Vancouver Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphonic Gems

Date and Venue 18 April 2009 @ 8pm | Shaughnessy Heights United Church

Conductor Jin Zhang, Assistant Conductor Bryan Deans

Programme Verdi’s Nabucco Overture; Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 ‘Military’ Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 47

Reviewer Barry Arnett

Verdi’s third opera, Nabucco was his first operatic success and came shortly after personal tragedies that would derail most. Based on the Old Testament story of the slavery and exile of the Hebrews in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco in Italian) the Act III chorus, the haunting Va pensiero, became the popular anthem for the movement that resulted in the Italian peninsula becoming a united country. In the overture,Verdi varies pensiero to good effect. Alternating between slow movements and propulsive expressions, the overture well foretells the coming masterpiece. A difficult piece is handled without a hitch by assistant Conductor, Bryan Deans.

The Military premiered in 1794 in London, part of a collection known as the London Symphonies. My research has shownt the Military to have been played and recorded by many symphonies that emphasize different sections of the score and symphony sections.

Four cohesive movements are linked by liberal use of a battery of “Turkish” percussion (triangle, cymbals and bass drum). A rich, slow introduction of strings is joined by oboes and flutes strained to their top ranges. A London newspaper describes the 2nd movement as men advancing to battle, the clash of arms, the groans of the wounded and finally the silence of the carnage. The 3rd movement is a minuet with grandeur and occasion. The Finale is perpetual motion machine, with the Turkish percussion brought back to conclude.

Commonly subtitled 'A Soviet artist's reply to just criticism', Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony is among the most frequently performed of 20th century symphonies. The symphony was written not long after Shostakovich had, on Stalin's instructions, been attacked in the Pravda newspaper in January 1936 for supposedly pornographic and modernist excesses of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. First performed in Leningrad on 21 November 1937, the Fifth Symphony evoked so much emotion from the audience that the applause after it had finished was longer than the symphony itself.

The Moderato is tremendously varied, alternating powerful, frantic violins, followed by dirge like, haunting moments. A powerful march is evident in this piece. It is hard to miss the power of this opening. The trumpets were excellent. By contrast the Allegretto rolls effortlessly, and all is happiness and light. A waltz like interval is a variation of a theme of the first movement. The music remains witty and raucous and very energetic.

The third movement, Largo was best of all. It started slow and emotional and then becomes fast and furious. After the assertive trumpets of the first movement and the horns of the second, this movement uses no brass at all. String sound dominates. The third movement is both sad and haunting, using the total range and sounds of the violins. Solo woodwinds and flutes play prominent roles.

The Allegro non troppo begins with the famous march that represents the hollowness of the Stalinist regime. The conclusion is the quietest section of the piece. It ends with a short snare drum and timpani solo. I agree with most reviewers of this selection, that despite the restrictions of the Soviet regime, real art will ultimately triumph.

The church provides a terrific venue for this kind of music. Intimate setting, good acoustics, affordable and first class players, made for a most enjoyable evening.

© 2009 Barry Arnett