Friday, January 22, 2021

Young artists and Ioannides shine in VSO concert

The Vancouver Symphony topped its previous livestream performances with an impressive outing (January 17) by the winners of last year’s young artist competition and the guest conductor Sarah Ioannides. The youth, pianist Jacob Nenow, violinist Hanami Froom, and oboist Ben Price, had to wait a year before they finally got their chance to take the spotlight at Skyview Concert Hall. If that weren’t enough, they also had to learn a new piece of music, because the pandemic has forced the orchestra into a strings-only formation. Wow! These kids are not only talented, they know how to persevere, and that counts for a lot in today’s world.

The concert started with Jacob Nenow’s impeccable performance of the first movement of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor (BWV 1052). Nenow, a 16-year-old sophomore at Jesuit High School, delivered clear, crystalline lines with terrific command. His fingers deftly executing runs and the numerous alterations of passages that seemed to build and build before descending and resolving to a satisfying conclusion.

Hanami Froom, who is 14-year-old freshman at the Oregon Virtual Academy, excelled in her performance of Tomaso Vitali’s “Chaconne” in G minor. Against the opening, dirge-like phrase, she projected a poignant melody that transitioned into a series of 20 variations. She executed each one flawlessly with a beautiful tone that could dance, strike a plaintive pose, skip joyfully, and just plain sing out. It was delight to hear.

The first and third movements from Ralph Vaughn William’s Oboe Concerto were exquisitely played by Ben Price. Because the oboe is a notoriously difficult instrument to play (imagine spending hours just to make reed mouthpieces), it was awesome to hear this virtuosic concerto given such an outstanding interpretation by Price, who is a 17-year-old junior at Grant High School. He created lovely sounds that conveyed a bucolic scene in the English countryside. He fashioned trills, ascended to high notes, and generated playful passages with ease, making the piece a memorable delight.

Ioannides, who is the Music Director of Symphony Tacoma, provided spot-on conducting, making sure that the orchestra never overpowered the soloists. But she shined the most when conducting the orchestra-only pieces: Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony.”

Before playing the “Adagio,” Ioannides spoke directly to the online audience and dedicated the performance to all those who have been affected by the pandemic. After putting her mask on, she urged the orchestra with incisive commitment and passion so that the music became an inspired expression of sadness and hope. The stirring crescendo at the climax was truly striking and heartrendingly contrasted with the hushed diminuendo that followed. It was some of the most emotive playing that I have ever heard from the strings.

It is totally fitting that this knockout performance was rebroadcasted by PBS NewsHour, and you can still watch it online by clicking here.

Ioannides also led the orchestra in an invigorating performance of the “Simple Symphony.” The first movement, “Boisterous Bourrée,” had a lively and infectious spirit. The second, “Playful Pizzicato,” offered a delightfully lithe exchange of picking and strumming. The third, “Sentimental Sarabande,” transitioned seamlessly from a heavy, tragic sentiment to a lighter waltz before returning to the serious side, which concluded with a searing statement from the bass violins. The fourth, “Frolicsome Finale,” wrapped things up with a wink and a nod. A highlight of this movement was a brief, rowdy passage when the camera caught Ioannides puffing up her shoulders as if to imitate a group of guys. That was brilliant conducting!

The sound quality of this performance was the best yet. I don’t know if the VSO technicians are changing things or if my ears are just getting more attuned to the sound from my laptop. In any case, I could hear the bass a lot better and the pizzicatos and strumming came across clearly. There is nothing like the concert hall, but until COVID-19 subsides and disappears, the quality of the online concerts are improving greatly. Kudos to the VSO.

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