Vancouver Symphony


Brahms Academic Festival Overture for Chorus and Orchestra Strauss Four Last Songs Beethoven Symphony No. 9

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Soprano Erin Wall Mezzo-soprano Anita Krause Tenor Colin Ainsworth Baritone Russell Braun Vancouver Bach Choir

Dates 2 and 4 June 2007@ 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer J H Stape

A great fan of Beethoven, the English novelist E. M. Forster spoke of the composer's music as "glorious noise." He might have said that there was none more glorious in the known universe, with the 9th Symphony the pinnacle of the composer's achievement.

Purists might prefer the final quartets or the last three piano sonatas, but the general public has given its heart to the Choral Symphony -- murdered annually in Japan at Christmastime, wrestled into cliché as the European Union's anthem, and trotted out to open or close a season. Whatever is done to it, its striking originality always stands out, and it is so essential to the Western sensibility that even a mediocre performance sends tingles down the spine. A great one can be near life-changing. That offered by the VSO, in a finely balanced programme, was a superb one, lovingly performed and shot through with dramatic tension and fine playing.

Maestro Tovey, the centre of a veritable whirlwind, built his edifice carefully. Attentive to detail, he caressed out a white-heat performance from the orchestra, surely playing on top form these days. It would be hard single out sections so evenly matched, but the strings glowed and the percussion was characteristically impressive in music of emotional storm and earthquake. The performance was all the more compelling because it was so finely controlled, passionate emotionally yet deeply committed to musical values. Intelligence of a high order was rigorously applied and elicited thrilling results, not only in the breathtaking intensities of the Adagio, that music written for eternity, but also in the vibrant Scherzo.

The final movement featured soloists that were nothing less than a dream team: Erin Wall's hauntingly beautiful soprano, elegantly used in Strauss's Four Last Songs, floated up and up and compelled by its sophistication and sheer beauty, while Russell Braun's exquisite baritone voice rang out thrillingly in the opening "O, Freunde!", all the more so since he gave a hard-hitting dramatic reading to Schiller's text, score tightly closed in hand, and singing his heart out.

Colin Ainsworth's beautiful light and honey-coloured tenor was a revelation, slightly covered for a moment or two by the large forces, but impressively used none the less. Mezzo soprano Anita Krause, given somewhat less to do than her peers, was on their high level. And then there was the Vancouver Bach Choir, rehearsed to perfection by their director Bruce Pullan, and delivering a solid, highly disciplined performance in a piece where the temptation to let go into emotion (and raggedness) is never far distant.

The evening began well with a vibrant reading of Brahms's Academic Festival Overture, all joviality and brio that concluded with a spirited "Gaudeamus Igitur," as youthful brashness and high jinks became stately, and evanescence momentarily came into consciousness, like sobriety after a binge.

Canadian-American soprano Erin Wall (a brilliant Marguerite in a recent Vancouver Opera Faust) gave an incandescent and deeply moving performance of Strauss's Four Last Songs. Her sensitivity to these beautiful texts was flawless, the words the centre of her focus but the voice, continuously elegant, rising effortlessly in the forte passages and breathtakingly subtle in the pianissimi. As the cycle (not originally ordered as now given) moves towards increasing darkness, with the whispered "Can this at last be death?" closing it, the singer superbly conveyed noble resignation in "Im Abentrot" in a performance of singular intensity marked by taste.

This was a concert for the memory box: superbly shaped by the conductor, intensely communicative, even firey, and finely executed by the soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Forget the Winter Olympics hype: the tourists ought to be coming here to enjoy a musical life whose level and variety ought to be the envy of many a city this size. If there were any real occasion for civic self-congratulation and pride, it is the VSO at this happy stage in its long history. To borrow a phrase from the streets: "Go, Vancouver Symphony, go!"

© 2007 J H Stape