent why 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had never been successful. However, re-written as a gesture of friendship to a close colleague on his appointment as music director to the Washington Symphony, it was a fitting tribute to a world-class musician.

Symphony no. 9 in E -flat major op. 70

Composed just after the allied victory in 1945 and first performed in Leningrad. Of the score he wrote, "musicians will love to play it and the critics will love to bash it." And bash it they did. Stalin was furious that there was no choir soloist or extended orchestra to hail him as leader. The response of the people however, was one of approval. Although the 9th contains the traditional contrast in movements, the first, third and final movement contain a scherzotic feel where playful tunes banter between the second and fourth (the last movements are played without pause.)

In the opening movement, the VSO created a carnival mood with flinty virtuosity. The exceptional talent demonstrated by the high wind and piccolo elicited applause. A moment's composure was needed before proceeding to the second movement.

Rostropovich was able to contain the mood. Despite interruption, the VSO moved into a hauntingly beautiful melody played by the clarinet, floating above gentle string pizzicato. The third movement marked Presto began with ecstatic high woodwind, interspersed with precise and lively triplets from the trumpets.

The Largo bore a more solemn message, carried by one of the most exquisitely rendered bassoon solos in the repertoire. The listener can detect a memorial to those lost at war. Lyrical phrases hover over redeeming chords in the strings. In the finale, reminiscent of a Russian circus, the music vaults and tumbles to a virtuoso close. Rostropovich is aware of every player in the orchestra and they are aware of him .The energy was tangible and the applause rapturous. The piccolo and bassoon players, in particular, received the accolade they deserved.

Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64

Tchaikovsky wrote the 5th Symphony at his house in Grovolske in the summer of 1888. It was first performed on 17 November that year. Tchaikovsky's six symphonies span the breadth of his career and portray the emotional life of the composer with remarkable accuracy It is a journey from despair to hope and Rostropovich with the VSO took us on that same journey musically.

The 5th Symphony is relaxed with over half the music expressed in warm major keys. The opening melancholic melody, beautifully played by the clarinets, announced the motto theme that recurs throughout. The VSO wove a carpet of sound rich in both texture and tone. The waltz was bright and rhythmic despite slightly uncertain places where the beat was overanticipated. The magnificent romantic melody for solo horn in the Andante was so emotionally involving that analysis becomes redundant The final grandiose repeat of the motto theme in the major key makes way for a brilliant coda for full orchestra.

This evening, we experienced the VSO not just playing notes, but making music and evoking deep emotion. Rostropovich, loved and revered by so many, has both the maturity and musicianship to communicate his experience of pain and joy, oppression and freedom, fear and courage. He hardly uses the baton. He is able to guide direct and draw the sound from the players in a way we seldom witness. None of life's experiences have diminished the stature of this remarkable man known as 'SLAVA'

We would like to express our appreciation to Rostropovich for his visit and wish him a Happy 75th.

2003, Lois Carter