Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra delivers a satisfying Shostakovich

On January 17th the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra began the fourth concert series in their '08-'09 lineup at the Skyview High School auditorium. This rewarding program featured works by Johann Strauss, Sr., Carl Nielsen and Shostakovich.

The concert opened with Strauss' Radetzky March, a well-known and spritely tune led by guest conductor Glenda Michaels, who won the right to conduct the first piece at a VSO fundraiser last year. The three-minute march was vivacious and fun, and Michaels was obviously having a great time beating the meter. Afterwards she received about as many bouquets as one could be expected to carry, and the audience enjoyed the spectacle.

Artistic Director Salvador Brotons then took up the baton to lead the group in Danish composer Nielsen's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, featuring Dawn Weiss on flute. Weiss is well-known to area audiences through her 25 years of service as principal flutist of the Oregon Symphony, a tenure which ended in 2005. Her years of skill were immediately obvious in the delicate, nuanced fluidity of her playing. She made the extremely difficult flute solo, marked by numerous dizzying cadenzas, come off sounding effortless and smooth, the mark of a great soloist. She used the flute's lower registers brilliantly, delivering a deliciously husky timbre when playing down low. Various other instruments popped out of the orchestral texture to sound off in dialogues and brief solos throughout the work, hence the title Neilsen chose for the piece.

This work was rhythmically difficult, and the VSO responded ably to this challenge. The piece was somewhat schizophrenic in nature: principally marked by many light-hearted moments, it periodically delved briefly into more somber thematic material. It called for much subdued playing from the orchestra, but it seemed that occasionally during a rapid mood change the orchestra was a bit behind the music itself in responding to the chameleon-like change in texture that was called for: sometimes the brief flash of lightning in the calm was over by the time the orchestra's color adjusted to suit the mood. The bassoon, clarinet and a humorous bass trombone in the final Allegretto provided a delightful counterpoint to Weiss' always engaging playing.

After the intermission came Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 in E minor Op. 93, written in 1953, the year of Stalin's death. Soviet composers of the 20th century suffered under arduous censorship and glowering restrictions during the years of Stalinist repression. While the unfortunate Prokofiev died the same day as the tyrant, Shostakovich had much more artistic freedom to compose as he saw fit during the last two decades of his life.

This newfound freedom began showing itself immediately after Stalin's death with the composition of the 10th Symphony. In his masterful book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, music critic Alex Ross described Shostakovich as a master of Soviet doublespeak, both musically and verbally. The 10th Symphony could be viewed as a repudiation of Stalinism; indeed, the program notes mention that the second movement, with its terrifying sonority and brutally percussive texture, was supposed to have been called a portrait of Stalin by the composer himself. Brotons spoke for a few moments before the work started, giving the audience more detail as to the background of the 10th.

In the wrong hands, Shostakovich can tend toward the dull or confusing, but Maestro Brotons did not allow this to happen. This deeply complex work was fascinating and emotionally charged throughout. Brotons brought out deep subtleties in the texture of the lengthy Moderato of the first movement, gradually and with painstaking care building the tension towards a series of titanic crescendi, the climaxes of some of which were unfortunately marred by some splatted notes from the horns. Still, this did not detract much from the high caliber of playing the orchestra delivered.

The second movement, marked Allegro, was overwhelming and almost raucous, played with ferocity and breathlessly tense energy. There were many exciting moments for brass, winds and percussion throughout the second and the third (Allegretto), and their by-and-large pinpoint accuracy enhanced the quality of the piece.

In the opening of the final Andante-Allegro the strings provided a spotless halo of sound to support a somnolent threnody from the clarinet and flute. As in much of Shostakovich there are very few moments of unalloyed joy in this work, but Brotons and his players skillfully brought out the scherzo-like respite that marked the segue from the Andante to the Allegro. The audience gave a well-deserved standing ovation after the piece ended; this concert will be repeated tonight at 7 pm at the same location.

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