Symphony @ The Roundhouse with Maestro Bramwell Tovey

Date and Venue 18 January 2008 @ 8pm | The Roundhouse, Yaletown, Vancouver

Omar Daniel "Strategies Against Architecture" Brian Cherney "In the Stillness of September 1942" Harold Meltzer "Full Faith and Credit" (Canadian première) Bramwell Tovey "Pictures in the Smoke" (North American première)

Reviewer J H Stape

Anyone brave enough to face the frigid temperatures on Friday night to make his or her way to this first 2008 concert in the VSO's Symphony at The Roundhouse series was amply rewarded with several treats and surprises.

The series is a window on contemporary serious music, a chance for players and the Classical music community alike to revel in the idioms of our time.

The smaller venue and deliberate informality -- the concerts are held at a downtown community centre and the players were dressed casually in street clothes -- is a realistic choice for a repertoire that doesn't always (should one say often?) appeal to the average Saturday night subscriber or the pops afficiando.

Pity that it doesn't, for none of the music on offer was dauntingly cerebral or aggressively off putting: to the contrary, the pieces chosen all made a direct appeal to feelings, a desire to laugh or to tap one's toes.

Omar Daniel's 1995 work for brass and percussion, "Strategies Against Architecture" (Bk 1), despite its enigmatic title, was viscerally appealing, rich, and multi-textured, gesturing towards the traditional fanfare at its opening, and morphing into a maestoso statement to close in presto feroce (a rare marking that). Moody, edgy, and exploratory by turns, the mere eight minute work showed off a master craftsman, and the performance of this difficult effort was both deft and stylish, as is the wont of the VSO's superb brass and drum sections.

Brian Cherney's "In the Stillness of September" (1942), written in 1992 in memory of the deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, was as deeply emotional as it was technically tricky. More traditional in interweaving the sound of the Jewish shofa (through the cor anglais) into its centre, the piece is at once florid and intensely mystical, the sense of restrained elegy and introspection never for a second relaxing.

American composer Harold Meltzer, on hand to comment on his "Full Faith and Credit" (2006), explained -- as the programme notes did not -- that this music responded to the subject of gay marriage in the USA, reflecting the several moods, happy and discordant, across the country. The title tangles with the question as to whether a marriage valid in one state would be recognized by another.

Novel in inspiration, the twenty-minute piece seemed overly long, not least because of its reliance on two oboes -- the playing was energetic and flawless -- that burbled harmony and discord, chirpy celebration and tight-lipped sobriety, on the topic of (gay) weddings and (gay) marriage, ringing changes on song and dance.

Maestro Tovey, who had already strutted his stuff throughout the evening as a relentlessly charming and good-humoured emcee and host, introducing each of the evening's work with helpful comment, came fully into his own with his "Pictures in the Smoke" (2006), receiving its North American première.

Inspired by a joyous and funny Dorothy Parker poem on love, the piece, scored for percussion and brass, with the piano played by the composer, was a glorious exploration of jazz and minamalist idioms that had the audience bopping in its seats, but its most moving moments, despite the enjoyment in the razzle, were its quiet and elegiac ones, little introspective sketches that suggested the early hours of the morning, blending jazz-like gestures with the more typical and fuller sobriety of the Classical pallette.

What larks! The Symphony @ The Roundhouse series is for a now a well kept secret: there ought to be line-ups with scalpers at the door.

© 2008 J H Stape