Because there are so few concertos for bass clarinet, Vancouver Symphony audiences were given that rarest of treats when they heard a brand new one, written by the orchestra’s music director, Salvador Brotons, on February 23 at Skyview Concert Hall. Brotons, whose prolific composing talents have garnered international attention, uncorked his latest piece with David Gould, bass clarinetist of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, as the featured soloist. Since Brotons had composed a piece for bass clarinet and piano that Gould had successfully premiered in Belgium, he used it as a launching pad for his Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra, and that connection made the collaboration between Brotons and Gould for this world premiere a genuinely pleasing and spirited event.
Using a chamber-sized ensemble, Brotons skillfully made plenty of room for the bass clarinet’s low and often soft, woodland-like sound. That allowed Gould to express lovely melodic lines, which varied delightfully against the texture of the ensemble.
In the opening Fantasia, the music was jocular and lightly skipped around with Gould establishing a mellow theme. Volleys from the French horn and other sections of the orchestra marked the exchanges, which settled down when the bassoon (Margaret McShea) and the soloist created a brief beautiful duet. That was followed by a bass clarinet cadenza that tender and soothing before becoming perky and buzzy, setting off the orchestra to up-tempo ending.
The second movement, Cantilena, evoked a lush and lyrical setting with Gould conveying a super mellow tone. He was complimented at one point by slowly climbing sequences from the harp and at another with the gentle voice of the oboe (Fred Korman). In the final measures, Gould’s bass clarinet smoothly descended into the basement register, landing on a pillow-soft tone.
A swift attacca into the third movement, Dionisiaca, kicked the music into a higher gear with exchanges between the orchestra and soloist. Urged on by Brotons, Gould and the orchestra arrived at the finale con brio and a splash of forte.
After an enthusiastic response from the audience, Gould shared an elegant encore, his own arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Single Petal of a Rose. I loved the way that he could make a waterfall of notes trickle into the main theme. It was a wonderfully soulful addition to the concert.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Richard Strauss’s great symphonic tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra. The brilliant opening statement (used to great effect by Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 film: 2001: A Space Odyssey) was powerfully delivered by the orchestra. The contrabassoon (Nicole Buetti) generated a terrific rumbling undercurrent that dissolved into the organ-like chord from the synthesizer (Michael C. Liu). The ensemble excelled at depicting the murky, dark, and somber passages, contrasting them well against the higher and brighter sections. Concertmaster Shepherd added some charm to the Viennese waltz and was joined gracefully by the ensemble. The pummeling of the bass drum and timpani and the trumpets restating the opening triads was thrilling.
At the top of the evening, the orchestra played Celebration for Orchestra, which was written by Ellen Taafle Zwillich in 1984. She is the first woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music (1983), and Brotons mentioned that he had met her during his time studying at Florida State University. The piece opened brashly with a big, solid chord which was followed by a bell-like motif that echoed into the distance. That motif was repeated throughout, and the percussion battery, which was quite large, got a thorough workout. Despite the forte segments, a lot of the music was light and fanciful, with brief solos by concertmaster Stephen Shepherd, principal cellist Dieter Ratzlaf, principal violist Jeremy Waterman, and principal bassist Garret Jellesma.
Going back to Brotons’ Bass Clarinet Concerto, it will be interesting to find out which other orchestras will play it and when it will be recorded.