Vancouver Symphony

Mark Frewer at Big Sur

Michio Kitazume Ei-Sho John Adams The Dharma at Big Sur (Canadian première) Stravinsky Petrouchka (1947 version)

Conductor Bramwell Tovey | Violin Mark Fewer

Dates 5 and 7 November 2005 at 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre Reviewer J H Stape

Mark Frewer
Concertmaster Mark Frewer

Classical music audiences tend to be conservative, and it's still a bold, perhaps even risky, move to programme "new" music in a regular series concert. Aside from pairing the occasional showpiece opener with mainstream repertoire, the VSO does contemporary music in its Roundhouse series in Yaletown. This concert confronted the perennial quandary of audience "comfort zone" head on: with pieces written in 1993, 2003, and 1911/1947, a six-string electric violin, and woodblocks and pebbles in the percussion section, "newness" was not only its keynote but also its raison d'être.

Kitazume's Ei-sho (Dawn Light), as its title suggests, is much in the Debussy/programme music tradition. Using novel sound clusters and instruments (Japanese woodblocks and garden pebbles among them) it describes sunrise, that magical moment of cosmic transition. From its low, brooding opening, the piece moves to concentrate on swift flashes of tremulous light on the ether. Bird twitterings are subtly suggested, and the emphasis then shifts to the delicately evanescent, diaphanous quality of ever-changing light. Tension builds, almost unbearably, until the drama of the full sunburst comes, and finally the red-hot core of the sun itself sears and blinds and beats down in full tropical splendour. A piece of brilliant colours and nervous anticipatory gestures, Ei-sho is brilliantly evocative, shot through with musical ideas.

American composer John Adams turned to Beat novelist Jack Kerouac for inspiration for his The Dharma at Big Sur for electric violin and orchestra. Composed in "just intonation" rather than the now long traditional "equal temper," the music is self-consciously West Coast and at the edge: East meets West, the surf rolls, we get high, we're self-absorbed, deliberately weird. A certain plaintiveness nonetheless dominates the opening movement, entitled "A New Day." The second jittery movement, "Sri Moonshine," obsessively searches for transcendence and big effects. It positively aches to soar, but to my mind (and ear), never quite gets there. Mark Frewer brought his customary virtuosity to this his first solo outing with the orchestra since being appointed Concertmaster, and he repeatedly slayed the technical dragons with aplomb, delivering an assured performance.

Lastly, there was what was "new" in its day: Stravinsky'sPetrouchka -- music simply too good for the ballet stage, though the ballet version ending was a wholly welcome choice here. Brightly coloured, full-bodied, bristling with musical inventiveness, and bold of ambition, this music, a century after its writing, remains remarkably and intensely "new." Maestro Tovey urged out an edgy, diamond-sharp performance of immense stylishness of this appealing and enchanting work. The violins shimmered, and the brass section made a brilliantly polished contribution. Razor-edged tempi and carefully balanced dynamics yielded a vivid, convincing rendition.

There is one more "new" thing to note: the first use of those large TV-screens at the "Great Classics" concerts. Useful for the chatty introductions (hey, Mark's from Newfoundland, and coo, there's his six-string violin in close-up) they were otherwise an irritating -- and frankly vulgar -- distraction of constantly moving light even when you weren't inclined to look at them straight on. Yeah, it's a populist age, all right, and serious music is hard, and bums in seats are surely all important, but this gimmick, which works quite well in the "Musically Speaking" series, suggested a lack of confidence in music's power to communicate and fascinate on its own, non-visual terms. Will popcorn be next?

© 2005 JH Stape