Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra/ Vancouver Symphony

SibeliusThe Swan of Tuonela Grieg Piano Concerto and Peer Gynt Suite Sibelius Karelia Suite

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Featured performers Beth Orson, English horn and Janina Fialkowska, piano

Date 26 May 2007@ 8pm Venue The Orpheum Theatre Reviewer John Jane

An All-Scandinavian programme turned out to be an excellent idea. Norwegian Edvard Grieg's colourful, rich melodies provided a superb contrast to Jean Sibelius’s darker atmospheric compositions.

Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela as the opener, followed by two of the most popular selections in the orchestra’s repertoire, Grieg's Piano Concerto and Peer Gynt Suite, concluding with Sibelius’s Karelia Suite made Saturday night's concert an occasion to remember.

The Swan of Tuonela, Opus 22, featuring VSO veteran Beth Orson on the English horn was surprisingly the most successful piece of this well-played evening. Ms Orson’s English horn solo reflected both her colleagues' smooth fluency and her own precise enunciation.

In a welcome return to Vancouver, soloist Janina Fialkowska, resplendent in red tartan trousers and dark frock coat, performed Grieg's Piano Concerto. With an ardour that revealed exquisitely phrased playing in the first movement, yet, with amazing power in the empyrean second movement, then with the meticulousness of her playing in the soaring finale, she evoked the pastoral poetry of Grieg’s Nordic heritage.

It was Norwegian dramatist, Hendrik Ibsen himself that invited Grieg to compose the incidental music for his phantasmagorical play about a wandering hero who travels many strange lands in a bizarre quest of “finding himself.” Peer Gynt’s (pronounced "Pair Goont") combination of fantasy and “Faustian deals” beset the composer with much tribulation. Despite some early misgivings, by both Ibsen and Grieg the suite has flourished in public esteem since.

The featured woodwinds stood out in the haunting first movement, Morning Mood, which imbued the audience with its serenity. In Ase's Death and Anitra's Dance muted strings featured effectively to convey Gynt’s passion. Finally, the good humoured (and over-adapted) In the Hall of the Mountain King, featuring the bassoon, initially plodding, then hastening as the hero makes his successful escape. Senior members of the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra teamed up with the VSO to perform Peer Gynt Suite No.1 and Karelia Suite and added spontaneous energy to both.

Inspired by his nationalistic fervour, Sibelius created Karelia Suite with two stirring marches circumscribing a melancholic Ballade. Once again Beth Orson’s English horn was the featured soloist, reflecting the mood of defiance in the second movement’s solemn folksong. The rousing Intermezzo starts with a brassy fanfare and continues with a solid thumping theme. The carnival styled third movement, Alla marcia, expounds the composer’s exuberant side – as Maestro Bramwell Tovey quipped in his introduction, “The only cheerful music Sibelius ever wrote.”

Added to the evening’s programme was Iranian-born Farshid Samandari’s somewhat pretentiously titled, Towards Unity. A VSO Olympic commissioned work, it contains elements of aboriginal percussion blended with indigenous mid-Eastern rhythms.

This was the final, and quite possibly most entertaining, concert in the highly successful “Musically Speaking” series. This season’s five concerts have proved popular with classical music neophytes and connoisseurs alike.

© 2007 John Jane