Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Brotons and forces wow audience with Khachaturian's Second Symphony

The Vancouver Symphony closed out its season with a sonic wallop by giving an exciting performance of Aram Khachaturian’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Bell”). That sprawling, emotional roller-coaster of a work left an indelible impression with the audience at SkyView Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon (June 3). Its massive qualities balanced very well with Richard Strauss’s “Burleske,” which received a sparkling interpretation by pianist Sofya Melikyan. Underscoring the program was Armenia, the homeland of both the composer and the pianist, and Melikyan nicely connected it all with a scintillating encore of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.”

The Second Symphony was almost an hour-long excursion into the madness of war and its aftermath. Khachaturian wrote the piece during the Second World War, and much of the thematic material shifted between elegiac melodies and propulsive, stormy passages. The melancholic sections of the symphony were flavored with short descending lines that suggested an oriental or perhaps Armenian flair. An Armenian folk song was clearly expressed in the third movement and blended smoothly with the “Dies irae” to create a hushed, somber effect. The brass chorale in the fourth movement swelled majestically and the symphony ended with a stirring, triumphal crescendo.

Even though Brotons had not conducted this piece before, he chose to do so from memory, impressing the heck out of this reviewer because of his commanding repertoire of gestures that coaxed, urged, and inspired an outstanding performance from the orchestra, which also played the music for the first time. Perhaps because Brotons is a composer, has an inside track to the center of the music, and then he gets the music to flow through him and the musicians. Well, whatever he did on the podium was pretty incredible, especially considering that the Khachaturian symphony is rarely played in the United States.

Kudos were in order for many of the orchestra’s musicians, especially principal bassoonist Margaret McShea. The performance wasn’t flawless – there were patches when some sections of the orchestra didn’t quite play together and it was difficult to hear the bell tones at the beginning and at the end – but overall the musicians hit a home run.

In the first half of the program, the orchestra teamed up with Melikyan to clear the bases with a fine performance of Strauss’s “Burleske.” Melikyan, who learned the piece for this concert, dove into its mercurial and brilliant waters with panache. Her exchanges with the orchestra went smoothly, and she made the many quick and splashy passages look easy and natural. Her interactions with principal timpanist Florian Conzetti were spot on and a highlight of the afternoon.

The audience responded to Melikyan’s playing with a standing ovation, and she warmly reciprocated with an electrifying piano rendition of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Hopefully, she will be back again someday in the near future to perform with the orchestra.

The concert began with a piece that the audience selected earlier in the year, Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5.” The orchestra played it with vim and vigor and brought out the dynamic contrasts, which made it a good opener for the concert.

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