Vancouver Symphony

Beethoven and Schubert

Beethoven Prometheus Overture Schubert Symphony No. 4, Tragic Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)

Conductor Tania Miller Piano Marc-André Hamelin

Dates 18 and 19 May 2007@ 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre Reviewer J H Stape

There's nothing quite like Beethoven to fill a concert hall, and the VSO, on a Victoria Day holiday weekend, managed with adroit programming nearly to fill that huge barn of a theatre, and its home, The Orpheum. For the cognoscenti there was also the star drawing-power of Quebecois pianist Marc-André Hamelin for whom this repertoire seems to have been tailor made. His towering performance of "The Emperor" Concerto was, not unexpectedly, the highlight of an evening of fine music-making, one of those nights when everything seemed in perfect balance.

The opening tit-bit, Beethoven's brief Prometheus Overture, got a crisp, straightforward reading, its opening stately and well paced and the burst into allegro cannily managed. The woodwinds in particular shone, bringing bright tone, and Maestra Miller shaping the piece with brio. Her work as Music Director of the Victoria Symphony has brought that orchestra to a new level of achievement, and one can see why.

Schubert's "Tragic" Symphony is intensely emotional from its opening to its final note, a key work of the Romantic repertoire. It got a finely detailed reading, both its passionate moments and its interior musings illuminated by the relentless intensity brought to bear form the podium. Shaping was all here, and both the big Sturm and Drang and the more intimate moments got full value, as the elegant melodies poured out.

The second movement Allegretto with its bold statements and delicate development saw initial gentleness become by turns graceful and pensive, with its dramatic elements given full value. (The tempo here was taken a bit slow, but that was a minor matter in a performance that worked so well.) Delicacy of touch dominated the brief and transitional third movement, whereas urgency and dynamism got an impassioned reading in the finale, where details where gradually revealed and the sense of contest given a full-bodied outing.

Marc-André Hamelin's performance of the Emperor Concerto was no less than spellbinding: his pianissimi all superb gossamer in their extreme delicacy, the thundering chords majestic. Technically deft, the performance was one of emotional highs carefully developed and then caressed just as long as they should be.

There is not a lot of room for interpretive depth in this concerto of vast gestures and tempestuous moods, but the second, Adagio, movement with its solemnly melancholy opening was no less than exquisite. Bravura playing, the modulation of tensions, and fine shaping made this a masterly performance not soon to be forgotten, with Hamelin called out again and again. He generously obliged with two encores -- Debussy Preludes -- sharing his immense talent graciously, his authority as an interpreter with dazzling technique now fully evident.

It's great to see a full house, especially with so many younger people new to Classical music in it, but it might also be well for the VSO to inform them of traditional concert manners. Applauding between movements isn't a matter of enthusiasm but a display of lack of knowledge, and since now seems to be happening at every concert, and every time the baton stills, isn't it time to inform the audience of its duty towards the performers and their fellows?

The mood, sometimes potentially magical, is broken time and time again, and those moments of silence are an integral part of the musical texture not a question of outdated snobbery. Cell phones don't ring as often as they once did because of the polite reminder is now not buried in the programme but announced from the stage. Isn't it a responsibility for the VSO's management to educate new audiences? Doing so would certainly increase the pleasure of the more knowing one that shares the same hall.

© 2007 J H Stape