Vancouver Symphony

All-Russian Programme

Dates 11 and 12 December, 8pm Venue Orpheum Theatre

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker, Act I: Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 Shostakovich Symphony No. 7("Leningrad")

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Pianist Mark Zeltser Reviewer J H Stape

Mark Zeltser
Mark Zeltser

An almost instant star in the Vancouver music firmament since his arrival five years ago, Maestro Tovey revealed himself a supernova in this spellbinding and concert of Russian music. Directing the orchestra with easy authority and erudition, he delivered a concert that saw not one but two standing ovations -- at the end of Mark Zeltser's phenomenal rendering of the popular Rachmaninoff, the other at the end of Shostakovich's towering Seventh Symphony. And what a piece that is, a "loose, baggy monster" of a work, to adapt what Henry James said of the Russian novel, an emotional roller coaster lasting eighty minutes.

With its début in 1942 in besieged Leningrad and composed as a impassioned statement against war, Shostakovich's complexly scored work received hundreds of performances shortly after its first performances and then fell into long neglect. It demands a huge orchestra, extra brass even laid on for this occasion, its long delayed first performance by the VSO. As for the orchestra itself, growing in stature over the past several years and bagging first-class musician after first-class musician for its top chairs, Maestro Tovey has made it into so keenly responsive instrument that it is, simply, one of the reasons for living in Vancouver.

After the deft opening Allegretto, lyrical and with superb writing for the string section -- vintage Shostakovich that -- and its leisurely development of the abundant thematic material, the second movement, marked Moderato, is an assault on the senses -- violent and angry as the city's is invaded and repeatedly pummeled. The brass and tympani worked overtime here, creating cascades of sound, before the quiet interior moments of grief and the stunned shock and happiness of survival in sections of almost unbearably intense lyricism. The outburst of the final Allegro non troppo movement, a long, no-holds barred schzam, is parallel to the end of the world in the Dies Irae of Berlioz's Requiem: a riot that Maestro Tovey managed not only to control but also to dominate with immense taste and intelligence.

And by that point, we had already had a magisterial performance of Rachmaninoff 's justly popular "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" by Mark Zeltser, whose pianism was utterly astonishing: steel fingers, breathtaking speed, and deep musicality combined with a bright, vivid tone yielded a stunning performance. Zeltser, who caught the work's deeply emotional moments and delicate lyricism with full intensity, was no less impressive and masterly in the thumping rapid-fire passages in which his hands attacked the keyboard as if it were a living thing needing to be tamed.

The opening Tchaikovsky extract, replete with a charming children's chorus (unidentified in the programme) was a fluffy appetizer. Both rambunctious and elegant, a heady combination, its lilting lyricism was the evening's only relaxed moment as the Snowflakes drifted and swirled and gently fell.

As the very large raptly attentive audience, demonstrated, something is happening at The Orpheum these days. Bravi tutti!

© 2005 J H Stape