Vancouver Symphony

Rolston & Kulesha

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Featured Performer Shauna Rolston, cello

Debussy Prélude a L’après-midi d’un faune Kulesha Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (CBC Commission/World Premiere) Dvorak Scherzo Capriccioso Janacek Taras Bulba

Dates 18 and 20 November 2006, 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre Reviewer J H Stape

Bramwell Tovey has long proved his way with a well-balanced programme: this one featured the ultra-familiar, a world premiere, and a master work absent from the Vancouver Symphony's repertoire. All were rewardingly performed, and the audience comments after the concert, rather than rapturous applause, indicated that it came away with that sense of uplift that a fine music well played unerringly delivers.

Maestro Tovey not so much conducted as caressed the Debussy, with very slow tempi allowing details to shimmer clearly almost to the point of exaggeration. This may have been more a Pointillist than an Impressionist interpretation, but it worked admirably, the piece's evanscent quality coming out as fresh and vivid and its opening languor appealingly rendered.

The Cello Concerto by Toronto composer Gary Kulesha was continuing evidence of Maestro Tovey's committment to contemporary music -- and it was an unmitigated success, though it demands another hearing fully to appreciate its complexities and achievement.

Its dark tribal opening, scored for solo cello and beating drums, contrasted a sad modern note and modern self-awareness with rhythms older than time itself. The second movement had a deeply Romantic character, with longing and exploration at its heart, and the exploration of the cello's full range a musical aim. This was thrillingly written, and cellist Shauna Ralston clearly revelled in work written expressly to show off her talents. (Her carbon fibre -- not wood -- cello rose to the occasion.)

High and demotic impulses both contended in the final movement, opening in a loudy, brassy fashion, followed by a brief bravura cadenza, with sighs and outbursts then vying for attention. Jazzy colloquial rhythms stood in stark contrast to some of the august anguish expressed elsewhere. This is a work full of surprises and tensions and of sweeping grandeur.

After a chance to catch its collective breath, the audience was treated to two further works emphasizing colour and detail. The Dvorak got an energetic and dramatic reading, with the brass section bold, bright, self-confident. The magnificent finale to this brief but grand work saw the orchestra in fine form, with balance and nuance at the forefront.

Exciting as the Scherzo Capriccioso was, the no-holds-barred performance of Taras Bulba was no less than a triumph, with its large waves of sound cascading and the tensions building and resolving. This towering music, requiring a panoply of instruments including The Orpheum's mighty Wurlitzer, was about as dramatic as programme music can be, with Janacek's operatic practice drawn on unabashedly. Music of enormous immediacy and much emotional depth, with a strong lyrical impulse and passionate intensity, this was, for all the fine work that had gone beforehand, the evening's show stealer.

Sad to say that the Lout-couverites were much in evidence, as they are too often at the opera and symphony here: a middle-aged couple in the row in front of me and a group of young adults in the row behind felt free to chat and comment to their hearts' content. Perhaps they made to feel just at home by the over-sized TV screens -- useful during the interview with the composer and soloist -- but an irritating and even silly distraction otherwise.

© 2006 J H Stape