Vancouver Symphony Orchestra: Great American Classics

Dates and Venue Saturday, May 10 at 8pm & Sunday, May 11 at 2pm | Orpheum Theatre

Programme Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Barber’s Adagio, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety

Conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama Featured performer Joyce Yang, piano

Reviewers John Jane (Saturday concert) and Ed Farolan (Sunday concert)

A truly international concert: a Canadian orchestra, led by a Japanese conductor, featuring a Korean pianist in a programme that pays homage to American composers. Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama of course, is familiar to VSO patrons (the older ones at least), he was the music director from 1972 until 1985 and is the present Conductor Laureate.

Any repertoire that emphasizes American serious music should include a George Gershwin composition. The Cuban Overture was first titled Rumba, and inspired by a visit to Havana. George must have enjoyed his time there. There is a real joyful energy in this work that features a full brass section. It combines Cuba’s rural rhythms with Gershwin's urban thematic style.

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is pure Americana. All that was missing from the Orchestra’s interpretation was a banjo solo. Its chord progression and melody lines are sublime. Copeland’s plain harmonic score evokes strong images of a pioneer celebration of Spring in rural America (those with a keen ear would identify strains of “Lord of the Dance”).

Samuel Barber's Adagio is a short instrumental piece for a string orchestra played in a minor-key evoking acute melancholia in who listens to it. The music has been “done to death” in being used as movie soundtrack material – but who would argue that the best was by the VSO on the “Platoon” soundtrack.

Based on a poem by W.H. Auden with the same name, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety is darker and less accessible than many of his more popular works. It starts with a clarinet, soon to be joined by percussion and cellos welcoming Joyce Yang’s piano.

Ms. Yang boldly interprets Bernstein’s explorative spirit as well as the jazzy inflections. Displaying impeccable technique, she clearly demonstrates an understanding and maturity beyond her years. Maestro Kazuyoshi’s direction was equally commanding, allowing the young pianist room to perform the composer’s dynamic structures and complex melody lines.

© 2014 John Jane

What a wonderful concert! Ms. Yang interpreted Bernstein’s symphony with clarity and flawlessness, deserving a standing ovation and accolades at the end of her performance of almost 45 minutes from the Sunday matinee audience. Ms. Yang is a gifted pianist and has wowed crowds all over the world for her virtuosity. She was awarded Juillard's 2010 Arthur Rubinstein Prize and the William A. Petschek Piano Recital Award. She was also honoured with the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Preceding Ms. Yang's concert was Samuel Barber's Adagio for String Orchestra which is a very popular piece and one never tires of listening to this favourite played in several films and used in many solemn public ceremonies. The VSO delivered this short piece beautifully.

In the first part of the programme, the VSO did a marvelous job with Gershwin's Cuban Overture which was influenced by a visit made by Gershwin to Cuba in 1932. He brought back some of the home grown percussion instruments from Cuba to study, and the result was this festive Overture.

The other American composer featured was Aaron Copland. His Appalachian Spring was composed for choreographer Martha Graham and premiered in 1944. The scenario is early 19th century, in a Pennsylvania farmhouse built as a wedding gift for a young couple. Copland's composition expresses the joyful and apprehensive emotions of the young bride and groom. This folksy dance score was delivered brilliantly by the VSO.

This was an entertaining afternoon of concert music by the VSO, known internationally these days because of the many awards and commissions it has received all through the years.

© 2014 Ed Farolan