The Vancouver Philharmonic Orchestra

Guest Conductor: Juan Castelao Assistant Conductor: Barnaby Kerekes Soprano: Mari Hahn

Fauré: Two dances from the Masques et bergamasque suite, Op. 112 Barber: Knoxville Summer of 1915 Stravinsky: “No word from Tom” from The Rake's Progress Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

Date: 22 February at 20.00 Venue: Shaugnessy Heights United Church, 1550 West 33rd Avenue, Vancouver

Reviewer: J. H. Stape

The Vancouver Philharmonic Orchestra chose an ambitious--at times overly ambitious--programme for its second of five ventures during the 2002-03 season, this one under the baton of the young Spanish conductor Juan Castelao. The first half of the concert, consisting of selections from the modern repertoire, was far more satisfying that the Orchestra's excursion into the complexities and depths of Brahms in which it occasionally got lost. But all said, soprano Mari Hahn's performances were the evening's true highlights, with her large, powerful voice overcoming the acoustic unfriendliness of the venue and bringing polished musicianship to Barber's "Knoxville Summer of 1915" and the well-known aria from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

An effervescent and rhythmically precise performance of the ouverture and gavotte from Fauré's Masque et Bergamasque Suite, under the baton of the youthful Barnaby Kerekes, proved confident opening numbers. Briskly paced, the gavotte in particular showed off the string section to good advantage.

Samuel Barber's justly popular Knoxville Summer of 1915 received a musically convincing and intense performance by soprano Mari Hahn, a recent graduate of UBC's Opera School and testimony to the excellent training the school now offers to aspiring singers. Displaying a fine dramatic sense throughout, Hahn flawlessly articulated James Agee's text, from its casual, almost sleepy, opening to its wistful, gentle conclusion. Her clear, powerful voice captured both the lyrical intensity and dramatic character of the piece.

No less accomplished was her finely characterized Anne Truelove in the aria "No word from Tom." She brought a sense of drama and colour to this exercise in the art of the aria, and shone particularly in its cabaletta "I go to him." Appearing as Abigail in UBC Opera Ensemble's The Crucible a couple seasons ago, Hahn has a highly developed dramatic sensibility that should work well on the opera stages that no doubt are a gleam in her eye.

Unfortunately, the most enjoyable part of the evening ended with her contribution, as the Orchestra delivered a shaky, and at times under rehearsed, performance of the Brahms Second Symphony. At its best, the performance was businesslike, with some truly good work coming in the carefully prepared final movement. The second movement opened with near catastrophe, and muddy playing predominated throughout it, with the third movement managing a recovery of stride.

The string section, which had performed admirably in the Barber and Stravinsky, was at times dry and inexpressive, as the demands made on it grew. On the whole, the Orchestra was least effective in lento and piano passages despite valiant coaxing from the stalwart Juan Castelao. An exclusive reliance on guest conductors proved, it seems, a disadvantage for a group of musicians that does not play together on a regular basis.

On the whole, this was a concert of mixed pleasures. The programming was adventurous, and there was much glad spirit in evidence, but more polish and practice are needed to establish the Orchestra as a serious player on the city's diverse and often extremely good musical scene.

© 2003, J. H. Stape