A Rich VSO Season Opener Awakens Fond Memories

CanadaCanada Tovey, Adams, Tchaikovsky: Australian String Quartet [Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew (violins), Stephen King (viola), Sharon Grigoryan (cello)], Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 23.9.2017. (GN)

Australian String Quartet © Matthew Baird
Australian String Quartet © Matthew Baird

Tovey – Time Tracks (North American Premiere)
AdamsAbsolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra (2012)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64

It is the Vancouver Symphony’s 99th year and Bramwell Tovey’s 18th and final year as Music Director, so why not start the celebrations and the memories right from opening night? A touching part of the festivities involved the presence of previous VSO concertmaster Dale Barltrop, who was much loved over his seven-year tenure and had a particularly endearing relationship with Tovey. Barltrop gave his farewell concert just over a year ago (review), and returned with his new ensemble, the Australian String Quartet, to participate in John Adams’ ingenious and capricious Absolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra (2012). Tovey got the concert off to a brilliant start with the North American premiere of his own Time Tracks, an orchestral suite drawn from his first opera, The Inventor (2011). The evening ended on more familiar terrain: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5.

Adams’ piece was probably the highlight of the concert, full of frolicsome fun while incorporating many touches of rhythmic and instrumental ingenuity. Many modern composers have been profoundly influenced by Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 and his late quartets (e.g. Shostakovich, Robert Simpson), yet few have conceived of constructing a work with as great an assemblage of direct quotations from the master. Indeed, no one has highlighted the life-affirming motion in the scherzos of the Ninth and the Op.131 and Op.135 String Quartets with quite as much cunning and zest as this attempt. In Jest, a searing, often maniacal, string attack comes into play in many different contexts but always seems to want to reach further, anchored by the omnipresent timpani thwacks of the Ninth Symphony’s scherzo, and imaginative, often humorous, echoes of them. The work is dominated by insistent down beats and sforzandi, but it continually renews its energy though the varied use of the quartet quotations, instrumental effects and coaxing colour (e.g. the use of the bassoon was striking). Overall, it’s a beguiling piece and, as a bonus, actually reflects the fragmentation and headlong volatility that one ascribes to Beethoven’s psychological state in his last days. The removed, almost indeterminate, ending seemed absolutely right. The performance found all the spirit and style needed, and the Australian String Quartet was wonderfully alert, tight in attack and rhythm, and in fine balance with an equally attentive orchestra. I was taken by the life and ardour in Dale Barltrop’s more soloistic passages.

Few would register that Maestro Tovey has been composing music for almost four decades, though his compositional zeal and presence as a composer have taken off markedly since 2007.  His first opera, The Inventor, inspired by Ann Larabee’s The Dynamite Fiend, explores the intriguing dual life of a nineteenth-century Confederate entrepreneur, con man and accidental murderer, Sandy Keith, who was nonetheless a very loving family man; in other words, not that different from some individuals we can find in America today. In this suite from the opera, there is a very short germinal motif that underlies it all, sometimes developed chromatically, but the music moves forward in filmic/travelogue style, visiting different events, sights and sounds. A jazzy Gershwin insistence tends to dominate the flow (with the influence of Bernstein and ‘big band’ not far behind) though some of the brass punctuations actually remind one of Sir Arthur Bliss. There a lot of ‘street scenes’ in short succession, the most cinematic being a huge locomotive rolling over the orchestra half way through – with the aid of the bass drum. A few restrained, contemplative moments take us out of the action but, if this is where the core of the character resides, there are too few. Perhaps the transitions between sections were not long enough but I had difficulty picking up the exact tensions and feelings created by the protagonist’s dual life. While the title might hint at mystery and enigma, the piece was enjoyable more as a broadly-based cinematic experience, and the orchestra executed it very well.

If one can be charmed by the dual nature of Sandy Keith’s life, then it is easy to find intrigue in Bramwell Tovey’s own duality in conducting the Tchaikovsky symphonies. The composer’s Symphony No.5 has appeared on a VSO opening night before, and those who were there on that occasion probably cannot forget the maestro’s ‘act of passion’ in the last movement, hurtling it along with the speed and drive of the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh (review). His interpretation of the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony from that period was similarly lean and tight-knit. Following the time tracks of Tovey’s conducting are revealing, since the most recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ – just over a year ago – was almost the opposite of the earlier rendering: full of colour, emphasis and orchestral weight, almost fostering a Mahlerian saga over the whole (review). This new Fifth received roughly the same makeover: much slower and weightier than before, with luxuriant highlighting of detail and a persistent quest for drama. The main virtue of this performance was that it marshalled a stronger and more cohesive orchestral response (the strings particularly full and unanimous, the brass luminous and strong) and achieved better structural integration overall. The main difficulties stemmed from the attempt to make the work slightly larger than life.

It is a good idea to sit with the stasis at the opening of the symphony, keeping it on the remote side yet still allowing a veiled forlorn sadness to register. In this performance, much more was made of it: the lower winds were projected at a pungent mezzo-forte from the outset, and the lower strings were coaxed into an almost Mahlerian angst. The transition into the main Allegro was endowed with a feeling of extra burden, continuing to move out at a very measured speed. Articulation was always attractively incisive, yet the spontaneous bursts of feeling and delight in the movement’s climaxes proved difficult to realize at this tempo. There was a methodical feel to it all, structurally solid and always powerful, but not invested in the full range of Tchaikovsky’s caprice or effervescence. The winds could have had considerably more bubble and charm. Overall, the movement needed a sharper, more flexible profile: the occasional excesses of romantic sentiment [as in Karajan (1966)] and the fleeting string allusions to the despair of the ‘Pathétique’ only tended to make the reading heavier still. I find this symphony quite unlike the “Pathétique’.

The heavenly Andante typically ushers in the horn solo from ‘the mists’, fostering a sense of expressive freedom. Tovey’s presentation at the opening was much richer and in the light of day, again cultivating a stark Mahlerian fabric in the string utterances. At very measured speeds, the movement actually suggested a kinship with the tread of the funeral march of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’, building so deliberately and decisively, culminating in an absolutely gushing emotional outburst in the climax in the middle of the movement. This was not the personal, heartfelt utterance that we are used to; rather, something bigger, something truly set on the world stage. I’m of two minds whether the movement can take this type of inflated profile. The subsequent Valse was more to conventional scale, cultivating the right type of innocent ease.

What about the finale this time round? It was definitely less headlong and more expertly executed, but somehow it still managed to feel unrelenting – largely due to the conductor’s emphatic projection. Things were pretty hard-edged and demonstrative throughout, sometimes more concerned with exposing the weight and brazen force of the orchestra than climbing into the inner sanctum of the composer. A variety of world-storming (this time, quasi-Wagnerian) allusions were unearthed en route, but I’m not sure I felt a convincing human narrative. The movement needed a sharper delineation of its implied struggle, while using softer moments of fantasy and easeful tenderness to contrast with its more cinematic temptations. The closing sections of the movement were executed with fine discipline and gusto, but there was a tendency to push forward at the very end, slightly limiting the music’s amplitude and grandeur.

In any event, it was a vast improvement over the maestro’s last effort in terms of structural consistency and orchestral execution, even if I still came away thinking it is a pretty noisy and overblown symphony. A rich start to the season indeed!

Geoffrey Newman 

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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