Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

The German Romantics

Weber Der Freischütz: Overture Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 Wagner Siegfried Idyll Liszt Les Preludes

Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate Violist Giora Schmidt

Dates 1 and 3 December 2007@ 20.00 Venue The Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer J H Stape

The VSO's "Musically Speaking Series" mainly offers entry level fare for those new to Classical music and performs an invaluable service in directing a certain audience to the central repertoire. A chat from the conductor, an interview with the guest artist, and the Telus Screens going at full force are part of the formula. It's good populist stuff aimed at putting those all important bums in all important seats, and it generally works well in a feel-good non-threatening kinda [sic] way.

Making his VSO début, newly named Winnipeg Music Director Maestro Alexander Mickelthwate seems just born for this series: youthful and energetic, he pirouttes on the podium, has cover-boy good looks, and knows how to convey breezy conversational ease. The latter, however, did descend into cloying clownish on a couple of occasions, and more discipline might have been a good thing altogether in a performance that was generally somewhat overstated. Too many forte passages were overpunctuated, morphing into triple forte, and on more than one occasion details blurred.

That said, the programme was as sensible as sensible shoes, tightly focused on the German Romantics, save for one of those inevitable Olympic commissions -- the crumbs for culture that that event is bringing to a city already reeling from preparations for it.

Emily Hall's appropriately named "Winter Soaring" (the temperature outside hovered just below zero), a five-minute tone poem on skiing, used a somewhat predictable contemporary idiom with swoops, jumps, and swishing sounds to convey the energy and rambunctiousness of the slopes. There was the usual gamut of gimmicky effects and crowd-pleasing throwaways in this sporty effort.

The Der Freischütz overture (1821) got a lush and warm reading that urged out both the score's mysterious soulfulness and intense passion in equal measure and threw maximum weight on its drama and passion. Germans don't do things by half measures, and German-born and trained Maestro Mickelthwate provided Weber's glorious music a dashing and driven rendition, the subtler moments slightly rushed over.

This approach worked better in the Bruch Violin concerto (1866), one of those mid-century works by a mediocre composer really all for the virtuoso, and full of large-scale effects that reflect the Romantic obsession with genius and the great soul.

Giora Schmidt offered a stunning silky tone, technical wizardry, and immensely stylish playing, the sparks flying in the "Allegro energico" finale, which had soloist and orchestra playing on steroids. He held his own and more in the midst of the impassioned whirlwind generated from the podium. It would be good to hear such an accomplished player at work on much more interesting music.

Wagner's Siegfried Idyll (named after his son) offered a welcome contrast to the previous onslaught of sound: gentle and delicate, its robust and heroic elements are muted, hinting at potential rather than at achievement.The string section poured out a warm chocolate-y sound appropriate to the score's intimacy, the work being a musical birthday offering to the composer's wife.

Despite its French title, Liszt's Les Preludes is a highly Teutonic "Schtrife and Rez-ol-UTION" affair, the soul bursting at the seams in its agonies of confrontation with the world's hurly-burly. Maestro Mickelthwate characterized the piece as a "blockbuster," and that was the approach he applied. Nature was laid on thick to heal the suffering Soul, and a bold, no nonsense performance -- the evening's keynote -- was assayed with massive self-confidence.

© 2007 J H Stape