VSO with Benjamin Butterfield

Dates and Venue 26 and 28 April 2008 @ 8 pm and Sunday, 27 April @ 2pm | The Orpheum Theatre

Verdi La forza del destino: Overture Mozart Misero! o sogno Underhill World of Light Franck Symphony in D minor

Conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama Soloist Benjamin Butterfield

Reviewer J H Stape

This programme, given the flag-of-convenience title "The Force of Destiny," was a bit of a grab-bag, but not one without some pleasant surprises and real substance.

It began with a dynamic reading of the overture to Verdi's 1869 opera La forza del destino. Packed with the opera's most memorable and emotionally compelling arias, it served to whet the appetite ... for more Verdi, certainly a rarely heard composer in Vancouver.

The orchestra seemed a tad large, though the string section shimmered. The reading, although exuberant, could have done with a bit more subtlety, the forte sections ruthlesly pushed, a tendency from the podium throughout the evening.

Mozart's concert aria, "Misero! o sogno" (1783?), a mini-drama about sadness and love and emotional isolation, was ably performed by tenor Benjamin Butterfield, in fine voice. His phrasing was meticulous, his sensitivity to the text spot on, and his mastery of Mozart style evident from the first to the last note.

The main course, however, was the world première of Regina-born Vancouver composer Owen Underhill's VSO Commission World of Light -- not one of the Olympic snippets that have peppered programme's for the last couple of years already but a full and weighty twenty-minute long composition for tenor and orchestra.

Its three continuous movements feature texts from Boethius, the seventeenth-century English mystical poet Henry Vaughan, and Aquinas, the first and third in Latin. Apparently God's putative existence remains a vital and even thrilling subject for some, but the work happily avoids the gooey sentimentality of so much music about the religious experience, and one might more broadmindedly see it as simply about the quest (unresolved) for significance.

The music, dense and interesting, is sensuous, decidedly lyrical in inspiration, and intensely appealing, while very much in the contemporary idiom. Some of it markedly contrasts with the workaday prose of the Boethius and Aquinas. In the Vaughan section, its mystical core, the work soars, particularly in the non-verbal excursus. Both yearning and joy were deeply plumbed, and the sought-for profundity of statement achieved.

The orchestra gave its all, as did Maestro Akiyama, both ably supporting Mr Butterfield in a highly stylish and pleasing performance. The work is one that seduces by understatement and intensity, though it features colour a-plenty.

The Franck Symphony in D minor (1889) plunged one into immediate contrast: its large and brassy ambitions and weightiness, and its moody passion worlds away from mystical longing.

Bold gestures and huge drama characterize the opening Lento, while the second movement Allegretto is moody and rhythmic by turns. It's a pity that the audience didn't understand the overly-gentle reminder "to listen to the silences" because the mood was utterly ruined by applause between the first and second movements.

Maestro Akiyama wisely cut off the applaud-everything contingent (perhays they don't understand English?) by rushing from the second into the closing third movement Allegro, a splendid effusion of power and colour. The transitions were particularly well crafted, but the playing seemed overly loud in spots and in others a bit rushed, as the veteran Maestro let musicality play second fiddle to the schzam factor.

In the main, this was a pleasant and, at moments, truly illuminating concert, which if its parts didn't have much to do with one another, nonetheless added up to a very satisfying whole.

© 2008 J H Stape