By David Gordon Duke
VANCOUVER – With a splashy proposition that included a contemporary work, a big Romantic piano concerto, and a roof-raising reading of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra launched its 2016-17 season Sept. 24.
This is the VSO’s 98th season and there is much to celebrate as the orchestra approaches its centennial year. But this is also an organization in the midst of significant change, In 2014 music director Bramwell Tovey announced that, having led the orchestra since 2000, he would step down at the conclusion of 2017-18.
With each passing month the significance of that impending date becomes more evident. A disproportionate number of guests have test-driven the orchestra in the last months – some impressive, most interesting, a few obvious duds. It’s been an intriguing process, but one with consequences, the foremost of which are inconsistent programming and the sense of an ensemble being stretched in multiple, sometimes contradictory directions.
After nearly two decades as the VSO’s most successful music director, Tovey must have his legacy somewhere in the back of his mind. For his September start-up concerts, he was back in the saddle conducting a program very much to his taste.
The program opened with Oiseaux bleus et sauvages by VSO composer in residence Jocelyn Morlock, her first commission from the orchestra, premiered just over a decade ago. Morlock’s tenure has proved particularly fruitful. She has created a number of impressive works that explore big orchestral strategies and demonstrated a knack for inviting the general audience into her fastidious and highly personal world of sound.
As Morlock explained from the platform, Oiseaux bleus et sauvages was conceived in an earlier stage of her life, written in the midst of a decade-long stint playing with a local gamelan ensemble. She also acknowledged that the work was at least partially an exploration of minimalism. Certainly it’s an elegant exploration of timbres, gestures, and patterns consistent with both of those inspirations. Yet it has the freshness and individuality that audiences have come to expect from her. Characteristically, it was warmly received by the full-house audience, a powerful indication that under congenial circumstances audiences will embrace new work of quality.
This year Ukranian-Australian pianist Alexander Gravrylyuk is the orchestra’s Cherniavsky Laureate – an endowed position created in honor of pianist Jan Cherniavsky (1892-1989), an important figure in the pioneer days of Vancouver’s classical music milieu and a member of a family of stalwart VSO patrons. Gravylyuk developed a strong following during his concerto performances in the VSO’s 2014 Rachmaninoff Festival and proved a popular choice for Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor Concerto. With his big technique and even bigger sound, Gravylyuk came across as larger than life; what he brought to the stage helped jaded listeners recall just why this concerto remains a popular staple.
Tovey and Gravylyuk took a particularly leisurely approach to the opening Allegro ma non troppo e molto maestoso: lots of drama and grandiloquent piano, but also a discursive exploration of the materials which, to my thinking, mirrored Tchaikovsky’s somewhat casual approach to form. There was lots of verve plus plush big tunes and plenty of emotional intensity. In addition to his thundering fortes, Gravylyuk has a full range of dynamics that he used to considerable effect. The central Andantino simplice was rich in pastoral feeling; VSO principal cello Ariel Barnes delivered the short cello solo with special grace. With the Allegro con fuoco it was back to extroverted theatricality and a brilliant finish. Acknowledging the crowd’s noisy approval, Gravylyuk offered an even more overheated encore: Soviet era composer Arkady Filippenko’s fiendish Toccata.
The choice of Le sacre du printemps pointed up Tovey’s understandable fondness for big, expansive works created with broad strokes. That Tovey was involved, in the early stages of his career, with London’s dance scene gives an extra dimension to his penchant for the big Stravinsky ballets. And talking of legacy, Sacre is a reminder of one of the VSO’s shining moments: Stravinsky himself conducted the work when he came to town in the mid-1960s, the second of his two Vancouver sojourns, events documented in the University of British Columbia’s H. Colin Slim collection of Stravinsky memorabilia, on display in the Orpheum Theater lobby.
While the stage seemed full enough for the compositions in the first half, it was burgeoning with players for the Stravinsky, as if to show that Russian extravagance didn’t end with the Romantics. Starting the season with a work relying on the contribution of so many extra musicians in the brass and winds had risks; indeed the first of the three performances was not especially detail-oriented. There was a certain lack of finesse in the handling of some of Stravinsky’s extraordinary color combinations relying on odd instrumental pairings. Tovey more than compensated with his emphasis on the narrative thrust of the piece; pacing could scarcely have been bettered. Whether or not one knew the niceties of the scenario, the sense of direction and inevitability was compelling.
Considered as a whole, this season-opening program was a clear indication of starting as you mean to go on and a harbinger of what lies in store for the final seasons of the Tovey era.
David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College and teaches at the University of British Columbia.