Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Perry So with the VSO

Conductor Perry So made a welcomed return to Vancouver this weekend, conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I was moved by So’s music-making at his first Vancouver appearance, when he substituted for the scheduled conductor. He was a sensitive partner to Louie Lortie in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, and gave an incandescent reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor. This time around, the programme chosen probably had less popular appeal, which unfortunately accounted for the many empty seats in the Orpheum Theatre last evening.

The first piece on the programme last night was Jocelyn Morlock’s Earthfall. Morlock is the orchestra’s Composer in Residence, and many of her compositions have been performed often by the orchestra. Earthfall is a brilliantly colourful and evocative work - one that I hope will be repeated often. In her talk before the performance, the composer shared her experience playing in a gamelan ensemble, which influenced her composition of the present work. Indeed, the gentle, rhythmically pulsating beginning of the work did indeed remind me of that beautiful instrument from Bali. The opening of the work is almost minimalistic in style, with changes taking place slowly over time and with slowly building tension. The texture and tension build to a climax, after which came a quieter section (the tension remains though), with violins playing in the high register, almost to provide colours, set against the woodwinds and brass. There was a beautiful theme for the second and then first violins, and the music came to a tranquil ending with the lower registers of the violins set against the fluttering sounds of the winds.

It is often difficult to judge a performance based upon a first hearing of an unfamiliar work, but I believe So and the orchestra captured the essence, the changing moods, as well as the colourful nature of the work. Yesterday’s performance confirmed my impression of So as having a great command of the orchestral resources. The orchestra responded well under his direction, and all its “departments” outdid themselves with their outstanding playing in this technically demanding and musically challenging work.

Violinist Alexandra Soumm made her debut with the orchestra in the same concert with Edouard Lalo’s colourful and virtuosic Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21. I was as impressed with So as a gallant accompanist as I was with Soumm’s tempestuous playing.

I loved the weighty string tone So evoked at the beginning of the 1st movement (Allegro non troppo). For the first time, the strings were well balanced against the brass instruments of the orchestra. Soumm has a rich, luxuriant and vibrant sound that could cut through the orchestral texture, and she certainly rose to the challenge of the colourful and demanding string writing with aplomb.

Similarly, I was taken with the quality of the string tone at the quiet beginning of the 2nd movement. In this movement (Scherzando: Allegro molto) I appreciated the soloist more for the virtuosity of her playing than for capturing the Spanish flavour and rhythm of the music. Her playing in this movement was somewhat metronomic and did not “move” enough rhythmically.

The orchestra began the 3rd movement with great energy, and again with a sense of weight in the string tone. Soloist, conductor and orchestra captured the inflections of the Spanish rhythm, and the timing between soloist and conductor was perfect. Here, Soumm also highlighted the richness of her tone, especially in the lower register of the instrument, and she also highlighted the more rhetorical nature of the music.

I appreciated the spaciousness of the opening of the 4th movement. In fact, I think I heard some of the best brass playing by this orchestra in a long time. Here, our soloist showed her lyrical side, playing with a wonderful intimacy. The few brief orchestral outbursts were also wonderfully played.

I would have wished for a little more lightness in the joyful 5th movement of the work. The playing was colourful and exciting here, and the orchestra, under So, highlighted all the rhythm and colours inherent in the music.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 is, I believe, a challenge for conductor, orchestra, and audience. A great performance of this work requires virtuosic playing from every member of the orchestra. Last year, I heard a never-to-be-forgotten performance of this same work by the Chicago Symphony under Ricardo Muti, a performance whose sound I have been carrying in my head.

I believe So’s interpretation of this difficult work is an indication of a young musician still figuring things out. Yes, he is enormously talented and musical, but I believe he is now thinking through his interpretations.

But, better this than taking the easy way out for any musician.

I thought that the slow introduction of the 1st movement (Ziemlich langsam) called for far more tension than the musicians delivered. The descending scale at mm. 18 to 21 should be played with far more intensity and greater weight in the sound. As well, I missed a real sense of build-up in the few brief measures (mm. 22 to 28) to the 1st theme (Lebhaft) at m.29. At m. 29, the articulation needed to be clearer in the strings, because there was some muddiness in the sound, and the off-beat accents at m. 35 should have been much sharper. I believe that at Letter E, there could have been more of a sense of forward propulsion.

I missed the sense of inevitability in the transition to the second movement, a Romanze (Ziemlich langsam). I wished for more of a “glow” in the sound of the oboe solo, and more of a feeling of innigkeit in the playing. Also, the triplet figures of the 1st violins needed to be liberated a little, and perhaps more soloistic playing.

On the whole, the 3rd and 4th movement worked much better, and orchestra and conductor seemed to have hit their stride here. The weight of sound I missed in the 1st movement was evident from the outset of the 3rd movement. There was much more of a sense of urgency throughout the Scherzo (Lebhaft). The first violins played the eighth-note passage (m. 476) beautifully. I loved the wonderful transition into the 4th movement, as well as the build-up of tension into m. 660 (Lebhaft). Throughout the movement, the balance was good, and kudos to the brilliant playing of the VSO brass. The woodwind playing at m. 815 to 826 was magnificent. So led a great transition into the final bars of the movement at m. 831 (Schneller), and the orchestra in turn gave him truly wonderful playing here. I feel that the ending would have made a greater impact had the final chord been written as a quarter note instead of a long whole note.

The audience gave the orchestra and conductor what I would call an ambivalent ovation. This was unfortunate, because it really took courage to programme this difficult symphony, a bold movement by a guest conductor still making an impression. I hope that management of the VSO would invite him back as a guest conductor on a regular basis. I would be very interested to follow the career and artistic development of this young conductor and musician.

Patrick May
February 6, 2018

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