Strauss, Ryan, Holst and The Gryphon Trio

Dates and Venue 2 and 4 February 2008 @ 8 pm | The Orpheum Theatre

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Choir Elektra Women's Chorus

Strauss Till Eulenspiegel Jeffrey Ryan "Equilateral" Holst The Planets

Reviewer J H Stape

This programme, conceived so as to illuminate the individual works and their connections and deftly and movingly executed, had several emotional highlights. That which will no doubt linger in the memory, was the theatrical ending given to Holst's Planets.

As the superb and ethereal voices of the Elektra Women's Choir drifted into the ether and the orchestra sat rigid in penumbral darkness the silence of Infinity and the borderline where silence and music meet uncertainly was vividly and movingly rendered.

To single out this moment, however, is slightly unfair to a concert that was unstintingly illuminating. Till Eulenspiegel (1895), not a rarity in the concert hall or in VSO programming, came across as freshly minted, with Maestro Tovey giving this old chestnut a reading that was at once crisp and full of colour.

Both its lilting and lyrical moments and witty, prankful ones got full value, and the piece's effervescent qualities emerged in carefully -- one even might say lovingly --executed pips, squeaks, and toots. The orchestra's fine brass section was, a per usual, on top form.

Jeffrey Ryan's "Equilateral": Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano, and Orchestra" proved a brilliant pairing with Strauss as well as with the Holst to follow. In twenty-five minutes and three movements (named "Breathless," "Points of Contact," and "Serpentine") inventively engage with a thoroughly contemporary sound palette, combining both a rigorously intellectual concept with a deeply emotional one.

The first movement's rushy rhythms, sophisticated and urbane conjure up Gershwin on steroids, as it were, with bold anti-melodic galloping and a strong percussive basis morphing, in the second movement, into considerably more emotional and introspective territory.

Tension and even darkness hover, as a letter from Rimbaud and words from the Kaddish (sung by the orchestra) offer glimpses backward as well as straightforward melody, recalling nineteenth-century forms. The brief finale, jazzy and chirpy, seems driven by (im)pulse.

This was triumphant performance of Ryan's exciting and accessible work, his collaboration with the soloists, the Gryphon Quartet, and the orchestra, whose composer-in-resident he was for five years, of longstanding and paying off dividends as the composer's vision got thrilling embodiment. It would be a pleasure to hear it again, and one can only hope that it is revived in a season or two, or, playing with the notion of balancing of threes (triangle, trio, three movement concerto) three seasons hence.

Holst's immense orchestral suite (1914-16) is immensely popular for good reason: gorgeous melodies, great waves of sound, intensity of colour, and enormous range make it a heavyweight contender in the twentieth-century repertoire. From its violent and stressed opening, a paean to the god Mars, to its quiet ending in Infinity and silence, it covers so much territory emotionally and tonally that any performance, even half successful, is likely alternately to stun and charm the listener.

Maestro Tovey offered no less than a towering conception of this masterwork, and his forces fully collaborated in achieving his vision to a "T." This is a heady time for the VSO, and it is good news that it the orchestra is off on tours to China and to Eastern Canada in 2008-09, showing off what a fine instrument we have, one that ought to be a source of real civic pride.

© 2008 J H Stape