VSO: Koh & Akiyama

Dates and Venue 16-18 January @ 8:00 pm | The Orpheum, Vancouver

Reviewer Olivia Bevan

Something about the Orpheum makes listening to a performance there quite special. The combination of soft-spoken grandeur and small, decorative touches make the anticipation of just seeing the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra almost worth a night out in itself.

Tonight though was much more than just the VSO. We were not only treated to the accomplished conducting of Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Music Director of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (a post held since 1974—only a year after graduating the Toho Gakuen School of Music), but also to a guest appearance by mesmerizing violinist Jennifer Koh (standing in for Arabella Steinbacher due to illness).

The VSO began with an animated, full-of-life performance of Antonín Dvorák’s nature-inspired Carnival Overture, with musical moments ranging from boisterous romps of the full orchestra to delicate woodwind melodies. Tranquil chirruping of flutes was short-lived though. The peaceful birds they represented were disturbed by an ending so energized that all hands, bows and fingers were a blur.

Ms. Koh arrived on stage not long after wearing a striking crimson dress with black bow detailing—a splendid contrast to the black-clad VSO. She wasted no time settling down and demonstrated passion, intensity and emotion from the very first strike of her bow. Closing her eyes for almost the entire time, she swayed and danced with liquidity. It was as if the music resonated through her entire body. The only part of her that remained still was her violin.

Dvorák’s dramatic Violin Concerto and Ms. Koh ’s elaborate, pitch-perfect brilliance were a huge hit with the audience (some of whom yelled, “Yeah,” with obvious approval). She too showed genuine humble and heart-felt appreciation to both the conductor and the Orchestra, who appeared to be in full admiration of her performance, long after she departed.

The final two pieces belonged to Ottarino Respighi. Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite No. 3 was at first graceful with only strings taking to the stage. Undercurrents of double basses drifted beneath delicate, lighter strings before becoming more intense and full-bodied. The playfulness and regal drama of the third movement allowed your thoughts to drift to scenes of royal courts. But with stunning contrast the fourth and final movement featured intense, almost fearful dark passages which stayed much this way right through to the strong, forceful finish.

The full orchestra returned for Respighi’s attention-grabbing final piece, Pines of Rome. At first bright, cheerful and playful, darker passages soon transformed the scene into something grave--rolling percussion and crashing cymbals added intensity, while the lamenting woodwind instruments hailed uncertain and askew. Ceaseless marching of double basses and muffled cries of trumpets evoked something fearful, as unseen trumpets cried out from the balcony adding a surround-sound effect to what was a dramatic, body-shuddering finale. Adding their own drama, almost the entire audience rushed to their feet, applauding wildly. There were definitely no premature, crowd-beating departures tonight.

© 2010 Olivia Bevan