‘Scottish’ Program Done With a Flair In Vancouver

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The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs in its home, the Orpheum Theatre. (Vancouver Symphony)
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs in its home, the Orpheum Theatre. (Vancouver Symphony)
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER – As a nod to thematic programming, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra put together a Scottish-themed evening for its flagship “Masterworks Gold” series on Nov. 2 at the Orpheum Theatre featuring violinist Nicola Benedetti and guest conductor Jun Märkl.

Long before Vancouver’s present incarnation as one of the most multicultural of cities, it was a town with sufficient Caledonian presence for a separate “Mac and Mc” section of the phone book. Tribal nostalgia notwithstanding, the juxtaposition of Debussy’s “Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire,” Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, and Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony might have made more sense as broadcast programming than it did on stage, had not the all-Scottish music by non-Scots composers been delivered with such a sense of style.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti was soloist. (Universal / Rhys Frampton)
Violinist Nicola Benedetti was soloist. (Universal / Rhys Frampton)

Debussy’s “Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire” was a case in point. Although far more Debussy than “The Earl of Ross March,” its subtly colored orchestration and lush harmonies made for an attractive curtain raiser, delivered with a good overall sound marred slightly by inconsistent balance in the winds.

Benedetti made quite an impact in a previous VSO program performing Szymanowski’s wonderful First Violin Concerto. Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy is hardly the equal of the Szymanowski, and can sound stodgy and predictable. Not this time. Benedetti and Märkl performed the Victorian era barn-burner with flair and charm plus extra lashings of honest sentiment.

Benedetti’s trademark is her tone: sweet and clear in the upper register, honeyed in mid-range, and velvety in her low notes. Märkl elicited splendid playing from the orchestra. A particularly atmospheric opening allowed Benedetti to exploit ultra-pianissimo playing, lyrical passages were delivered with grace, and the rambunctious virtuoso licks that characterize the Allegro guerriero finale were executed with confident verve.

The VSO has a reputation for enjoying challenging music and rising to an occasion. Consistently disciplined playing and real finesse can’t always be anticipated when it tackles more conventional repertoire. Yet these qualities proved central to the successful performance of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony.

Jun Märkl appeared as guest conductor. (Michiharu Okubo)
Jun Märkl appeared as guest conductor. (Michiharu Okubo)

Along with Debussy’s complete orchestral music, Märkl has recorded Mendelssohn (Elijah and the Lobgesang Symphony) for Naxos. His approach to the composer is both well-considered and finely tuned, with especially brisk, energetic tempi. In the Scherzo, Mendelssohn’s cautious indication Vivace non troppo was essentially ignored, and the coda of the Allegro vivacissimo finale was taken at a particularly rollicking clip.

Märkl’s practice of allowing virtually no pauses between movements melded a work that often comes across as staid and uninspiring into a breathless, exhilarating whole. Another significant part of his strategy was lavishing special emphasis on those most romantic of instruments, the clarinets and the horns. Evocative, moody clarinet playing added depth and complexity; the horns, on the other hand, were encouraged to play with an extra measure of brazen crispness, which added vitality and drive to Märkl’s singular but impressive conception.

The VSO’s season continues on Nov. 7. For complete information, click here.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and the American Record Guide.  He is academic co-ordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College and also co-teaches a graduate seminar in music performance at the University of British Columbia.