VANCOUVER — A busy mid-January weekend in Vancouver comprised three Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concerts featuring Israeli mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital, plus a chamber concert for the Vancouver Recital Society by the Sitkovetsky Trio. Both programs supplemented standard works with major recent compositions: the Canadian premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Mandolin Concerto, written for Avital, at the VSO, and Julia Adolphe’s new Etched in Smoke and Light, written especially for the trio.
The VSO program was also the local debut of guest conductor Tianyi Lu, who began with a crisp reading of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. Right from the dramatic opening measures, it was clear that Lu was confidently in charge, completely aware of the challenges in the score and ready to deliver a strong, nuanced performance. While there was some less-than-perfect playing in the violas and cellos, it was not in response to any indecisiveness on the conductor’s part.
With Beethoven out of the way, it was time to turn to the concert’s centerpiece, a performance of Higdon’s new concerto. Back at the turn of the century, Higdon made quite a splash in orchestral circles with her blue cathedral, which as since been performed by a plethora of North American orchestras. One of her specialties is writing prize-winning vehicles for star performers who want new music that is still approachable for general audiences. All her concerto savvy may not necessarily have prepared her for the task of writing for mandolin with orchestral backup, and it was intriguing to consider Higdon’s strategies. The mandolin, fundamentally a soft-spoken instrument with a somewhat restricted range of dynamics, is easily eclipsed by other instruments.
Higdon’s work has a picturesque quality, launching with a sort of expansive pastorale reminiscent of the American neo-Romantics of the mid-20th century. Some subsequent up-tempo segments fall on the ear as Near-Eastern influenced; others are more robust and dance-like. Wanting to expand the very small repertoire of works for mandolin and orchestra is a noble idea, but will this piece attract sustained interest? Given the dynamic range and Higdon’s rich scoring, balance wasn’t always effective; nor was the performance entirely secure. The score is busy, more tangled than thick; much of the orchestral commentary was adequately handled, but there were flaws, especially in some tricky trios for harp, soloist, and percussion that didn’t entirely gel.
The Concerto was received with some enthusiasm, but it was Avital’s remarkable encore that proved the highlight of the program’s first half: a Bulgarian folk tune which started up as a fragmentary quasi-improvisation and ended in a blaze of extravagance.
Capping the program was Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. Li conducted from memory, creating a taut, theatrical reading. Her gestures were purposeful and always well considered. Given the slightly discursive nature of the piece, this might be the best work to assess depth of insight and interpretive prowess, but what Lu offered was a performance that was rousing and effectively paced.
If there was any issue with Lu’s highly successful debut, it was one of context: Two of the three performances on offer were suburban run-outs to multi-purpose venues — good for audiences not wanting to brave wintertime traffic, but perhaps not ideal for an important debut.
The performance I chose to attend on Jan. 20 was at the University of British Columbia’s Chan Centre, a fine smaller concert hall as Vancouver venues go, but in this instance not ideal, either. The program was packaged as part of what the VSO now calls “Classical Traditions,” a series that grew out of mainly Baroque and Classical repertoire for reduced orchestra. Without question too grand a piece for so restricted a venue, still it was good to hear a fine new-to-us conductor in classic, Romantic, and contemporary repertoire.
On the afternoon of Jan. 21, we were treated to the Sitkovetsky Trio (violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, cellist Isang Enders, and pianist Wu Qian. The Trio first performed for the Vancouver Recital Society in 2013, and many at the Sunday matinee wondered audibly why it took so long for a return booking. An extremely well-considered program started with a demanding new work, Adolphe’s Etched in Smoke and Light, a commission for the ensemble premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center in February 2023. While she was creating her work, Adolphe’s painter-father died; Etched in Smoke and Light is a memory piece encompassing bereavement and grief. It includes frequent moments of raw emotion depicted with almost shocking intensity.
There’s a generational shift in compositional values between Higdon and Adolphe. When dealing with recently created works, audiences often confront what are, to update Wagner’s famous aphorism, extended technique effects without causes. Not here. Etched in Smoke and Light isn’t smoke and mirrors; Adolfe’s vocabulary is completely congruent with her content. Throughout the composition audience members are meant to feel like interlopers, eavesdropping on intimate moments of loss, of anger, and resignation. It’s a wonderful piece. Congratulations to the trio for commissioning a significant contemporary addition to the piano trio repertoire.
The Sitkovetsky Trio rounded out the first half of its program with the Piano Trio No. 2 in A minor, Op. 34, by Cécile Chaminade. Now that many ensembles and orchestras are playing catch-up on music written by women, the works of some exceptional composers are at long last being revived and given their rightful place on contemporary programs. Performances of Ethel Smyth and Amy Cheney Beach rightly proliferate. Reconsideration of the prolific Chaminade has been a bit slower; much of her work, intentionally designed to please, was deemed passé at best, trivial and insignificant more often.
But was she little more than a salon composer? Anyone hearing this brilliant rendition of her Second Piano Trio — roughly contemporary with the far better-known piano trio by Ernest Chausson, and nearly 40 years before Gabriel Fauré’s masterly Trio — might beg to differ. Her work is an impressive proposition, all the more so from a composer in her twenties. It starts with a glorious and grand opening Allegro moderato, followed by an exquisite slow movement and a flashy finale. The Sitkovetsky’s commitment was exemplary; after all these years of neglect, Chaminade’s fine work has at long last found eloquent exponents.
The program’s second half launched with a sensitive reading of a charming trifle by Beethoven, the Allegretto for Piano Trio in B-flat major, WoO 39. It was followed by the second Mendelssohn Piano Trio dating from 1846, the year before the composer’s death. The Sitkovetsky implicitly understands that Mendelssohn’s music needs a light touch but is far from lightweight. Even with quicker-than-normal tempi, there was never any loss of clarity, let alone control. The particular piano sound of Wu Qian played a significant part in the overall interpretive vision, which conveyed a feeling of innocence, exuberance, and sheer joy.
And for an encore? More Mendelssohn, the Andante con moto tranquillo from his First Piano Trio, written 15 years earlier, played with the same beguiling blend of clarity and percussion. The audience rose to its feet with roars of approval.