Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Classical guitar and strumming orchestra make good vibes at Vancouver Symphony concert

With the Vancouver Symphony restricted to strings-only ensembles because of the pandemic, its concert programming showed a lot of creativity by presenting classical guitar music in its performance on Saturday (February 27) at Skyview Concert Hall. Guest soloist Adam Levin, whose international career has a focus on new Spanish compositions, made the most of his appearance at center stage, delivering a spectacular performance of Leonardo Balada’s “Caprichos No. 1.”
This concerto, written in 2003, was inspired by the folksongs of Federico García Lorca, but you don’t have to know these tunes in order to appreciate the inventiveness and capriciousness of Balada’s piece. Over seven brief movements, Levin and the orchestra took us on a delightful journey that was pure fun to hear.
Right from the get-go with the first movement “Los cuatros muleros” (‘The Four Muleteers’), we were plunged into lively, Spanish-inflected, dance-like rhythms. Then the mood changed 180 degrees with the somber and austere second movement, “La Tarara,” in which the orchestra created a foggy blur that Levin gingerly picked his way through. Next, in “Los peregrinitos” (“The Little Pilgrims”), the guitar skipped lightly while the strings almost whistled. That was followed by a wonderful “Sevillana” in which Levin displayed fleet finger-work and clipped strumming. In “Lejano” (“Far Away”), the guitar offered tremolos that were mimicked at times in the orchestra. “Nana” (“Lullaby”) balanced a slightly ominous quality against a somber melody from the guitar. The final movement, “Zapateado,” stirred things up with invigorating themes and rallying crescendo with the orchestra in the finale.
Joaquin Turina’s “Fantasia-Sevillana,” a piece for solo guitar, received an incisive and intense performance from Levin. Because of the exceptional miking, I could hear how Levin deftly changed the timbre from dark to light. Sometimes he did this quickly – from one phrase to the next – which gave the piece a feeling of intimacy. He also caused some tones pop and ring clearly. The flamenco-style passages were absolutely terrific.
Guest conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, who is the music director of the Eugene Symphony and the Santa Rosa Symphony, also made an impressive debut with the orchestra. Sporting a transparent, see-through mask, Lecce-Chong turned the orchestra into a guitar-like ensemble with Jesse Montgomery’s “Strum.” The soulful melody from concertmaster Eva Richey and principal cellist Dieter Ratzlaf melded nicely. Lots of pizzicato passages and strumming swept through the orchestra, and the piece concluded with an uplifting ending.
Grażyna Bacewicz’s “Concerto for String Orchestra” opened with a fierce drive that seemed to have a couple of ragged spots. The melodic line from the cellos in the second movement sounded very haunting against the mysterious, wispy violins. The third movement revived the mood with vigorous interplay and exchange of phrases between members and sections of the orchestra. This included lovely brief solos by Richey and principal second violinist Tracie Andrusko.
The concert concluded with an elegant and spirited performance of Mozart’s “Divertimento No. 1 in D Major,” K. 136. In light of all of the new pieces on the program, the Mozart was a bit of comfort food, but the orchestra made sure that is sounded fresh by shading of dynamics, by following the passionate conducting of Lecce-Chong.
Working with a variety of guest conductors during the pandemic has been a real plus for the orchestra. The musicians have responded well to the variety of styles that each conductor brings. Collectively, they have shown an enthusiasm for making music that is contagious despite the fact that they have no audience in the hall.
Talking about enthusiasm, at intermission, emcee Steve Bass mentioned that music director Salvador Brotons may be able to return to the podium at Skyview Concert Hall to lead the orchestra. That would really be an emotional homecoming – even if it is only online. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.

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