Vancouver Symphony

2007-2008 Season Opening Concert

Wagner Rienzi: Overture Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Violinist Sarah Chang

Dates 29 September and 1 October 2007@ 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer J H Stape

VSO opening nights always have a palpable sense of buzz. The Labour Relations Board's last-minute decision to allow the concert to go ahead added to the drama, but CUPE Local 15's picketers, on their interminable strike, determined to dampen the usual festive mood. This wasn't Burma by a long shot, but jeers, whistling, cries of "Shame," and a police presence greeted patrons, few of whom seem to have been daunted by CUPE's antics as the hall was nearly full.

Glorious music and luminous performances quickly shifted the sour mood, as Maestro Tovey almost leapt to the podium to conduct house and orchestra for the traditional national anthem opening the season -- sung on this occasion not only with a sense of celebration but also with a kind of defiant bravado.

Tailor-made to show off the orchestra's and Maestro Tovey's formidable skills, this programme of Romantic and post-Romantic music could not have been more rewarding. The Rienzi Overture (1842) shimmered brightly, all bristling tension and pent-up energy until the sublime moment of release and transcendence. On offer was a fresh, taut reading of a war horse, as if the assembled forces were eager to get down to the pleasures of music-making after the long summer hiatus. A thrilling urgency dominated from the long opening notes through the slow development to the burst into full voice, the brass section simply superb.

Sarah Chang's elegant performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (1845) grew in intensity and polish as it proceeded. Technically adroit, she delivered bright fiery playing in the first movement Allegro molto appassionato, Paganini-like as regards speed and fire, but just a shade under-committed interpretively.

Chang, both more pensive and more at ease, reached full stride in the hauntingly lyrical Andante. Razzle-dazzle and sprightliness dominate the closing movement, which was effectively shaped. And here Chang and the orchestra truly wrestled the piece to the ground, the bravura ending popping like crisp champagne bubbles.

Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony (1906-07), brimming with ideas nearly to excess, is one of those enormous works that provide a no-holds-barred workout for a huge orchestra, to say little of the demands it makes on the conductor. Maestro Tovey drew out stylish and committed playing of great warmth and immediacy in the opening brooding section and in the warm third movement that forms this work's core. A Sturm und Drang character, the legacy of the Romantics, is almost aggressively explored in the first two movements as brash energy and expansiveness dominate until the heart-tugging Adagio, which is uninhibitedly romantic in character.

Abrupt contrast to it comes in the wordly-wise and iconoclastic Allegro vivace finale, with bright colours and a sense of humour taking over -- save for some backward glances to the inner moods of the Adagio. Twists and turns come fully into their own as the sound gets bigger and bigger, becoming youthfully brash in this resolutely and bold modern work that looks back to its noble predecessors.

The performance was magisterial, with Maestro Tovey, as ever, urging out driven, committed playing and compelling the orchestra to deliver its very best as he communicated his obvious belief that great music conveys the very essence of human longing and aspiration. What an opening night, indeed.

© 2007 J H Stape