Sometimes you can get too much of a good thing even when it comes to music. That’s the way I felt after attending the Vancouver Symphony concert on Friday afternoon (April 9th) at the Skyview Concert Hall. The program featured solos from the three gold medalists of the orchestra’s annual young artist competition and orchestral works by Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas, and Richard Strauss. All of pieces were tied nicely together with the theme of youthful fantasy or magic, but the very full program got underway late because of an announcement of the orchestra’s lineup for next season – which looks like the most ambitious ever for the VSO – and an intermission mix up. Consequently, two and a half hours passed before the final notes were played.
The spotlight on the young and talented fell first on cellist Richard Lu (age 18), who played the first movement of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. In addition to conveying the wistful sentiment at the core of the movement with fine legato lines and an occasional sad slur, Lu commanded the fast passages deftly, including a few series in which his bow quickly skipped over the strings ever so lightly. Pianist Lauren Yoon (age 16) excelled with her playing of the first movement from Frederic Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto. Yoon created a refine and elegant atmosphere that was well-balanced yet also allowed the leading tone to be slightly louder. Pianist Anthony Zheng (age 18) raised the energy and volume level with a scintillating performance of Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz.” Zheng contrasted the massive fortes and delicate pianissimos with panache, and he also excelled with the fleetest passages that featured an extended series of repetitive, close-knit notes. The flashy arpeggios and racehorse finale got everyone out of their seats for a loud standing ovation.
As if to underscore the youthful soloists, the orchestra gave an inspired performance of Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The snappy trumpets and the perky bassoons helped to create a hubbub of mischief while the sound of the strings swirled about. Contrabassonist Nicole Buetti was especially deserving of praise for her evocative playing.
The light-hearted mood continued with Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel” with principal clarinetist Igor Shakhman taking the lead role as the mocking, ant-establishment prankster. Superb playing by the French horn section (especially principal Allan Stromquist) and the woodwinds added to the merriment, which contrasted well with the serious demeanor of the strings and brass. Music director Salvador Brotons revved up the brass and percussion for Till’s execution and made sure that the prankster’s whimsical spirit lingered afterwards.
The concert began with Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” which the orchestra played well, but a shorter, perhaps livelier piece might have worked better. Principal oboist Karen Strand stood out for her clear and focused playing as did concertmaster Eva Richey. The third movement, with its Oriental leanings, needed more dynamic contrast, but the fourth, which dealt with the “Beauty and the Beast” story, had a wonderfully pensive quality. Brotons conducted the piece without a baton, ensuring the music’s soft and delicate nature.
Next season looks like a promising one, with pianist Orli Shaham (return engagement) and clarinetist David Shifrin being two major artists who will be featured. The orchestra will also add a concert, playing a pops concert in early December, and that is a very savvy move.