Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A New Friendship

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 being played.

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. 232-236.

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 music.

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”

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