Canadians Import a Bit of the Netherlands

January 30, 2013

United StatesUnited States Top, Grieg, and Prokofiev: Jon Kimura Parker (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 23.1.2013 (BJ)

Edward Top: Totem
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

It might well have been called “Canada Week” at Benaroya Hall: in the complex’s recital hall, Manitoba-born violinist James Ehnes was presenting his second season’s winter festival as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, while the main auditorium witnessed a welcome appearance by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra as guests of the Seattle Symphony.

Music director Bramwell Tovey had moreover selected a Canadian piece to open his orchestra’s West Coast tour: Totem, by Edward Top, which had received its world premiere just four days earlier on the ensemble’s home turf. Born 41 years ago in the Dutch province of Overijssel, Top now lives in Vancouver, where he serves as the orchestra’s composer in residence. It was hard to perceive the precise relevance of his somewhat New-Age-y program note to the music we heard, but Totem proved to be a thoroughly attractive piece. A little under a quarter of an hour in duration, it held the ear effortlessly. The orchestral writing, which was realized brilliantly under Tovey’s baton, is vivid and full of interest, the textures are lucid, and the dynamic arc of the work is articulated clearly. I felt that the three movements could have profited from being more strongly contrasted one with another, but this is a minor complaint, and the prevailing impression was of a composer of considerable talent, able to communicate with a broad public, yet highly individual in his artistic persona.

The evening’s concerto was Grieg’s, for piano, with Jon Kimura Parker as the accomplished soloist. His encore, a version of the theme from Danny Elfman’s music for The Simpsons, was obviously enjoyed by audience members more familiar than I with popular culture (a term that, in any case, I am pompously inclined to describe as an oxymoron). Then came Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, a good test for any orchestra, from which the Vancouver Symphony emerged with considerable credit. The strings are perhaps a trifle lacking in richness of tone, but altogether the orchestra played with all the requisite panache and skill, and Tovey paced the music impeccably.

I found it rather amusing to encounter this particular symphony on a program shared by a composer from Overijssel. About thirty years ago, as it happens, I heard the then Overijssel Philharmonic Orchestra give—I think in Enschede—its first-ever performance of the work, a full four decades after its composition. As encore on the present occasion, Tovey followed it with an eloquently phrased performance of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5, which provided a suitably entertaining conclusion to an evening of solid musical pleasure.

Bernard Jacobson

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