VSO’s Centenary Celebrations Begin with Otto Tausk, Renée Fleming and the Jussen Duo

VSO Centenary Opening ConcertsOrpheum Theatre, Vancouver, (GN)

Lucas & Arthur Jussen & Otto Tausk (conductor)
© Matthew Baird

20 September
Renée Fleming (soprano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor)

RavelLa valse
StraussFour Last Songs
VerdiLa forza del destino: Overture
Bernstein – Divertimento
Tosti/Vindrola – ‘La serenata’
Puccini – ‘Signore, ascolta’ from Turandot
Broadway Favorites (see below)

21 September
Lucas and Arthur Jussen (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor),

TopHelix (World Premiere)
Poulenc – Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor
StravinskyThe Firebird (complete ballet)

Starting off a centenary season with a new music director is both an exciting and slightly forbidding prospect. Yet the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra came through the test well, giving the orchestra’s many patrons a glimpse of some of the joys to look forward to with newly-appointed Dutch maestro Otto Tausk. The first concert was a celebrity event with Renée Fleming, not digging too deeply but certainly illustrating the singer’s new-found love of Broadway. She brought ample charm to popular favourites, following these with her characteristic stream of encores. The second concert – the official VSO 100 opening – featured the captivating young Lucas and Arthur Jussen in the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos. This may have been slightly less scintillating than it could have been, but it served as a wonderful spectacle all the same. Overall, Tausk’s conducting exhibited the virtues of patience, conscientiousness and textural clarity, but he sometimes erred on the side of caution. Fortunately, he brought distinctive feeling and concentration to the complete Stravinsky Firebird that closed the festivities, leading the orchestra in a fine display of synergy and cohesion.

Many may have looked forward to hearing Fleming’s famous rendering of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, but it was the Broadway pieces that seemed to bring the singer the greatest involvement and joy. Fleming has performed on Broadway over the last year and released a new Decca CD – aptly entitled Broadway – this month. Fleming inhabits this more popular idiom with a greater sureness of style and more vocal freedom than previously, and her confidence and energy are contagious. When she performed comparable fare here in March 2012, I remarked, ‘She often seemed too emotionally controlled and careful about articulation to really bend into the swing of these pieces…her superb technical training is almost a liability’. That is behind her, and this journey through Rogers and Hammerstein, Kander/Ebb, Sting and Sondheim at the end of the concert was spirited and convincing. The encores followed: Lerner and Lowe’s ‘I could have danced all night’ and a deeply-felt ‘Danny Boy’ (which she recently sang at John McCain’s funeral), then returning home with Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’.

By comparison, Four Last Songs seemed more aloof. No one can question Fleming’s Straussian credentials or her ability to find the delicious legato line and silky consuming flow that these pieces call for. Nonetheless, the result turned out rather breezy, more cerebral than sensual, and not probing all the melancholy, mystery and wonder that underlie these lovely farewell statements. ‘Fruhling’ was very fleet indeed and failed to allow much interpretative space or sense of deliberation: tempos seemed faster throughout than on her recordings with Christoph Eschenbach and Christian Thielemann. ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ fared the best of the four, quite ravishing in its way, though even here more inward tenderness might have been wanted. Tausk coaxed appropriate warmth and detail from the orchestra but, with few glowing embers in the lower strings or a true Straussian surge in the violins, engulfing vistas did not fully open up. The result was always pretty and tasteful but slightly pale. Tosti’s brief ‘La serenata’ and Puccini’s ‘Signore, ascolta’ served as additional reminders of Fleming’s consummate art.

Tausk’s explorations on his own revealed an admirable quest to secure both balance and precision in his new orchestra’s response, and one could not help but welcome this. Nonetheless, his Verdi overture needed more fire and less calculation, while his reading of Bernstein’s (often neglected) Divertimento called out for more rhythmic bend and extroversion to place alongside its structural accuracy. In the latter, I thought the whim and humour in the brass and winds came off more European in feeling (akin to Hindemith) than anything quintessentially American. The most interesting adventure was Ravel’s La valse, which was taken at a deliberate pace with real doses of French colour and sensuality but few macabre elements. The climaxes actually built more like Daphnis and Chloe and Valses nobles et sentimentales – with glimpses of exultant joy – rather than as a menacing, sarcastic statement of cataclysmic destruction. An insightful alternative, but I am not sure the composer intended it.

Both conductor and orchestra appeared more settled and familiar on the second night. The programme started with the world premiere of Dutch composer Edward Top’s Helix (yes, there was a Dutch theme throughout), a VSO commission doubtlessly stemming from Top’s previous position as Composer-in-Residence with the orchestra. As evidenced in his recent Fugue States for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra and Pots and Pans are Falling, the composer typically offers tightly-knit structures that feature insistently-repeated notes passed around the ensemble to create ‘echo effects’. Appropriately for an opening night celebration, Top placed his germinal motive and its ‘echo’ within a film-score lyricism to soften its rigour and give the proceedings more flow. This was quite successful overall, and the orchestra gave the piece a nice glow.

The Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos (1932) is always fun to hear, a transitional piece that links to the Ravel G major Concerto and Mozart’s composition in the same genre while incorporating newly-acquired influences from Balinese gamelan. There could be few more appealing young pianists than Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen (aged 25 and 22 respectively), and the innocent confidence and virtuosity they exude is probably enough to convince an audience no matter what they do. They have just done a recording of this concerto with Stéphane Denève and the Royal Concertgebouw, adding to their healthy stream of Deutsche Grammophon releases since 2010.

The Jussen brothers were dazzling and, discounting a smudge at the opening of the work, they displayed both formidable technical address and the ability to play together like one mind. For all that, parts of the reading were not as frothy and effervescent as they might be. Perhaps the tempo for the first movement was slightly too measured, but there was sometimes a hint of squareness in the articulation of both the pianos and orchestra, and the latter did not jump into the fray with enough split-second anticipation to move things forward like a firecracker. The performance seemed more determined than full of zeal or playfulness. The lovely tranquil reveries of the opening movement and subsequent Larghetto were also beautifully played by the Jussens, but one might have wanted marginally greater intimacy and piquant charm. The treatment of the last movement was estimable, though not the last word in Gallic ease and caprice. All told, seeing this piano duo remains a pretty memorable experience – and quite a novelty – and it will be interesting to see how far Lucas and Arthur Jussen go.

It is rare for an orchestra to program the full Firebird ballet rather than the 1919 suite, and I cannot recall when it was last played here. Nonetheless, it is indeed a coincidence that the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas performed this complete score on the same day and at exactly the same time in Davies Hall. Perhaps one is now beginning to understand the subtle influence of the ‘wildfires’ that hit both areas of the West Coast so dramatically this summer! In any event, the work inspired Maestro Tausk and the VSO to their best performance of the two nights.

The start did seem on the careful side, with a relatively spartan sonic palette and some insecurities in the string and wind phrasing, but eventually everyone got into the natural flow of the piece. The expression got fuller and warmer, and by the series of theatrical outbursts in the middle, the line of the piece was more clearly defined. Winds were more communicative, the strings had better sheen and dynamic control, and the brass was more alert and pungent. The difficult horn passages found extra lyrical shape. From that point on, we saw Tausk and the orchestra suspended in the piece: the colour was right, the pacing had inexorability and concentration, and the wonderful descending tremolos leading to the close set up the work’s final majesty and joy with exactly the right sense of resolution.

It was interesting talking to the grand statesman of the VSO, oboist Roger Cole, at the reception after the concert. He felt much the same thing about The Firebird – that conductor and orchestra increasingly came together to achieve something special. He also remarked how much the orchestra enjoyed playing under their new maestro. It all seems very promising as the VSO ventures into its next 100 years.

Geoffrey Newman

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

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