The Vancouver Symphony closed out its 39th season with the spotlight on the winners of its annual young artist competition and an exploratory journey into the celestial sounds of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” The program drew a very large audience to Skyview Concert Hall on the afternoon of Saturday, June 2, and listeners were refreshed by polished performances from the three gold medalists, who looked confident and comfortable at center stage.
First up was Shania Watts (age 18) whose performance of the first movement of William Walton’s Viola Concerto had lovely and resonant tone in the lower register, creating an introspective, soulful quality. In the upper register, she elicited a sweet sound that was equally appealing. With a calm demeanor, she dispatched double stops and glissandos expertly and made the music sing.
Next came Evan Llafet (age 17), who played the first movement of Walton’s Violin Concerto with verve. He deftly commanded the treacherously high sections of the piece, expressing joy and optimism that made the music sparkle. His impeccably delivered series of staccato-infused runs was breathtaking, and followed them with lush, melodic lines before closing out the movement with an elegant, tranquil phrase.
Christopher Yoon (age 18) had a field day with Franz List’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Yoon easily handled its wide dynamic and emotional range that would surge back and forth like waves in ocean. The opening statement cascaded and splashed, slower passages moved along tenderly, ornamental phrases trilled brilliantly, and the demonstrative sections had plenty of weight. Yoon played it all with panache that got the audience out of it seats.
After intermission, the orchestra played Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” accompanied by a video (“Voyage of Discovery 2”) of animated imagery of each planet, based on NASA’s space explorations. Although the music received an inspired performance, the animations seemed dated, and technical glitches prevented the segments for Venus and Uranus from displaying.
Glitches aside, the orchestra got off to a rousing start, pounding out the martial music in the “Mars, the Bringer of War” movement. Urged onward by music director Salvador Brotons, the musicians unleashed several crescendos and the ominous atmosphere gripped the hall. The next movement, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” effectively countered that opening statement with its gentle and lyrical melodies. “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” was playful but a bit muddy here and there. Eva Richey’s solos wiggled gracefully and Michael Liu (from the synthesizer keyboard) sprinkled just the right amount of celestial glitter. Lively horn announced “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” with gusto but their sound got a tad honky at times. The ensemble excelled with the hymn-like theme, which painted an English scene onto the planet’s landscape. The slow tic toc of time acquired a ponderous and heavy presence that made “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” very effective. A quiet spell was briefly interrupted by a cell phone in the audience, but the orchestra took care of that with a terrific crescendo. “Uranus, the Magician” had a wonderfully lopsided sound against a pulsing rhythm that caused Brotons to hop about on the podium. The suspended chords also had a magical effect. “Neptune, the Mystic” shimmered with lovely contribution from the harp and the celeste. The women of the Vancouver USA Singers (expertly trained by Jana Hart) added to the ethereal sonic texture with their lovely voices from offstage and the music drifted delightfully into the far reaches of the hall.