VSO 2008-09 Season: Opening Concert: Schumann and Prokofiev

Lavallée"O, Canada" Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Tovey Urban Runway Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet: Suite

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Cellist Lynn Harrell

Dates 27 and 29 September 2008 @ 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer J H Stape

In a city lean on public ritual, the annual symphony opener makes wide gestures towards it: orchestra members sport boutonnières; "O, Canada" rings out (lustily applauded by the sports fans in the crowd); there's a speech by the President of the Board; a carefully selected soloist and a major workout feature on the programme; and for the happy few a reception closes the event.

Opening 2008 went according to plan, with a signally powerful rendition of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet: Suite to cap off an evening that began with the Canadian première of Bramwell Tovey's jaunty, jazz-infused Urban Runway (2008). A sophisticated and sometimes tongue-in-cheek homage to the soundscape of Gershwin, Bernstein, and 1940s popular music, the work is abundantly playful.

With toe-tapping energy to spare, the piece bounces and frolics with throwaway elegance conjuring urban diversity. Scored for large forces, with the brass section predictably prominent, Maestro Tovey deftly depicts both urban and urbane impulses with winning confidence.

The world of Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor, likewise an exhibition of cultural mood in its passionate romanticism, required an abrupt shift of aural gears. Tense, full-bodied, and characterful, this study in bold colours and gossamer intensities got an exquisitely shaped performance from veteran cellist Lynn Harrell, who balanced nicely its soulful lyricism and spiky buoyancy in a performance where technique and interpretation meshed seamlessly.

Harrell's rendition of the cadenza, placed unusually near the work's close, was object lesson in the relentlessly tasteful, the cellist supremely confident of small gestures that turn into big statements, with tentativeness yielding to the bold and brash. For an encore, we were treated to Bach's Suite No. 5 for Unaccompanied Cello in C minor -- Sarabande.

Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet: Suite showed off its talents in the Modernist repertoire, the orchestra revving up for its performances of this masterwork on its upcoming Asian tour. Every section gets a star turn in this piece, arguably the best ballet music ever written.

Emotion overflows, the bold and gigantic are unrestrained, and this very Russian and highly modern take on Shakespeare's play is never less than demanding and exciting. It got a boffo reading, with Maestro Tovey shaping it in a way that conveyed its luminous intensity. High points were the mandolin duet, and the trio for first chairs in the strings, with the brass and percussion sections as ever delivering solid and thrilling performances.

The evening closed with not one, but two encores, again prepared for the Asian tour: Liszt's ever-kitschy, ever rambunctious Hungarian Rhapsody and Elgar's deeply moving and solemn Nimrod, the latter about friendship, and chosen with an eye to the more than musical.

It was also certainly an appropriate end to an evening of warm sentiment and considerable pride. This orchestra is on the move, quite literally, and the season opener reinforced its absolutely centrality as the crown jewel of the city's musical life.

© 2008 J H Stape