This past Saturday, Vancouver Opera
succeeded in making Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir
d’Amore a delight, both vocally and visually, from beginning to end, a
delicious dessert of a production.
Updated to Anytown, Canada – the production
has been done in the United States, in which case it would have been Anytown,
U.S.A. – at a time shortly before World War I, it makes the part about soldiers
being drafted fit in with the plot. The set is simple but beautiful, and the
entire performance was magically lit by lighting designer Harry Frehner.
Canadian tenor Andrew Haji has a light but
very musical voice, and his portrayal of Nemorino as the guileless simpleton
certainly endeared him to the audience. He very generously passed up the
opportunity to make Una furtive lagrima,
the tenor aria from the opera, a
showpiece for himself, but sang it as a part of the musical and dramatic whole.
Soprano Ying Fang, who has been scoring
successes at opera houses around the world, possesses a truly beautiful voice
and an effortless delivery. She really plunged into the role of the coquettish
Adina with relish. It is obvious that we have a star in the making here.
Brett Polegato as Sergeant Belcore and
Stephen Hegedus as “Doctor” Dulcamara complete the well-balanced cast with
their musical as well as dramatic contributions.
I sometimes feel that Jonathan Darlington
is too laid back in his conducting, and doesn’t push the singers enough.
Nevertheless, he led a beautiful and sensitive reading of Donizetti’s score,
and was entirely supportive of every aspect of the singing. What I missed was
more of a tension in the musical fabric.
In my mind, I try to “hear” what the voices
and instruments would sound like in an acoustically ideal opera house. In the
dull - dead would be a better word - acoustics of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, no
amount of efforts by the singers or instrumentalist can be fully appreciated by
the audience. This theatre should really be relegated to musicals, popular
concerts, or other non-musical events.
Politicians and the moneyed people in
Vancouver should remember that any society or city, past or present, is
remembered by its artistic achievements. I pray that Vancouver will one day
have an opera house and a concert hall (to replace the beautiful but acoustically
less-than-ideal Orpheum Theatre) that would allow us to fully enjoy the music
making of the many talented musicians in our midst.
January 29, 2018
One of the most significant events in any orchestra’s history has
to be the appointment of a new music director. The Vancouver Symphony
Orchestra’s music director-designate, Otto Tausk, returned to town to conduct
the orchestra this past weekend. I had the privilege to hear the same concert
two days in a row, and many of the things I heard this weekend suggest to me
that the orchestra will be in good hands for the next chapter of its life.
The programme Maestro Tausk chose consists of three of the most
beloved works of the symphonic canon –
Berlioz’s Le Carnaval Romain Overture, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, and Brahms’s Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68. At the same time, the very
familiarity of these iconic works makes it a challenge for both conductor and
musicians alike in bringing a fresh perspective to the music.
The orchestra sounded great throughout Le Carnaval Romain. The tricky ascending and descending scales in
the opening with the strings and then the woodwinds sounded confident and
energetic, and the ensemble was perfect. English Horn soloist Beth Orson played
the theme at m. 20 ravishingly, with beautiful phrasing, a lovely sound, and a
wonderful shading of colours. Perhaps inspired by Orson’s playing, the violas
sounded equally lovely when they picked up the theme at m. 37, giving a
richness of sound and a dark colour unique to that sometimes maligned
instrument. The subito pianissimo
entry by the first violins at m.61 was beautifully placed. And I loved the
bright open sound the orchestra created at the final A major chord. All in all,
it was a very good reading of this great orchestral showpiece. It was apparent
that Tausk has an acute sense of balancing the horizontal and the vertical
aspects of the music.
Dvorak was apparently inspired to write this B minor cello
concerto after hearing his friend and American colleague Victor Herbert’s cello
concerti. The result was one of Dvorak’s most inspired and masterful works, and
a touchstone of the cello repertoire. In this concerto, Dvorak takes the
musicians and the listeners through a gamut of emotions, from the very dramatic
to the most intimate. I believe that a successful performance of this
challenging piece lies not only in securing the services of a world-class
cellist, which the orchestra did, but in the conductor’s awareness of the
symphonic nature of the work.
I had only known Tanja Tetzlaff as a chamber musician, and I was
very happy to have heard her as a concerto soloist, for she has a rich, bold
sound that really projects. There were many things about the performance that I
liked. In the first movement, Tausk and Tetzlaff chose an opening tempo that
was faster than I hear it, thereby affording the music a sense of urgency. The
ascending scale for the woodwinds at 4 measures before rehearsal number 2 was,
to my ears, a little heavy-handed and metronomic. I was sorry that the gorgeous
horn solo in the orchestral exposition (12 measures after rehearsal number 2)
had some real intonation problem, and sounded insecure.
Tetzlaff’s first solo entry had an arresting sound that captured
my attention, and she played it with great authority. The crescendo for the short ascending phrase at 10 measures before
rehearsal number 4 was particularly beautifully played. I thought that the octave
leaps for the strings at rehearsal number 5 could have had a thicker, more
substantial sound. The cello solo at rehearsal number 10 was particularly
heartfelt, but somehow it failed to be “at one” with the oboe solo. It was not
a matter of being together, but somehow the sound of the instruments failed to
become part of the same orchestral texture. Perhaps it was because of the
faster tempo, the orchestral entry after the ascending chromatic scale for the
cello (6 measures after rehearsal number 12) lacked the majesty the music calls
for, because it sounded rushed.
The emotional center for the entire concerto lies, for me, in
the slow movement. I felt that Tetzlaff’s playing here did not convey the sense
of yearning, and the sense of gentle sorrow, so apparent in the music. The
orchestral entry at 5 measures after rehearsal number 2 lacked the feeling of
lamentation, of a cry of sorrow, as well as an intensity of feelings. I also
felt that the horn chorale at rehearsal number 6 missed the sense of intimacy,
and lacked a kind of hushed quality in the sound. Moreover, at the quasi
cadenza (13 measures after rehearsal number 6), perhaps the most intimate
moment of the entire concerto, as if the composer was confiding his most
private thoughts, the playing was, for me, too matter-of-fact. Yes, every musical
and technical detail was observed, but I wasn’t being drawn into Dvorak’s inner
world. Mind you, that could very well have been my own reaction to what was
For me, the third movement turned out to be the most satisfying.
It was rhythmically taut, and the tempo here sounded just right. The violas,
celli and double basses created a beautiful string tone, with substance in the
sound, in the pizzicato passage accompanying the cello at 15 measures before
rehearsal number 8. Concertmaster Nicholas Wright had a real dialogue with
Tetzlaff in their duet at 17 measures after rehearsal number 11. And the
pizzicato passage before the rehearsal number 15 did have a hushed quality to
it, as well as a keen sense of anticipation.
Is there anything more arresting than the opening of Brahms’s
first symphony? And what an opening it is, with the relentless, almost
obsessive strikes of the timpani! Tausk understands the grandiosity of this
opening section of the 1st movement. I did wish for more of a weight
in the sound of the strings. As well, there should be, I felt, much more build-up
of tension (not necessarily louder) in the strings at mm. 15 -18, and again at
mm. 27-29. I also wished for more subtlety in the sound of the oboe solo
beginning at m. 29. The Allegro section worked very well. The pacing was good,
and there was a real sense of urgency in the forward motion of the music.
Again, Tausk balanced the horizontal and vertical aspects of the music well. I
had wished for more richness, more substance, in the string sound at mm.
The second movement also moved in a very nice pace. I thought
that there should have been more of a sense of direction, and more shaping, in
the opening phrase. To my ears the ascending theme in the first violins at m.
27 should get lighter as it ascends, to be followed by a significant build-up
in sound at m. 29. The woodwinds really shone in this movement with their
beautiful playing, as did Nicholas Wright in his heavenly solo toward the end
of the movement.
I liked very much Tausk’s tempo choice for the third movement.
There was a real sense of urgency and an incredible feeling of forward motion
with the flute and oboe theme at m. 47. The conductor evoked a real sense of
tension in the opening of the fourth movement, especially in the very quietly
played pizzicato notes at m. 6, leading into an incredible build-up toward the fortissimo chord at m. 12.
I was disappointed at that great horn entry at Letter B. In my
mind, I always have this picture of the heavens opening and the sun shining
through after that dark opening. On Saturday and Sunday, the sense of awe and majesty
was missing here.
In the famous C major theme at m. 61, Tausk found a happy medium
with Brahms’s tempo indication of Allegro
non troppo, ma con brio. At the great A major fanfare at m. 407, I blamed
the inadequate acoustics of the Orpheum Theatre, for there should have been far
more sound from the orchestra in this crucial moment before the coda. I sat in
two different parts of the hall for the Saturday and Sunday concerts, and my
aural perception was the same on both days. I hope that one day the orchestra
will have a hall worthy of their efforts. Tausk made a slight ritard right before the end of the
movement, at m. 450, which I felt diminished the impact and impetus of the
I believe that Otto Tausk had already made a very good start
with the orchestra, even before his official tenure as music director. Except
in rare instances, it takes a long time for the relationship between conductor
and orchestra to really gel. As Humphrey Bogart says at the end of Casablanca, I hope that this is “the
beginning of a beautiful friendship”