Hilary Hahn plays Tchaikovsky!

Featured performer Hilary Hahn | Conductor Bramwell Tovey | Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Jeff Ryan The Linearity of Light; Tchaikovsky Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 35; Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

Date 6 October 2008 @ 8pm Venue Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer David Powell

Classical music can be divided into two categories, program music and absolute music. Program music is music that attempts to depict a mood, a scene, an atmosphere, or even an idea. Absolute music, by contrast, has no non-musical associations. Program music is very much associated with the Romantic period in music history (the 19th century), although earlier composers have written program too (Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony comes to mind).

First on the program was an example of program music, Jeff Ryan’s The Linearity of Light. Ryan, who is the VSO’s new composer in residence, came out on stage at the start of the concert and talked about his piece. He explained that the inspiration for it came one day as he was sitting looking out over English Bay, watching the sunlight dance on the water. The work alternated between rythmical passages, sometimes reminiscent of Stravinsky and Holst, and static areas where the chief interest lay in the timbres created by the orchestra.

The 2nd work in the program, a work of absolute music, was the Tchaikovosky violin concerto. The program notes mentioned that the piece was ill-received on its first performance in 1881, but, like Bizet’s Carmen, overcame its poor start and has become well-loved by audiences. I enjoyed Hahn’s fine musicality, and the clarity of her technique is breathtaking.

I have often found violin concertos virtuosic at the expense of lyric content, and I wondered again this evening whether violin concertos suffer to some extent from the virtuoso nature of the instrument itself. Cello concertos always seemed to me to have a better balance between virtuosity and lyricism, and between soloist and orchestra. The part of the Tchaikovsky concerto I like the best is the slow movement, which features some real dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. The outer movements are quite virtuosic and in the finale the orchestra seldom transcends the role of accompanist.

When the concerto was over, Hahn returned to the stage and played as an encore a movement of unaccompanied Bach. I had foolishly dashed out to the lobby before I realized she was coming back, so had to watch her play her encore on the television in the lobby. I like how Hahn plays Bach, with superb intonation and a pure, straightforward approach that does without unnecessary gestures and lets the music speak for itself.

Berlioz’s wonderful Symphonie Fantastique was the final work in the concert. The work is based loosely on events in the composer’s own life, and is one of the finest examples of 19th century program music. I love how it begins; the opening bars seem to be saying “Once upon a time…”. And so this tale-told-in-music begins to unfold, a tale of a young man swept up in the torment of unrequited love who decides to end his life with an overdose of opium. The dose is insufficient: instead of dying, he falls asleep and dreams of his beloved.

This is a higly innovative work in several ways. For example, unlike most symphonies, it is programmatic instead of absolute, and it has five movements instead of four. There is also an important theme, known as an ‘idée fixe’, that represents the beloved, and which occurs in all five of the movements. Normally the movements of a symphony do not have thematic material in common.

The VSO sounded very impressive throughout. I particularly appreciated the overall balance of the ensemble, the fine intonation of the woodwinds, and the warm, shimmering sounds of the strings.

© 2008 David Powell