Thursday, June 4, 2015

Neoclassical Evening

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s parade of guest conductors continued last weekend with another distinguished visitor to the podium. Conductor Jun Märkl led the orchestra in a lovely programme of Prokofiev, Mendelssohn and Strauss. Like Alexander Shelley, Märkl had chosen a programme that called for musicianship rather than virtuosity, and the result was yet another felicitous evening of music-making.

Instead of performing at the orchestra’s home at the Orpheum Theatre, last Friday and Saturday’s concerts were given at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, for me Vancouver’s only acoustically satisfying concert space. I was astonished at how much more alive the orchestra’s sound was in a different concert hall.

The concert began with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, more famously known as the Classical symphony. Märkl brought out all the zest and humour in this - the composer’s most congenial work. I appreciated how the conductor brought out the inner voices and not often heard details, especially in the wind writing in the first movement. The tempo chosen for the second movement, marked Larghetto, was a little faster than that of many conductors. For me, this gives the music a nice sense of movement, and of flow. The third movement Gavotta was played with great style, and with wonderful lilt. In the final movement, the conductor certainly more than paid lip service to Prokofiev’s indication of molto vivace, and led the musicians in a daring ride through this tricky and difficult music. It was wonderful to watch the smiles on so many of the musicians’ faces. Obviously, they enjoyed playing this music and responded with great spark, and energy. It appears that Märkl had established a good rapport with the musicians of the orchestra.

For me, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, is one of the composer’s most divinely inspired works. Ever since Jasha Heifetz elevated the standards of violin playing in the 20th century, it is amazing how many distinguished violinists we have in our midst today. I was very moved by Karen Gomyo’s playing of this beautiful and impassioned work. The young violinist has a very emotive sound, but one tempered by discipline and restraint. I had previously admired Jun Märkl’s reading of Chopin’s two piano concerti with Ingrid Fliter in a recent recording. Last Friday’s concert confirmed in my mind what a sensitive collaborator this conductor is. To my ears, some of the climatic moments were slightly too bright, but that could have been because of the proximity of our seats to the stage. I was particularly taken with how Märkl voiced the chord at mm. 127 to 130, when the orchestra falls into a hush after the statement of the opening theme. Collaboration between soloist and conductor was impeccable.

Richard Strauss’ Le Bourgeois gentilhomme Suite, Op. 60, is not a work that we hear often. I was amazed at Strauss’ mastery in orchestration, making a relatively small ensemble (37 players according to the notes) sound like a full symphonic body. Originally written as incidental music to a play by Molière, the play itself did not succeed with the audience, but Strauss extracted parts of the score into the present suite. According to Norman del Mar, author of the three-volume biography of the composer, this nine-movement suite “ranks as one of his finest works.” Märkl clearly saw the greatness in this score, and guided the orchestra in a reading that is alert, elegant, and always beautiful. The many dance movements, including the second movement menuett, the Dance of the Tailors (Movement 4), The Menuett of Lully (Movement 5), and the sixth movement courante, were particularly beguiling. The sparkling final movement (The Dinner), where Strauss liberally “stole” from his own works as well as that of Wagner, the orchestra responded to Märkl’s directions, and played brilliantly. Concertmaster Dale Barltrop and Principal Cellist Ariel Barnes shone in their many solos throughout the score, and the always excellent winds of the orchestra stood out with their wonderful playing.

It was interesting to watch two guest conductors within a week between the two concerts. Both Alexander Shelley and Jun Märkl brought their unique personality and talents to the podium.

Compared to Shelley, Märkl is a more dramatic conductor, in both his gestures as well as the colours he brought out of the orchestra. In different ways, I was very happy with the music making of the orchestra under both conductors. With such outstanding candidates coming for their “auditions” with the orchestra, the future of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra should be in good hands.

Let us hope for a conductor that will take this orchestra into a new level of excellence and prominence.