Vancouver Symphony

Dukas, Saint-Saëns, and Jeffrey Ryan

Dates 26 and 28 February 2006, 8pm Venue Orpheum Theatre

Dukas The Sorcerer's Apprentice Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 Jeffrey Ryan Symphony No. 1 Fugitive Colours (VSO Commission/World Première)

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Piano Jean-Philippe Collard

Reviewer J H Stape

The lasting impression of this diverse concert -- comprised of an old chestnut, a virtuoso performance, and "something new" -- is of Jean-Phillipe Collard striking the keyboard in the Presto movement with a speed and daring-do that seemed simply outside the range of the possible. How he managed to shift gears for the charmingly played and graciously offered encore, Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour," is a hallmark of art of the highest order.

The Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto is more a tumpy-tumpy razzle-dazzle of a piece than one musically interesting, but Collard, in his début with the Symphony, delivered it with towering authority and relentless intelligence and expertise.

This was a wholly idiomatic performance, intensely focussed throughout and marked by spellbinding pianism. The standing ovation he received was not simply a Pavlovian response to the concerto's schzam factor. Right from the beautiful opening cadenza the lyric and poetic impulse on display marked itself as extraordinary.

No less so was the clarity and finely etched details in the crisply directed The Sorcerer's Apprentice with Maestro Tovey caressing out a performance both driven and tightly controlled. There was diamond-sharp playing throughout, particularly by the brass section, as rich colour was revealed layer after shimmering layer. The high-jinks were marvellously conveyed in toe-tapping style, and the quiet moments of self-wonderment were revealing, as if one were hearing this warhorse for the first time.

And this was an evening signally devoted to exploring tonal colour, with Jeffrey Ryan's 40 minute-long first symphony on the menu. Inspired by "fugitive colours" (those that fade when exposed to light), as the composer indicated in his programme notes and opening recorded chat, one was led to expect something fragile and tremulously evanescent.

The VSO's Composer in Residence, Ryan has offered several enjoyable and interesting pieces throughout his four-year tenure. This one received a mixed response from the audience, with some people heading for the doors at a brisk pace and others greeting the bowing composer with bravi.

There were several impressive ideas interestingly developed as well as moments of intense beauty (particularly in the solo work given to Concertmaster Mark Frewer), but the whole was less successful than its parts. The first movement was a virtual assault on the audience, and, to evoke the colour range, garish, aggressive, and overly, even unbearably, loud.

The slow movement, more interior, more poignant, and even with a certain Mahlerian tinge was Ryan at his best: subtle, witty, musical. At other moments, the thrust was mystifying. As a deliberate gesture, this just about worked, but perhaps a somewhat shorter piece would have suited that mood of being lost in a century and ethos that has no sure centre. In all, this worked interestingly at times and was irritatingly vague at others, but never less than self-confident. And, given the notorious conservatism of Vancouver audiences, this was surely a bold piece of programming.

© 2006 J H Stape