It is courageous for violinist Karen Gomyo and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to have programmed Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto at last night’s concert. A true masterpiece as well as one of the composer’s most moving works, it can hardly be called a crowd pleaser. I did notice a misprint on the cover of the programme, advertising, “Karen Gomyo plays Bruch”! If the audience had been expecting Bruch’s (albeit beautiful) concerto, they must have had quite a shock with the soft opening notes of Berg’s work. For me, it really was the performance of the Berg – one of my favourite works - that drew me to the Orpheum Theatre last night.
The concert also featured the debut of conductor Karina Canellakis, who came with impressive credentials, and did not disappoint. The concert opened with Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620. After a somewhat sluggish opening Adagio, the orchestra played with great energy and vigor at the outset of the Allegro. I especially appreciated how she balanced and coloured the wind and brass instruments at the return of the three “magic chords”.
Karen Gomyo played Berg’s Violin Concerto (“To the Memory of an Angel”) with great and deep feeling for the music, and was absolutely on top of the fearsome technical demands of the score. Her playing of the music written for the high registers of the violin had an ethereal quality that the music calls for. Canellakis proved to be a highly sensitive partner in the performer, brining out the drama and beauty of the orchestra writing, but never overpowering the solo violin, not an easy undertaking considering the rather large orchestral body. She also managed to evoke an almost chamber music-like quality in the orchestral sound. I found Gomyo’s playing of Berg’s quote of the Bach chorale (Es ist genug) tremendously moving.
After the interval, the young conductor led the orchestra through an impassioned reading of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ultra romantic Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27. In the many passages of lush string writing, he drew from the VSO strings a richness and a “bloom” in the sound that one all too rarely hears. I really appreciated her pacing and building of the music in the very extended first movement. The orchestra tore into the opening of the second movement (Allegro molto) with tremendous energy, and they kept up with it until the end of the movement. I had some reservations with the Meno Mosso section (11 measures before rehearsal number 33), when I thought should have played with more lightness. Somehow the music in this almost fughetta section failed to take off.
Kudos and bravo to principal clarinetist Jeanette Jonquil for her meltingly beautiful playing of the theme of the Adagio movement. Judging from the silence of the audience, I believed that Canellakis managed to keep our interest and attention throughout this long movement, no small accomplishment at all. Again, her pacing of this extended movement was impeccable. The playing of the final movement was tremendously exhilarating. She obviously inspired the orchestral members to play their hearts out.
Canellakis is obviously an extremely talented young conductor, with great baton technique that addresses every detail and a clear beat, which I am sure the orchestra appreciated. I think if, over time, her beat can be a little bit more fluid, the results would be even more outstanding.
This was certainly a very successful debut by a young conductor. With age and experience, I believe that she will perhaps not push the music quite so much, and will perhaps explore and exploit the softer orchestral sounds; it is certainly understandable how a young musician with talent and an obvious love for music can and want to squeeze every detail out of the score.
But it sure was an exciting ride!