Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Vancouver Symphony closes out season with Andorra-inspired concerto and emphatic “Pictures at an Exhibition”

There are not many regional orchestras that can boast of a music director who can write accomplished orchestral works and place that them on equal footing with one of the most beloved pieces in the orchestral repertoire. But with Salvador Brotons, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has an ace composer and conductor, and that’s why last weekend’s program paired the American premiere of his “Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra” with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Tossing in the “Waltz and Polonaise” from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” for good measure, the capacity crowd at Skyview Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon (June 1) got a real treat at the final concert of the orchestra’s 40th season.

Brotons wrote the “Double Concerto” in 2017 to celebrate Gerard and Lluis Claret, Andorran brothers who have had longstanding international careers. For the Vancouver Symphony’s concert, the featured soloists were Eva Richey, the orchestra’s concertmaster, and Dieter Ratzlaf, its principal cellist. They performed expertly, although in duet sections with the orchestra, it was easier to hear Richey because of the higher pitch of her instrument.

The orchestra opened the “Double Concerto” with a dusky solemn theme that was picked up by the soloists before transitioning in to a faster passage with short runs. The change of pace and exchange of melody (based on a tune by Brotons’ father) included with some lovely duets for the soloists. The movement concluded with a soft landing and no vibrato so that the last chord lingered in a slightly eerie way.

The second movement began with a delicate passage from the woodwinds before the soloists took over. Based on two Andorran melodies, the music was more highly charged and uplifting, ending with a strong collaboration from the brass and strings.

The soloists were featured in an extended cadenza for the third movement, rising out of the depths and reaching a vantage point at which they were joined by their comrades to start fourth movement in a joyful, folksy melody that was inspired by the “Ball de la Marratxa,” a lively tune from the Andorran parish of Sant Julià de Lòria (here is a clip of Andorrans dancing to this tune on YouTube). The piece wrapped up emphatically, and the audience appreciated it with bravos and extended applause.

After intermission, Brotons and the orchestra gave a solid performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” – with orchestration by Ravel. Brotons, conducting from memory, paced the music extremely well. Individual contributions by members of the orchestra in their exposed parts (the principals for nearly all sections of the orchestra – with an extra tip of the hat to the saxophone, baritone, and tuba) went above and beyond. You could easily image painting of the gnarly gnomes, the spooky castle in the mist, children playing, the lumbering oxen, the ominous catacombs, and the terrifying witch.

Cutoffs were crisp and dramatic. The final build up of sound impressively created the grandeur of the Gates of Kiev. Brotons asked the orchestra to deliver a triple-plus forte and the musicians delivered! The audience was blown away and responded enthusiastically, making the occasion a memorable way to cap of the orchestra’s 40th season.

Returning to the fact that Brotons is such a fine composer, it seems to me that the City of Vancouver should commission him to write a fanfare or a march that would symbolize the city, the people, and the landscape in some creative way. I think that Brotons would uncork something pretty terrific.

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