By playing two Shostakovich symphonies in its final concert of the season, the Vancouver Symphony pushed into new territory and celebrated Salvador Brotons’s 25th year as Music Director in style. The rare double-dip on the program Sunday night (May 22nd) at Skyview Concert Hall featured Dimitri Shostakovich’s First and his Fifteenth Symphonies, juxtaposing his first and last symphonic works. Although the orchestra had played the First back in 2005, the performance marked the ensemble’s first-ever journey into the heady waters of the Fifteenth, which contains many treacherous, exposed passages for the first desk players and some of their colleagues. All in all, the VSO tackled both pieces with élan and emerged triumphantly.
Conducting from memory, Brotons energetically urged the orchestra into Shostakovich’s unique sound world – made all the more unique by the fact that Shostakovich wrote the piece when he was still a teenager at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The orchestra elicited the mercurial nature of the piece, building upon its perky and optimistic ambiance. The low strings displayed a rich, smooth sound, and their duets with the bassoon in the second movement marched along smartly. The orchestra excelled at tapering off the endings of both the first and second movements. Excellent solo contributions by the principals in all sections added to the snappy and bright atmosphere. Some intonation problems in the violin section marred the fastest passages and the piccolo and flute veered now and then towards the shrill side. Still, the audience got so caught up in the music that it applauded after the orchestra created a huge crescendo in the fourth movement, thinking that the piece was done. Brotons wisely used his free hand to still the noise, and the orchestra went ahead to create a big splashy ending.
The Fifteenth Symphony, written near the end of Shostakovich’s life, shifts back and forth between somber and reflective moods and jaunty and almost carefree ones. The VSO explored all corners of the piece, including the numerous, virtuosic solo passages. Principal Cellist Dieter Ratzlaf evoked the soulfully searching sections. Concertmaster Eva Richey’s solos skipped along swiftly. Principal Trombonist Greg Scholl whipped through his lines so that they almost crackled. Mournful horns were complimented by somber statements from the trombone and tuba, all of which contrasted well with the rapid fire exchange from the piccolo and flute. The percussion battery had a field day on a large array of instruments, and Principal Timpanist Florian Conzetti added the haunting soft sounds quoted from Richard Wagner’s operas.
Some of the entrances seemed a bit tentative, and violins’ intonation went a bit wayward here and there. But the orchestra captured the spirit of Shostakovich’s music , saving the best for last when the snare drum and wood block combination took over. That passage has reminded some of a funeral carriage on a cobblestone street heading into oblivion – perhaps it was just Shostakovich’s wry speculation on the end of his own life.
In a nod to much lighter fare, the concert began with two crowd-pleasing chestnuts. Brotons conducted Brahms’s famous “Hungarian Dance No. 5” with verve and a fine ear for dynamic contrast. Preceding the Brahms was a rousing account of Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” under the baton of guest conductor Karl Scarborough, who won the honor of stepping onto the podium at the orchestra’s annual fundraiser. Scarborough’s appearance was particularly fitting, because he is the one and only music teacher in the Winlock School District and was honored with the SW Washington Music Teacher award earlier this year. Bravo Mr. Scarborough!