Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Vancouver Symphony (WA) hits a home run with its inaugural livestreamed concert

Photo by Paul Quackenbush

It was pretty strange to see musicians wearing masks and spaced six feet apart from one another, but that was the tableau on stage at the Skyview Concert Hall when the Vancouver Symphony presented its inaugural online concert on Saturday (September 26). The face coverings and distanced positions were necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced performing arts groups to offer livestream performances. The VSO ensemble, paired down to a chamber-sized group of around 15, played a full program of works by Antonio Vivaldi, George Walker, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and William Grant Still, culminating with a vigorous and intelligent performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony. Ken Selden, who also wore a mask, conducted the ensemble expertly with an expressive style that elicited top-notch playing.

I watched the Sunday’s rebroadcast of the performance on my HP laptop, which has good speakers but is not equivalent to being in the same space with the musicians. In general, I didn’t hear the lower strings as well as I would have liked, and fortes and pianissimos didn’t come across as strikingly as they do in the concert hall. Still, it was exciting to experience the performance, and the VSO deserves the highest marks for rising to the challenge with a meaningful selection of music that received fine and committed playing from the musicians.

The ensemble wonderfully captured the idiosyncratic moodiness of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony (arranged by Rudolf Barshai). The piece seesawed over a sonic landscape that conveyed loneliness, anguish, anger, and a glimmer of hope before subsiding into silence. When concertmaster Eva Richey held a sustained note against the repeated striking lines from her colleagues, it made me think of Shostakovich’s subtle, yet nerve-wracking defiance of Stalin and the Soviet authorities. May we all persevere against the current virus with such inner strength.

The concert featured pieces by two African-American composers: George Walker and William Grant Still. With its soothing rendition of Walker’s Lyric for Strings, the VSO created a heartfelt balm that seemed perfect for the crisis of our current times. The same could be said for Still’s Serenade, which resonated with a calming gospel-song quality. Principal cellist Dieter Ratzlaf carried the ball with evocative playing, and the performance was wonderfully preceded by a phone interview between Selden and Still’s daughter, Judith Anne Still, who told how the piece was commissioned by a high school in Great Falls, Montana. She added that her father’s compositions, including his works for orchestra, are now in high demand, and she has to fulfill about 150 orders per week!

Sandwiched between the pieces by Walker and Still were Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Vaughn Williams’ Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus.” The ensemble delivered the restive and elegant Serenade with polish. They delved into the soulful atmosphere of the Five Variants, which was based on a folk song but is known by most listeners as a hymn (arranged by Vaughn Williams btw). The lovely duet between the concertmaster and the harpist in the third variant was exquisite.

The concert kicked off with spirited account of Vivaldi’s Concerto alla rustica. All parts of the orchestra could be heard equally well, including Michael Liu’s harpsichord, and concertmaster Richey’s fluid solo passages were a delight. After the piece ended, Richey faced the empty seats and bowed, which seemed a little awkward at first but became sort of poignant as the concert progressed because she and other players who had the spotlight in the various pieces were appropriately acknowledged in this way.

Selden, who teaches at Portland State University, deserved extra credit for effectively conducting with a mask. The facial expression of conductors is one of the elements that helps to inspire musicians, and to take that ingredient away from the conductor could have presented a problem. Selden, fortunately, had plenty of other gestures to express what he wanted, and that helped to make concert a success.

Clarinetist Steve Bass, who is also the CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting, was outstanding as emcee. Principal trombonist Greg Scholl teamed up expertly with podcast producer Ashley Hall to present informative background information on each piece before the concert began. A nice improvement after the concert ended would be to print the names of the musicians; so that we know who each one is.

Photo by Paul Quackenbush

1 comment:

suze said...

Thank you for your wonderful and informative review. I couldn't agree more that the VSO deserves the highest marks for their performance. Bravo.